Tuesday, March 10, 2009
Playing with history — Kids get their take on Alaska’s past in play
By Jenny Neyman
Putting kids in charge of Alaska history can garner interesting and enthusiastic results.
There’s the Good Friday quake of 1964 and resultant destructive tsunami, the gold rush gets some attention, as does fur trading and President Warren Harding driving a golden spike into tracks to commemorate the completion of the Alaska Railroad.
Through it all, legendary Skagway villain Soapy Smith is trying to steal anything that isn’t nailed down — including the spike, which is actually nailed down — and there’s the occasional outbreak of mild shoving. Plus a charging moose that mows down a group of drummers.
In short, “It’s wonderful,” said Sue Biggs, music teacher at Redoubt Elementary School in Soldotna.
Biggs and her students have put on two plays a year in her five years at the school, she said, and she often either adapts a book to use as a script or the students help her come up with songs or dialogue to enhance a pre-written show.
But this year, the spring play was up to her students to devise.
“Because of the 50th anniversary of Alaska, I thought it would be great to do something historic for Alaska, and there wasn’t anything,” Biggs said. “I approached them and said, ‘What would you think about us writing our own play?’ The kids who were into it stepped forward and did a Jim Dandy job.”
The play, “North to the Past,” involves 200 students from seven classes, and they all got input into the play.
“That’s why it’s such a large undertaking, because everybody is going to be involved in some way or another,” Biggs said. “What I told them is pretty much they’d do everything. My philosophy of doing plays is that everyone finds a place so it isn’t just a small group of kids performing and everyone else just singing. If you want to be on stage, find your place that is special to you. We had students creating dances because they’re dancers. They created sets because they like to build and they like to paint. People are acting because they like to act, or tripping because they like to fall.
“There’s a lot of falling, a lot of screaming and a lot of running in this play because it’s written by kids. I’m trying to keep everybody safe but also allow them to express themselves the way they want. I’m trying to take all of their pieces and pull it into a play.”
Biggs and her students brainstormed a list of milestones from Alaska history and she had them choose seven that would be in the play.
“So they chose what they wanted. Us coming into statehood is not one of the things they chose, so it’s not part of the play,” she said.
Soapy Smith has a prominent role in many of the scenes, since Biggs suggested the play needed a villain, and students liked that he was a genuine Alaska bad guy.
“They glommed onto that one and built his character throughout the play,” Biggs said.
Each class chose a theme and designed the dialogue, action and sets for that scene. Student authors came up with the storyline that wove through the scenes.
Fifth-grader James Elsey and sixth-graders Savannah Cartwright and Logan Parks came up with the idea of a family that steps into an elevator in a hotel while on vacation, only to discover it’s a time machine. The elevator then takes them to various stops in Alaska history, where there’s a problem to be resolved at each stop.
“You figure out that a bad guy named Soapy Smith is trying to steal all the gold,” James said.
James enjoyed writing the humor of the play, like having one of the kids complaining about needing to go to the bathroom throughout the entire play, until there’s actually a place to use the bathroom, when she decides she doesn’t have to go anymore.
For Logan, the creative process was the highlight.
“I want to be a writer when I grow up, so it was an awesome experience,” he said.
Savannah said she enjoyed all of it.
“I don’t really have a favorite part, the whole thing was pretty cool,” she said. “We wanted to do something fun that we would enjoy. I think it’s a lot of fun because so many people got to write the stuff and write the songs and it’s actually something you did.”
That’s the part Biggs is most pleased with, that the students created so much of their own play.
“I’m just amazed at the storyline and how they were able to bring it to the great ending,” Biggs said. “It ties people in history to the people in the present and it took us awhile to find an ending, but when they pulled it together it was just a pleasant surprise, and I just think the whole storyline is delightful. I’m just very proud of everyone for all the work they’ve done.”
“North to the Past” will be performed at 6:30 p.m. Thursday in the Soldotna High School auditorium. The show is free and open to the public.