Dessert Theatre teaches children life skills
Fifth grader Sarah H. takes the stage for rehearsal the day before she and her classmates perform a Civil War play for Dessert Theatre. Her character is Sam, a spy on the Confederate side who disguises herself as a boy.
“I’m forgetting about my normal, everyday life and putting myself in Sam’s shoes,” Sarah says during warm-ups.
Dessert Theatre, which began 46 years ago at The Colorado Springs School, is more than acting. The program allows kindergarten through 5th grade students the freedom to explore the world through characters, while solving problems and growing their communication skills and confidence.
“It’s Life Skills 101,” said Melissa Law, the Children’s School Creative Dramatics and Middle School Drama teacher, who directs Dessert Theatre. “It’s being able to work together and listen and incorporate other people’s ideas while figuring out how to compromise. It’s the ability to find your creative voice within the context of a larger group working toward a common goal.”
Many of the plays were written by CSS Theatre Director Sandy Bray, who directed Dessert Theatre for 17 years before Law joined CSS in 2016. The idea is that characters have equally challenging parts. There are no leading roles and nobody as trees. The productions are costumed with lights, sound, set and props in the Louisa Performing Arts Center, which seats 300 people.
Students practice with Law twice a day for about four weeks before performing their play in front of an audience, once in the morning for Children’s School and again later in the day for parents and the community.
“Dessert Theatre sets us apart in the world of education,” Bray said. “Theatre is so integrated into our curriculum. I don’t know anybody else who does it like this at the K-5 level. It’s a true opportunity for kids to grow.”
The season kicked off in January, with 3rd and 5th grades performing in February. Second and 4th grades perform on Friday, March 8, followed by kindergarten and 1st grade on Friday, March 22. Desserts are served in the lobby afterward.
While students in kindergarten through 4th are assigned characters, 5th graders audition for roles. Sarah, who joined CSS as a 1st grader, said playing Sam has been her toughest and most rewarding character. Not only is Sam a girl disguised as a boy but also a Confederate spy dressed as a Union soldier. Sam struggles with which side to fight for.
“It was me playing a person pretending to be someone else, who was pretending to be someone else, so it’s kind of hard to act out all these different things at once,” Sarah said. “And if it’s hard, you have to act that way — you have to feel it. So it’s fun to feel the different types of lives and see what’s going on with them.”
Each class comes up with goals for Dessert Theatre that are signed by the students. Second grader wrote goals such as “I want to be patient and care for others,” “Listen,” and “Act with emotion!” Some of the 4th grade goals: “Establish a safe environment,” “Help people with anything they need,” and “I want to try hard.”
“There’s that sense of not letting your classmates down because they want to have a good show,” 4th grade teacher Tim Ferguson said. Students have an accountability partner, and they take turns watching each other during rehearsals and giving feedback on what they did well and what they could improve upon.
Children keep journals during Dessert Theatre that let them dive deeper into their characters and the story. For example, 2nd graders draw what their costume would look like if they could design it and write the next four scenes to the play if it were to continue. Fifth graders write an analysis to define their character’s objectives, struggles, favorite breakfast food, secrets, talents, and how they feel.
Second grader Ethan M. worked on his journal recently after running lines with a classmate. Ethan, who has been performing in Dessert Theatre since kindergarten, plays an evil wizard. He and his classmates created their own choreography for a song they are singing.
“I’m feeling well about it,” he said. “I’m excited when the show happens because so much is going on. I like how acting is very valuable when you use it. You can use it inside or outside. You could use it outside at recess.”
Dessert Theatre also teaches students theatre etiquette, stage skills and directions, and spatial awareness, which is the ability to move around the stage and still be aware of the audience and where they are in relation to other characters.
“Theater is a very fine line between being very big and silly and being disciplined too, so they get a sense of that,” Law said. “We talk about how acting just isn’t saying your line. It’s about responding to what’s happening on the stage and making sure you’re always in the moment. It’s about going through this journey together.”
Law encourages children to give input into how their characters move on stage, to explore going here or there, and then they decide if it works.
“Melissa gives them the opportunity to collaborate within the process and to bring their ideas forward and to connect and share,” Bray said. “They have a lot of ownership over their work, and that is key so kids don’t feel like it’s an adult standing and telling them exactly what to do and when.”
