LINCOLN — As the saying goes, the show must go on. Not snow days, nor sickness, nor stage fright will stop the fifth- and sixth-grade thespians at Lincoln Community School from putting on their annual play, which they have worked on for three months.
The production, “Mud and Water: Flood Stories from Potato Hill and Downstream,” turns a spotlight on Lincoln’s history of deluges. It debuted Wednesday and will feature an encore performance Thursday evening in the school gym.
“I didn’t know if I was going to like it at first, but it turned out to be really fun because you get to try to be different people,” sixth-grader Sydney Minnerly said.
Thirty fifth- and sixth-graders comprise the cast and crew, many of them playing multiple parts. The ambitious one-act production runs about 75 minutes and includes seven scenes, 13 musical numbers and scores of musical interludes.
The masters behind the curtain, so to speak, are teachers Alice Leeds and Donna Wood. Leeds has directed plays for most of her 25 years at Lincoln Community School. She said each play has a different theme, and this year she and her students chose to focus on an environmental issue — the town’s history of flooding.
For the accompanying academic unit, the students studied town history, using a variety of primary and secondary sources. For part of the project, they wrote their recollections of Tropical Storm Irene, which caused widespread damage across the state in 2011.
Wood said community members came and talked to students about the floods, including Hattie Brown, who is in her 90s.
“The kids listened to her with bated breath,” Wood said. “Anybody that came in and talked to the kids, they were so respectful, and they have such a connection now.”
Another couple showed video footage of the Flood of ’98. Leeds said that helped students grasp the severity of the flood, which badly damaged homes and businesses, including the town library.
“The kids have been hearing all about Irene, and how disastrous it was in other places, but they didn’t realize how bad ’98 was here, that whole houses went washing down the river right here in Lincoln,” Leeds said.
Using the student research, Leeds drafted a script for the play, weaving in the writing of students past and present.
“The piece is basically a collection of stories, and I wanted this to represent various people in the Lincoln community, including the students’ voices,” Leeds said. “In the script I incorporated both writings from Irene and the Flood of ’98.”
Students read through the script in December and began rehearsals in earnest in January.
Wood, art director for the production, said that learning the history of Lincoln wasn’t the only benefit of the play.
“Most of the feedback I get after a unit like this is they’ve learned a lot about themselves,” Wood said. “They learned they could do what they did not expect they could do.”
Leeds said that because students were eager to make the play the best it could be, they learned the lines of the other actors.
“Every kid will know this entire play, because they’ve rehearsed it,” Leeds said. “They’ve got this whole collection of oral history internalized.”
This year’s play is particularly sentimental because Leeds and Wood are retiring at the end of the school year. Both said they had mixed feelings about leaving.
“I’m not sure how I’ll feel when it’s over,” Leeds said. “I’m sure I’ll feel wistful about it.”
Leeds said she doesn’t want the new teachers to feel obligated to continue doing plays just as she and Wood have done them. Even if their successors wanted to recreate the stagecraft of “Mud and Water,” it would be an arduous task.
“I joke about this, that we’ve created a monster,” Leeds said. “We starting out doing these little skits, then it got bigger, then Donna started teaming and we said, ‘Why don’t we do a Shakespeare piece together?’”
Year after year, the production grew into a massive annual production that required the coordination of dozens of students, teachers and parents.
“Things never get smaller when they become a tradition, so these plays have gotten bigger and bigger,” Leeds said.
Leeds said that there were some bumps in the tech rehearsal Tuesday afternoon, but that she was not worried.
“You don’t want a pitch-perfect tech rehearsal, because that’s bad luck,” Leeds said. “They have a good performance. We want it to be astounding.”
Leeds, by now a seasoned veteran of the stage, described herself as a firm but supportive director.
“I’m very tough, I don’t compliment them much at all,” Leeds said.
Instead, she focuses on constructive criticism and points out how students could improve their performances. She said she has noticed the pieces slowly coming together, and as much as the students may try to shrug off her direction, her advice sticks.
“I tell them all these things, and a lot of that they don’t take in,” Leeds said. “But when they know they’re performing and I’m not there to remind them, all of the sudden they take it seriously.”
A group of sixth-graders who were part of the play last year, acknowledged on the eve of the first performance that the production was a complex and demanding one.
“It’s a really complicated play,” Rosemary Thurber said. “There’s a bunch of characters.”
Wisdom Edwards said he thought the play was well-cast.
“I’m glad I got the old man role because I have a very good old man voice,” Edwards said.
The students, who weren’t born until after the Flood of ’98, said they learned a lot about their town’s history by doing the play.
“Before, all I knew was there was a bad flood and it ruined the library,” Thurber said. “It was good to learn more about what we were acting out.”
Thurber’s classmate, Sam Schoenhuber, concurred.
“It’s different than the plays we’ve done in previous years,” Schoenhuber said. “I like it because you get to learn more about your town.”
The students said they were proud to have contributed to writing parts of the play.
“It’s cool to know who wrote something and hear someone actually say it,” Edwards said.
The students said they expected a full house for their performance Thursday evening. The curtain goes up at 7 p.m.
Despite two snow days last week that cut into rehearsal time and the absence of actors due to illness, the young thespians said they felt ready to put the show on — even if there were some butterflies.
“A lot of community members are characters in the play,” Thurber said. “It’s going to be fun, but will make me nervous with them in the audience.”