Schoolhouse Rock – Stretching and growing skills together by Susie Richard

What can be more rewarding than helping a group of kids achieve more than they thought possible? This past winter, I had that pleasure. Story Tapestries was contracted to produce the school musical that was to be put by the after-school program, Polite Piggy. And I thought, “OK, so they did a half hour rendition of 101 Dalmatians last year, a standard Elementary School script, let’s see if I can modify one of the Middle School shows to really stretch their talents.” So I went to work modifying Schoolhouse Rock into a 40 minute show.

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There was confusion at first. “We’re gonna be on stage the whole time,” they asked repeatedly. I would just smile and nod and watched them learn to share focus with each other. It was a wonderful if chaotic process. During the course of it I brought in an intern from the Middle School where I direct their play annually, and even learned the culture of the school and modified how rehearsals were done so that the students had a more familiar process to produce work. The more we worked, the more they became an ensemble, helping each other and filling in gaps caused by frequent cast member absences. And in the end, we had a show everyone could be proud of.

But perhaps my greatest triumph was the inclusion of a young boy who had severe ADD and ADHD. As fate would have it, his medication would wear off right as the after-school program would begin. At the beginning, he was the first to ignore my calls to attention and was constantly being told to sit down at the table for a time-out so the rest of us could work. He would still come to me crying at times saying he didn’t want to do the show, even when it was his time to do his solo song. I spent many a moment talking to his mother during parent pick-up time telling her that he seemed miserable, to which she replied that he’d regret doing it if he quit, so he had to stay in.

This presented me with a dilemma. How could I include him and not cheat the other students out of my attention while I helped him? The first couple of strategies were agreements we came to together. First, he was allowed to sing his solo song with his hood zipped up to completely cover his face during the first rehearsal of it, and then progressively show more and more of himself by singing into the microphone with his back to the audience, and then turning around more and more. The second was that when he or I felt he was getting to be disruptive, he could sit himself down with his knitting and focus on that for a while until he felt ready to come back to the group. He could listen from there and was fully capable of adding himself back in to whatever scene we were just working on.

But the final strategy to help him stay part of show was a happy accident. We had gotten to a new song faster than I expected during one rehearsal and I hadn’t quite finished choreographing it. As I had the kids run the scene before with the Music Director, I huddled around my directing table with my intern and frantically tried to talk through what we should do. Our friend with ADD wandered over and after listening for a minute, jumped in and began offering very concrete and helpful ideas. After that, we included him in all discussions of changing choreography and blocking. He became our choreographer and assistant director.

The ownership this gave him to the show was wonderful to watch. Here, a kid who often bothered his cast mates with his disruptive behavior, now dived into scenes that he had helped create and was a source of knowledge for kids who were having problems remembering what to do. He was proud of his role and very sincere and helpful when asked a question by a peer. And he began to fit in. He played the game we did half-way through the rehearsal and sat with the others during snack time before rehearsals. And when he would think of a funny thing he could do in the show on the spot, for he had one heck of a sense of comedic timing, the others would applaud and laugh and then look to me for the decision on whether or not it contributed or stole focus in the show. Eventually others began to do this and it became clear that he had even done better than me at creating a safe space to try new ideas.

I believe all of the children in the Maury play learned and grew in their belief in their abilities, but it is my sincere hope that not only does this young man keep the pride in himself that I saw develop over the run of the show, but that other adults in his life can recognize it and foster him into the positive leader I know he can be. Thank you kids of Schoolhouse Rock, together we not only created something magical, we also learned and grew with each other!

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