Signature Theatre Program Adapts for Youngest Thespians
Dessert Theatre engages the youngest thespians at The Colorado Springs School in much more than acting. Students in kindergarten through 5th grade explore the world through characters while solving problems and growing their communication skills and confidence.
The signature program has been in place for more than four decades. The productions are costumed with lights, sound, set, and props in the 300-seat Louisa Performing Arts Center, where family, friends, teachers, and classmates gather for live performances.
But this year, Dessert Theatre had to be adapted to follow COVID-19 safety guidelines, preventing audiences from gathering. Performances were filmed and then premiered online, drawing a larger audience as family and friends across the nation tuned in from the comfort of home.
Jill Smith’s father shared the Dessert Theatre performance with his granddaughter, 3rd grader Addie S. ’30, for the first time. He lives in Wisconsin and tuned in for the virtual premiere. Other family members in Minnesota and California who couldn’t join that evening watched the performance afterward on YouTube.
“The filmed Dessert Theatre production was a creative, innovative response to the challenges of COVID that allowed a sense of normalcy and excitement,” said Mrs. Smith, Addie’s mother. “It was an excellent example of the resiliency of the CSS faculty and staff and students.”
Another perk to the performances being filmed was students developed skills required to work in front of a camera without the energy a live audience naturally brings. They created and maintained their own excitement. Students learned the value of re-shooting scenes and what was needed to improve their performances. They also filmed some scenes out of order, requiring a heightened understanding of their character and the plot.
“We are so excited that we were able to still maintain the integrity of this program through COVID. In fact, it gave us a really cool opportunity,” said Melissa O’Rear, the Children’s School Creative Dramatics teacher, who directs Dessert Theatre. “We were able to take this process in a new direction, giving students new skills while still building ones that were already the focus of Dessert Theatre.”
Dessert Theatre integrates with a robust theme of study and concentrated over several weeks. Often the topics of these grade-level plays are original scripts inspired by the curriculum the children are studying in science, history, and literature. This interdisciplinary exercise allows for complex ideas to be expressed on stage.
“Through the Dessert Theatre process, students are encouraged to take creative risks and make choices where they think critically about the stories and characters they are bringing to life. We learn about the actor toolbox of the face, body, voice, and imagination and how to use it to communicate on stage,” Mrs. O’Rear said. “Ultimately, they develop confidence, ownership in their roles and teamwork with their peers. We wanted to make sure that these components were still emphasized this year.”
The Dessert Theatre season kicked off in January. Third and 5th grade performances premiered via Zoom on February 5. Before the premiere, students received chocolate chip cookies baked by the school chef to share at home with family, keeping the dessert in Dessert Theatre. The performances were posted to the school’s YouTube channel afterward. Next up are 2nd and 4th grade performances premiering on March 5, and kindergarten and 1st grade on March 18.
The 3rd grade performance stemmed from the classroom mystery study unit. Students developed their own characters and plot around a mystery. They learned about mystery vocabularies such as clue, motive, alibi, and suspect. They explored improvisation, which each character used during interrogations before revealing their alibis.
The culmination was Mysteries at the Mansion, which takes place during a lavish party at the Trianon. The Baldwins and their kooky collection of guests can’t wait to view a priceless painting. Instead, they unveil a mystery! Who stole the masterpiece? Was it the potato-loving chef, the doting grandmother, or the evil twin? Just when you think you’ve cracked the case, the mystery starts all over again with new guests … and new lies!
When third grade teacher Alex Schilperoort asked students what they gained from Dessert Theatre, their hands soared to answer. The skills they listed included overcoming stage fright, how to memorize lines, how to move our bodies, how to “cheat out,” teamwork, and how to be awesome.
“Students get to express their creativity and take risks in a new context,” Mr. Schilperoort said. “The most noticeable change I see in students is when the usually quiet students let down their guard and excel in a new learning opportunity. You see new sides of their personalities, and sometimes even a hidden acting talent! Some students who may not be the most enthusiastic in class sometimes surprise you with their charisma on stage.”
The fifth grade performance, America, My New Home, was rooted in the classroom study of immigration through devising, which is creating a piece of theatre from a prompt - in this case, the prompt was immigration. Mrs. O’Rear and the 5th grade teacher worked closely to correlate the class’ immigration unit and research studies for an arts-integrated approach.
Students examined the motivations, hopes, and fears that led so many to cross the ocean between 1880-1900. They developed their own characters and imagined and wrote their own immigrant stories bringing them to life on stage. There are snippets of immigrant lives from Poland, Germany, Qing-dynasty China, Italy, Russia, and Ireland. From Ellis Island to Angel Island, watch these brave souls reach for - and adapt to - the land of opportunity. Students wrote all of their own lines, which included incorporating relationships with other characters.
Fifth graders wrote three scenes that reflected the life in their home country and why they left, the journey to America, and then life in America. Students synthesized the information from their research in a new way by bringing it to life on stage.
Kristen Olson’s 5th grade son, Phoenix S. ’28, developed the character of Chang from Qing-dynasty China.
“The process of researching his character, writing his own lines, and conceptualizing the story created an incredibly meaningful and enriching experience for Phoenix,” she said. “He and his classmates are doing the work that many adults wait until college or their professional lives to do.”
Creating her own lines and incorporating them with the other two characters in her group was challenging at first for Lexi G. ‘28, who has participated in Dessert Theatre since kindergarten. Her character Sevita comes to America from Russia with her father and brother.
“If you had already thought of your own story and what would happen, it was a lot harder because you had to figure out what your partners were already thinking. I’m sure every group had at least one conflict about a scene,” she said. “Some of the ideas we had didn’t come to life because they didn’t fit with the story.”
Developing her own character was a bit overwhelming at first because she had never created a character from scratch. Lexi created character traits such as her style, what her voice would sound like, how she would walk, and how she would interact with other characters.
“What I learned is you get to be a different person,” she said. “I kept basing her off of things that I would normally do. But with Dessert Theatre, you get to develop a character to do what you wouldn’t in real life. I had to imagine a lot. It was so much fun.”
View a photo album of 3rd and 5th grade Dessert Theatre performances here.