Connor students get a crash course in theater
CONNOR TOWNSHIP, Maine — Troupe members with Children’s Stage Adventures made their second stop in Connor last week, spending much of their week in the small northern Maine township giving students a crash course in the performing arts.
On Monday, they auditioned nervous students of the Connor Consolidated School and began assigning parts for an hour-long musical. By Friday, the youngsters were ready to perform.
Children’s Stage Adventures, a New Hampshire organization founded by married couple and accomplished thespians Rob and Lorrie Gray roughly two decades ago, sends a crew of two across New England for a six month tour every year. During their tour, the two CSA members spend a week in a new community teaching local students how to perform and quickly bring them to the point where they can successfully hold a public performance.
Morgan Swan and Eric Monzel spent all of last week in Connor Township teaching students a new play titled “Cry Wolf,” a musical emphasizing the importance of honesty.
Monzel, originally from Monkton, Vermont, said he has been interested in theater ever since fourth grade.
“It started with an after school program,” he said late Friday morning. “My mom made me keep doing it until I realized I wanted to keep doing it. Then, I kept it up all through high school and went to college for theater.”
Swan, originally from Woodland, just a half hour drive from Connor Township, said she didn’t have many theater opportunities growing up in The County, and that when she went to the University of Maine at Presque Isle to major in elementary education, the college didn’t offer much in terms of theater aside from a student club.
But after she earned her degree, Swan said Friday that she “decided I wasn’t ready to be in a classroom. Then I saw all these kids go through the [Children’s Stage Adventures] program and thought, ‘Alright, let’s give ‘er a go.’ So I applied and began in October of last year.”
Monzel said he auditioned at a large theater conference in the Boston area, and that he was hired roughly half a year after his audition for a full tour.
According to Swan, CSA teams will audition “anywhere between 30 and 100 kids, and within 16 hours worth of rehearsal, we teach kids an hour-long musical.”
The duo then packs up on either Friday or Saturday after the show, and by Sunday they’re in a new town, ready to do it all over again.
“Each week is a new town,” Swan said.
Swan and Monzel are nearing the end of their tour, with a little over a month remaining.
Monzel, when asked about the message behind “Cry Wolf” quoted a line.
“Telling lies is never wise,” he said. “The truth will come to light.”
“Not that you’re quoting a song,” Swan said with a laugh.
“It’s about how lies will catch up to you,” Monzel added.
“It’s really based on, ‘The Boy Who Cried Wolf,’” Swan said, “and it was adapted to show that there’s more than one way to tell a lie, like intentionally leaving out certain details. It’s teaching that there will always be consequences for your actions, and that telling the truth is always the best choice.”
Throughout their tour, Monzel and Swan typically train a cast of around 55 children. But they had to make accommodations for the population of Connor Consolidated School, which has 32 students enrolled in pre-kindergarten through sixth grade.
“We’ve had to change some parts,” Monzel said, “but the kids are learning different things and taking on more parts. That’s been the most interesting aspect of this. The kids have been really good. They’re very good at following directions and are super enthusiastic.”
Swan said the opportunity to tour schools across New England has “been a great teaching experience” and also a learning experience for her and Monzel, as it has taught them to become better at communication.
“It’s been a really great experience,” she said on Friday. “The kids are absolutely wonderful. The staff is amazing, and have been a really great support for us.
Students agreed that Swan and Monzel were great teachers, and said they enjoyed the opportunity to perform.
Chantelle Babin, a sixth grader, was the lead wolf in the production.
“I’m actually the leader of the pack,” she said Friday, just before performing shows for friends and relatives at 12:30 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. that day. “Basically, I boss the other two wolves around and we try to eat the sheep.”
Babin said her favorite part of the play is “yelling at the other wolves,” and that the biggest challenge is “remembering the lines when you’re on stage.”
She said she was excited for the big performance and that the CSA duo are “really fun” to work with.
“They’re fun as teachers,” Babin said.
Student Nicholas Anderson also enjoyed his time with CSA, and played as a character named “Friedrich” in the production.
“He is one of the main characters,” Anderson said of his role. “He gets a job as a shepherd and he decides to play a little trick and yell wolf a few times. The town comes after him at first, but after a few times they say, ‘We’re not doing this anymore; we’re not playing this game.’ But then when the wolves really are there, nobody comes, but when they finally get there, they end up winning.”
Anderson said he enjoyed dressing up as a shepherd and that his favorite part of the production is getting to cry wolf.
He said the experience has been good, and that this is far from his first performance.
“We do a lot [of plays] at Connor school,” he said.
First grader Karter Deprey played a character named “Danny Derp,” a child of the “Derp family” who does not listen to his parents.
“I’m one of the Derps,” said Deprey, “and I do a lot of stuff. And it’s fun.”
Deprey said his favorite part of the role was getting to run away from his parents.
“Mom yells, ‘Get back here!’,” he explained. “Then I don’t listen.”
Overall, Deprey said the play has been enjoyable because he “doesn’t have to go on stage much” and can “sit out back a lot.” However, he does enjoy singing the songs.
His experience with Swan and Monzel, as of Friday morning, was positive.
“I haven’t got yelled at yet,” Deprey said, “but I’ll probably get yelled at before the end of the day.”
Deprey said he would gladly do another play, as long as it’s not difficult.
“If it’s the same play, then I’d do it again,” Deprey said. “But if it’s a different one, then maybe. If it’s hard, no. But if it’s for PreK or K, then yes.”
Kindergartener Shekinah Labobe-Baker said she played a cheese maker, and her favorite part of the play was “being funny.”
“I fight with spatulas and spoons,” she said. “I don’t like the helmet I have to wear. I keep pulling it.”
Labobe-Baker said she enjoyed working with Swan and Monzel, and that “they make funny actors.”
While the Connor kindergartener said she had fun, the play was not quite what she was expecting.
“I thought it would be a “Frozen” one, or a princess one,” she said, adding that she’d be more excited if she was able to play a princess.
Connor Principal Heather Anderson said she, school staff, and community members actively fundraise so they can host a CSA production every three years.
The cost is roughly $3,000 altogether, and consists of hosting two CSA employees for a week.
“They need a place to stay,” Anderson said, “and it covers all the costumes, makeup, staging, and lights they bring. They’re doing a lot.”
Thankfully, Anderson said Jesse Cote of Backwoods Guide Service “volunteered some of their cabins for the week,” a generous offer that she said significantly helped with fundraising efforts.
While the principal has hosted CSA in the past, she is always impressed to see the rapid progress over the course of one week.
“It’s incredible to see,” she said. “Everyone is really excited on Monday. Then they’re auditioned, and we have one group that goes in and practices and they work with that small group. Then, on Tuesday, they start doing rehearsals. On Wednesday everyone is all together and you’re kind of nervous, you think there’s no way they’ll make it by the end of the week.”
“Then,” she continued, “on Friday morning it’s like, ‘Wow, they’re ready.’”
Anderson said the inclusion of theater is important for schools as it gives students an opportunity to excel in an extracurricular activity outside of sports.
“A lot of kids are great at sports,” she said, “but there are also some kids that really have a strong artistic nature, and it’s good for them to have those opportunities, especially in a small school. If every kid can find one thing they’re good at, that will build confidence and help them feel better about themselves.”
Swan said she was happy to make an appearance at Connor, and at all other schools during their tour.
“It’s been a blessing for us to share our experiences,” she said, “and to share our passion of theater with these kids.”