North Branch students stage an original play

RIPTON — Students at Ripton’s North Branch School performed an original play, “Almost Heaven,” at the school April 8 and 9.
Each year students at the North Branch School in Ripton author a play based on the school’s theme for the year. The students work together to come up with ideas, create characters, make costumes, build sets and collect props.
“The school’s idea is that everyone learns the most when we do everything together,” said Tal Birdsey, head teacher at the school. “The thrill for them is they are creating something original and personal. There is a feeling of risk and adventure as the play comes together.”
The theme of study throughout this school year is “Dystopia and Utopia.” Accordingly, the students decided to write a play about what would happen if a group of humans died, and then found out none of them had gotten into heaven. Where would they go? What might happen? In the case of this play, all of the “lost souls” decide that they should hold an election and to elect a president to create a “new heaven.”
“The idea for having a political race at the center of the play came from many discussions we had this year,” said Birdsey. “We have talked about sexism and misogyny as it has appeared in this year’s presidential primaries. We have also talked a lot about the relationship between genders, feminism, women’s suffrage, and other issues of equality and oppression. Out of all that we came up with the themes of this play.”
Like all North Branch school productions, “Almost Heaven” is filled with comedy and ridiculous scenarios. A man named Dominant Leader (played by Aidan Warren of Lincoln) wants to rule heaven, but he is challenged by Dirks Lee, a trucker, (played by Angus Schwaneflugel of Vergennes), Diamond Trefilonte (played by Leeya Tudek of Lincoln), and Ronald Hump, played by Owen Maille of New Haven. Rather than proving to be noble and inspirational, they reveal numerous hilarious flaws and misperceptions about what being a leader really is.
At the same time, the play is a satire of the political process. “We have read and observed lots of childish behavior by America’s presidential candidates,” said Birdsey. “We wanted to comment on that, and put in our two cents on how it appears and how it could be different.”
The main candidates are eventually challenged by an outsider party: a group of loners, immigrants, revolutionaries, artists, farmers and less conventionally “successful” citizens. Anna, played by Eden Ginsberg of Bristol, joins with Skylar, played by Marina Herran-Lage of Shoreham, to lead the new “political party.” What will happen when their disparate group challenges the powers that be? And can a new heaven be made?
“When kids invent their own stories and questions, they will create answers that might be worth listening to,” said Birdsey.
The play is highlighted by singing and musical performances throughout the evening. The students choose the music, make the arrangements, and direct each other to assemble songs that will support and underscore the message of the play.
The North Branch School is an independent school in Ripton, with 27 students in grades 7-9 from all corners of Addison County.

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