It was a warm spring night and my 5th grade class was excitedly shuffling and whispering back stage as they prepared for our performance of Charlotte’s Web. We’d been rehearsing for weeks and, though I knew they were ready to perform for their families, I was still nervous as I moved around the audience greeting the parents and siblings of my students. I took my place in the audience and watched my 10- year-old light techs dim the house lights and bring up the stage lights on Fern defending the piglet runt, Wilbur.
A few minutes into the first scene an infant in the audience began to fuss. By the second scene, the mom had moved to stand near the door gently bouncing her fussy baby. As fussing turned into crying I saw my young actors struggling to maintain their focus on stage. Other parents began to shoot the mom and her baby meaningful looks but mom didn’t want to miss her chance to see her child shine in the class play.
My attention was divided between the crying baby and silently willing each detail of the play to go right. “Speak your lines loudly,” “Face the audience,” “Remember your cues.” By the third scene I realized that my mental messages were not really affecting the play, but that crying was. I slipped out of my seat, moved toward the door and approached the embarrassed mother, “Would you like me to take her outside for a walk so you can enjoy the play?”
“Are you sure?” she asked, “You’ll miss the show.”
“I’ve seen it before. Many times,” I smiled reaching for the bundle of flailing limbs.
“Oh, thank you!” she whispered handing over her infant.
As I walked out of the library-turned-theater I thought I’d calm down the baby and then return to make sure all went well with the play. But that was not to be. For the next 50 minutes that baby cried non-stop. I paced the halls of the elementary school, mostly trying to keep the cries away from the audience though every now and then I’d circle closer and could hear the audience laughing or the actors exclaiming on stage. Then I’d wander away again figuring that the best thing I could do for my students and their families in the audience was to keep this loud, lovable distraction out of earshot.
I had plenty of time, as I toured the elementary school, to reflect on how it came to be that my presence was apparently unnecessary to the success of our class play. It really began the first month of school when I told the class I wanted to do a play with them, but we’d have to see if they were ready. As the weeks and months passed I kept reminding them of the qualities I was looking for: the ability to memorize (poems, the Declaration of Independence…), the ability to work independently while my attention was elsewhere (center time, projects…), responsibility (to bring requested items to school, to follow through on class jobs…).
While my students were trying to “earn” the chance to put on a play, I was carefully considering scripts. I needed to chose a script that suited my class. Once I’d decided on Charlotte’s Web, I used the novel as a read-aloud and an opportunity to teach my students the skills they would use in independent literature circles later.
I paced by the office. I could hear the laughter inside the nearby library. My mind wandered back two months to auditions. It was an exciting week. Students could audition for any part they wanted but I had each child read for a number of parts. By then I knew who could memorize lots of lines and was therefore able to tackle a lead role. Children who loved to “ham-it-up” but couldn’t memorize much (often my special-ed students) were given smaller roles where they could bring drama and humor to the show. My English learners and terribly shy students were given the roles of goslings who had no lines but got lots of laughs waddling around the stage in one scene.
Tonight’s performance was working without me, but not just due to thoughtful casting. Every child had a back stage job as well as an on stage part. Every detail from costuming, dressing, props, scene changes, sound cues, lights…. it was all done by my carefully trained students. I had certainly sat through enough children’s play where it seemed half the parents were back stage changing the scenery, getting kids into costumes and otherwise making things work. These poor parents never really got to see the show and the kids didn’t seem to have a sense of ownership of the production. They tended to goof around back stage.
I circled the playground structure cooing to the baby in the dark and thought about our weeks of rehearsals. Every afternoon for six weeks we adhered to a rigorous rehearsal schedule. Every child knew what scenes she was in and which days her scenes would be rehearsed. The class had independent social studies and science projects to do on those days they were not needed on stage. They all knew what day they were expected to be “off book” and were terribly nervous about it. No more scripts on stage after that point! We had a student prompter to help kids over the rough patches but once those scripts were off stage, the children could really start acting. I knew the students thought me terribly strict for forbidding scripts on stage, but it meant that tonight they were not dependent on a teacher crouching in the front row whispering their lines to them as I had seen in other school productions.
Those social studies and science projects were done in time for open house just as rehearsals got more intense. For the last 2 weeks we had the stop watch out. Student timers timed each scene and each set change. They reported to the class how long the show was running. We all shared the goal of getting the show running time down to an hour or less. Every time we shaved a minute or two off a scene or 10 seconds off a set change, we celebrated. The students were really invested in the success of this show.
What’s that? Did I hear applause? I walked briskly back to the library and slipped in the darkened room just in time to see my students taking their carefully rehearsed curtain call. No one could hear the crying baby over the cheering. As the house lights came up I handed the baby back to her mom and met my students back stage as we had arranged.
“How’d we do?” “Did you like it?” “Did you hear them laughing?” Asked my students all talking over each other.
“No,” I answered quietly.
“What??” they responded, somewhat indignant.
“I didn’t see the show.”
“Huh? What do you mean?” The children were incredulous.
“Remember the crying baby at the beginning of the show?”
“Oh yeah.” “I think it was my little sister.” “That was hard.” “I almost forgot my lines.”
“Yes, I could see it was hard for you, so I took the baby out. I walked her outside so your mom could see the show and the crying wouldn’t bother you on stage.”
“You mean you didn’t see the show?” “You weren’t here at all?” “What about the fair scene?” “Not even for the death scene?” “You LEFT us?!”
“Yes. I left you. You didn’t need me. I knew you would do an excellent job without me. And you did. Didn’t you?”
“Well, uh, yeah.” “Yeah. We did.” “We did a awesome job!”
“I knew it. Now go see your parents. They want to congratulate you.”
A few days later one of the dads brought me a video he’d made of the show. I did get to see Charlotte’s Web after all. My kids knew their lines. They spoke loud enough. They faced the audience. They hit their cues. They didn’t need me anymore.
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