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Students weave gun issues into play

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Posted on April 9, 2018 |
By Christopher Ross



NBS7135.jpg
NORTH BRANCH SCHOOL students rehearse their latest student-scripted spring play last Thursday afternoon in Ripton. Pictured are, left to right, front row, Lena Sandler (9th grade, Cornwall), Sydney Weber (9th grade, Ferrisburgh) and Phoebe Hussey (8th grade, Ripton); and back row, Will Crawford (9th grade, Ferrisburgh) and Henry Black (8th grade, Cornwall). Below, the school's cofounder and head teacher Tal Birdsey, right, works with Henry Wagner, a 9th-grader from Middlebury, left, and Cornwell 8th-grader Henry Black. Independent photo/Trent Campbell Independent photos/Trent Campbell

RIPTON — When he was writing sections of North Branch School’s student-scripted spring play, “Wildflowers, Guns, and Bears, Oh My!” which will be staged this weekend, ninth-grader Oscar Downing never set out to incorporate current events.

“I mostly just write what would be entertaining to the crowd and also what goes with the story,” he said. “But oftentimes what happens is that we notice a parallel between what’s going on with the play and something political, and we’ll put in a line about it.”

During a March 28 read-through of the play’s “battle scene,” when three groups of menacing adult characters converge on a group of runaway children in a field of wildflowers, many such lines emerged:

•  “Ready your arms — this will be a turkey shoot.”

•  “Power! You know nothing of true power!”

•  “Who needs rifles when I have these guns?”

•  “No wonder the children have run away!”

•  “They aren’t allowed to be children because of you!”

•  “270 million guns versus one flower.”

In a case of life overtaking art, the Feb. 14 mass shooting in Parkland, Fla., and the subsequent protests, have seeped into the script.

“We started writing the play before Parkland,” Downing said, “before gun control was a really big thing again, but we found ourselves in this situation where the shooting had happened, and we have this play with a lot of guns and gun action and gun violence, so we decided this could be a statement about that.”

It was important, though, to try to keep it light.

“Student activists are speaking the language of adults,” he said. “North Branch School kids are just playing at it.”

Fellow ninth-grader Ben Huston took a more explicit approach to the play.

“The way I go about writing those lines is that I try to directly reference it,” he said. “So like with the movement after Parkland I tried to sort of represent that or have a parallel to that, so that it’s not only entertaining but also a statement.”

In the play Huston plays Buck, a hunter with a competitive streak. Among his lines are “We’re arming teachers now” and “More guns will solve the problem” — the latter borrowed from a conversation outside of school.

“With the characters you either consciously or unconsciously display something about yourself, whether it’s a desire or an attribute,” said Huston, who is himself an accomplished hunter. “I think the play is a snapshot of our school, with every character fitting into some group and every character displaying the attributes of some student. And then a sort of message gets across that is displayed by the school or is found within the school.”

Seventh-grader Iris Wyatt agreed:

“This play’s a lot more fun than the other plays that I’ve done, and I feel like I’m more connected to my character in a way.”

She doesn’t yet understand it or know how it happened, Wyatt said, but she feels a lot more connected to her role — she plays a parent — than any other character she’s ever played onstage.

Asked about the overall themes of the play, Wyatt described what the editors of the Oxford English Dictionary might have been thinking when they chose “youthquake” as their 2017 word of the year.

“There’s just arguments all the time with (the play’s) adults, and they’re acting really childish, while the kids are trying to pave their own way in life and trying to show the adults what real living should be,” she said. Frustrated, the kids decide the only solution is to run away.

“Especially with the gun issue, I think (the kids are) really in charge of this whole thing, and it’s up to them to change the world,” Wyatt said. “They’re realizing that if they can’t be kids anymore then they have to take control of their own lives, if they want them to change.”

North Branch students have written and produced a play every spring since 2001. This title of this year’s production, “Wildflowers, Guns, and Bears, Oh My!,” is a direct reference to “The Wizard of Oz.”

“The play incorporates topics studied over the course of the year,” said the Ripton school’s cofounder and head teacher, Tal Birdsey. “The poetry of Maya Angelou, Henry David Thoreau, U.S. gun violence statistics, shamanism, the paintings of Paul Gauguin and Leonardo da Vinci, and even this year’s science studies of covalent molecular bonding — all figure in the play’s dialogue and action.”

Birdsey recalled with gravity a moment when current events imposed a new context on the curriculum. He had retrieved from another school a set of prop muskets he’d made for his own kids several years before. The North Branch students took possession of the props with understandable enthusiasm.

“They were marching along with the guns on their shoulders,” he said.

What made this feel different to him? It was one day after the Parkland shooting.

The bottom line, though, is that the students want to create something.

“They love to laugh and play. That’s how it all begins — a combination of adolescent energies mixed with a Monty Python or a Saturday Night Live view of the world,” Birdsey said.

When the play takes a darker turn, he said, it’s because “adults sometimes overthink, overanalyze or overargue and end up tearing each other apart.” On the other hand, “Kids are geniuses at cutting the Gordian knot. That’s what they wanted to show,” he added.

REAL LIFE INTERVENES

On March 27, the day before the “battle scene” read-through, a plainclothes police officer had visited the North Branch School as part of a statewide program of school safety site assessments mandated by Gov. Phil Scott in the wake of the Parkland shooting.

In a memo written to school administrators, Secretary of Education Rebecca Holcombe said the assessments were to be completed by March 30.

“The data collected will assist the Vermont School Safety Center, our school safety partners, communities and school boards in identifying common school emergency preparedness gaps and areas to focus future planning, training, exercise and equipment initiatives,” she wrote.

“It was startling,” said North Branch School administrator Donna Rutherford, who filled out the required survey and was told another officer would return at a later date to conduct a walkthrough and draw up floor plans.

“This building was designed, in case we ever leave, to be a house,” Rutherford said. “That’s what we want it to feel like to the students — a home. If they come back and lock all the doors I don’t know what we’ll do.”

“Kids who are afraid to go to school don’t create,” Birdsey acknowledged. But at the same time, “No teacher wants to hold a lockdown drill.”

The question, he said, then becomes, “How do you weave these issues into the learning process?”

For these student playwrights the question may boil down to, How do you incorporate them into your art?

“Wildflowers, Guns, and Bears, Oh My!” will be performed by the students of the North Branch School on Friday and Saturday, April 13–14, at 7 p.m. in the Ripton Community House. Performances are open to the public. For more information, call 388-3269 or visit www.northbranchschool.org.

Reach Christopher Ross at [email protected]

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