The plays grow in complexity with each grade; kindergartners typically have a line or two, while 4th and 5th graders have many lines and are responsible for moving set pieces between scenes. The productions pull from classroom themes. For example, 4th graders will perform five tales about the Revolutionary War, a topic they learned about earlier this school year. They’ll sing patriotic songs in-between each tale.
“We can study it, and we can read about it,” said Ferguson, who has been teaching at CSS since 2012. “But it’s totally different when they’re dressed as Mohawks with the Boston Tea Party and they’re shouting ‘Taxation without representation is tyranny!’ over and over again. It really sinks in when they get in character and play it.”
Law wrote this year’s play for kindergarten based on the children’s book “Pezzettino” by Leo Lionni. Pezzettino lives in a world where everyone is big and does daring and wonderful things, but he is small, just “a little piece,” which is the meaning of pezzettino in Italian.
After Law read the play to the class for the first time, she called the kindergartners up in small groups and prompted them create their own lines. Part of the play reads “How can I climb mountains if I had a piece missing?” and Law asked what else their character couldn’t do with a missing piece. Eva K. said, “If I had a piece missing, I wouldn’t be able to climb up the mountain fast,” then Cody G. added, “Or climb up to the sun, the moon, and back down without falling.”
“When students create their own lines, it gives them more ownership over their character and they also get to write a bit of the story using their own imaginations,” Law said. “They become more invested and excited in the process. They also memorize it better.”
All students typically have the opportunity to create lines, which puts them in their character’s mind to think about what they would really say. If older students ask to add a line, they need to make a case for it. Is it moving the story forward? Is it adding detail?
Diane Farrell, Children’s School Art Teacher, and Kaja Reynolds, Visual Arts Teacher, help with creating set or character pieces. Farrell is working with 2nd graders to create their own “piece” to hold for during the Pezzettino play.
Dessert Theatre nudges children who wouldn’t otherwise step on stage to give it a try. Fourth grader Eloise K. is one of those students. Her mother, Heather Kelly, says Eloise leans toward introversion, typically doing best one-on-one or in small groups. Yet she thrives in Dessert Theatre.
“At another school where theatre is optional, she likely wouldn’t get that experience,” Kelly said. “At CSS, her participation feels natural. She has been doing it since kindergarten and doesn’t think twice about it.”
The program is one of the reasons Kelly and her husband chose The Colorado Springs School for Eloise and their son, 1st grader Milo, because it includes and encourages every child.
“Kids rise to the occasion,” Kelly said. “If you provide them a safe environment, strong support and clear direction, they will exceed your expectations every time. We see that every year at CSS during Dessert Theater.”
After performances, students reflect in class about their experiences. Third grade teacher Colleen Nissen asks them to write about about how they felt during their performances and to describe their character, costume and favorite line.
“Dessert Theatre was amazing!” 3rd grade student Giovanna R. wrote in her reflection. “I felt like I couldn’t take a deep breath back stage but when I got on stage I felt like a professional actor!”
Nissen, who has been teaching at CSS for 25 years, remains in awe with how well students do. Sometimes there are tears before performances because of nerves. “To get up on that stage, it’s huge,” she said. “How many adults have you met in your life that still cannot get up in front of people?”
Being on stage for Dessert Theatre taught Estin N., a junior who came to CSS as a 4th grader, how to share space and work with others. Theatre became a way to express himself while having fun with classmates.
“Dessert Theatre got me into theatre, and I’ve been doing it ever since,” he said. “At the school I went to before CSS, the theatre program wasn’t all that great, so Dessert Theatre helped me discover for myself how much I actually like it.”
Although Sarah wrapped up her last season of Dessert Theatre in February, she wants to pursue theatre throughout her schooling — and maybe even beyond.
“Theatre’s awesome, and I just love acting,” she said. “I can definitely tell you that in 1st grade I was so nervous. It was like the scariest thing to me. Now it’s just the sadness of it being done and not getting to do it anymore. I really enjoyed it.”
Kindergarten will present Pezzettino
Leo Lionni’s book “Pezzettino” has been adapted for the stage. Pezzettino, meaning “little piece” in Italian, is searching for who he belongs to. He travels far and wide asking other creatures if he belongs to them. “Am I your little piece?” He asks The-One-On-the-Mountain. “How can I climb the mountain if I had a piece missing?” He finally goes to The-Wise-One, who tells him to visit the Island of Wham, where Pezzettino finally found who he belongs to, himself!