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North Branch students to perform original play

RIPTON — The North Branch School, a small school for grades 7-9 in Ripton, will present its annual play, “The Tower,” on April 12 and 13 in the Ripton town firehouse.
Each year the students in the school create a play of their own invention, using their stories and poetry, current political and cultural events, experiences from the school year, individual musical talents, and topics the class studied to create an original theatrical production.
“It’s unlike any play you will ever see, in the sense that everyone in the school — the cast — writes it, together,” said Tal Birdsey, the school’s head teacher and director “Anyone involved in theater will tell you this is impossible, especially with such a diverse collection of kids, but they’ve pulled it off again. The energy and humor they create is astonishing. And they still manage to say something important.”
GILES HEILMAN, A grade 7 student at North Branch School, poses in character for the North Branch School’s upcoming play, “The Tower.”
Photo courtesy North Branch School
This year’s play centers on a small coastal town in South Carolina. Established and conventional, the town and its original inhabitants are sent into a state of rage-filled chaos when some very “strange and weird” people move into their community. The play revolves around the destructive outcomes that occur when groups judge each other primarily from their superficial “identities,”  rather than for each persons’ distinctly individual and unique qualities.
While humans may appear to be one way on the outside, they often share more than they could imagine. Hovering over the town is a large, mysterious stone tower, which simultaneously inspires fear and curiosity in the townspeople. Who, or what resides there? What will become of the townspeople if they venture into the tower?
“We know that kids this age project their fears inwardly or outwardly,” said Birdsey. “We also know that as a nation we have historically feared ‘otherness’ — from other races, religions, belief systems, country of origins. We often think we are protecting something by putting up walls to otherness, when in fact walls and divisions shrink us and limit us.”
The play is laced with serious themes, but the main vehicle is humor. “We use a lot of ridiculous, over-the-top satire — it’s kind of a blend of Saturday Night Live and Monty Python run through the bodies and minds of adolescents. Our school has a remarkably loose and transgressive sense of humor. You can be assured that they are going to push it the edge,” said Birdsey.
The students begin writing the play in January. This year, the school’s over-arching thematic focus has been Utopia and Dystopia. The students have, among other things, read “To Kill A Mockingbird,” studied the Berlin Wall, Black Lives Matter, Henry David Thoreau, the History of the Holocaust, and the history of Women’s Suffrage. One presentation was focused narrowly on the history of the “Pink Triangle” as both a symbol of human oppression and political power.
“Almost unconsciously, the kids put their feelings and ideas, both about themselves and about history and our national culture, into the play,” said Birdsey. “It all comes from them. And they take great pride in what they make. It’s not a script that was handed to them. It comes out of them and they feel like they are entering into the world on their terms.”
VIVIAN SEIGFRIED, LEFT, 8th grade, Jholaia Pschorr, 7th grade,  and Isabelle Wyatt, 7th grade, are ready to perform “The Tower,” a play written and produced entirely by North Branch School.
Photo courtesy North Branch School
The students round up all the props and costumes, make the play posters, help create the sets, and do all the stage management and set-crew work themselves. They also fill the scene changes with music. Every student who wants to can play or sing in the dark between scenes. “This is one of the most exciting aspects of the production,” remarked Birdsey. “They get to bring their own talents to the play, and it ends up being a great celebration of performance and community.”
Most years, the play is performed in the Ripton Community House. Due to ongoing renovations at the RCH, this year’s North Branch School play will be performed in the Ripton town firehouse. “The firehouse lacks a bit in ambiance and smells like smoke and rubber, but it’s big and it’s convenient,” commented Birdsey. “We are grateful to the town for letting us use it. The students this year will go down in school lore as “class that had the play in the firehouse.”
The play will be performed on April 12 and 13, at 7:30. Tickets are $7 and the play is open to the public and ADA accessible.

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