“Cheat out, remember to cheat out,” the director calls, instructing the students onstage to position their bodies so that they face the audience.
The performers follow her instructions, turning away from the colorful sets behind them and continuing to recite their lines. Occasionally, the director adjusts the blocking or gives the actors notes on how to emphasize a particular line in the script. The students waiting for their next scene sit quietly and watch the action onstage or dig through the cardboard prop bin, holding up scarves or puppets for evaluation by their peers, deciding which accessory will best accentuate each scene.
As the director wraps up the rehearsal, her co-director takes over, leading the group of 17 students in several improv exercises. The period ends and the elementary students – the directors among them – head back to their classrooms to continue with the school day.
Theatre Club takes place at Block House Creek Elementary every Wednesday during Enrichment, the 30-minute period where students explore an extracurricular activity like cooking, dance or chess. Typically, these periods are led by teachers or other staff members at the school with some expertise or interest in the activity.
This semester, however, fifth graders were invited to lead an Enrichment session if they could successfully pitch the club and find a sponsor – an instructor or staff member willing to be the adult in the room. This is how fifth graders Nyrah and Valentina ended up as the leaders of Block House’s Theatre Club and co-directors of the production, “The Adventures of Captain Potato.”
“When we first learned that we could make an enrichment club we were like ‘Oh yes, we should definitely make one. We should definitely do theatre,” Valentina said.
Both Nyrah and Valentina love acting and have starred in several productions together. This past summer, they played the leads in the comedic play “The Adventures of Captain Potato.” Since they were familiar with the play, they decided it was the perfect production to bring to Block House Creek.
With the play selected and Instructional Coach Anjie Motal signed on as the club sponsor, the girls started planning. They met after school and in the library to type up scripts, get ready for auditions, and prepare icebreakers, improv activities and acting exercises.
“I was surprised about how hands-off I could be just to watch them thrive,” Motal said. “They surprised me by how much ownership and leadership came out of it.”
The girls worked with every challenge that came their way, and learned to adapt as they went. When an unexpected number of students signed up for the club and the play didn’t have enough roles to go around, Nyrah and Valentina decided to designate several students as stage managers. When students forgot to bring their scripts and didn’t have their lines memorized, they practiced sharing and working with what they did remember.
“We had to understand that they’re kids and it’s just a little club, they can’t be so super committed,” Valentina said. “We’re also focused on them having the experience in theatre and not so much working only on the play. The point is to learn about theatre in general.”
Nyrah and Valentina agreed that along with being adaptable, being prepared and encouraging were some of the most important skills they’ve developed while leading the club.
“We actually did have a plan originally, like I had a notebook and we had every week planned out, but things didn’t always go to plan,” Valentina said. “We’d forget a prop and the entire thing had to change, or [the students] weren’t ready.”
“So we made a lot of adjustments,” Nyrah interjected.
“But you should always be prepared. Whether it’s props, whether it’s scripts,” Valentina continued. “Even if it’s a student not being happy about something, you should always be prepared.”
The other trick to leading and coaching other students? Compliment sandwiches, according to Valentina.
“A compliment sandwich is when you want to give feedback but you don’t want to just be rude. You can say, ‘You’re doing great, try this, but other than that you’re doing good,’” she said. “I think it is good to have them understand that they do have expectations, but I think it’s better to encourage them with suggestions than just tell them everything they need to do.”
Nyrah and Vanessa agreed that the experience of directing rather than acting has been an enjoyable challenge.
“It’s a lot more interesting getting to help out everyone instead of just focusing on your role,” Valentina said. “[When I was in the show] I would be backstage just thinking about when I had to go on, but now I’m backstage thinking about when everyone has to go on and when to help that person.”
Motal said that she has been impressed with not only the girls’ leadership skills and creativity, but also how well their peers have responded to their direction.
“I’m watching [Nyrah and Valentina direct] and the kids’ eyes are on them and they’re watching and following directions. They say, ‘Maybe you can try it like this,’ and the kids respond and then do it,” Motal said. “I’ve been blown away by kids responding to these leaders and these ladies taking on this role and taking it so seriously and doing a great job.”
Nyrah and Valentina look forward to participating in theatre throughout the rest of the school year and when they move on to Wiley Middle School next fall.