Acting company gains popularity at Jeremy Ranch
May 26, 2009
It’s May 23, weeks before class lets out for summer break at Jeremy Ranch Elementary School, but 35 third, fourth and fifth graders are already on vacation in the alternate reality of musical theater.
For many, "An American Vacation" is a first foray into the world of singing and dancing in front of audiences. Fourth-grade teacher Joe Demers wrote the story about a family that travels to California, Arkansas, Texas, Oklahoma, Illinois the Carolinas and New York. Demers plumbed the American songbook for material, and the chorus punctuates the fictitious trip with "Ragtime Joe," "Deep in the Heart of Texas," "Oklahoma," "Take Me out to the Ballgame" and other songs youngsters may not have learned in the age of Hannah Montana.
The play combines geography lessons with traditional trades of the stage, memorization, speaking, singing and working as an ensemble.
Demers and colleague Barb Hansen, a second grade teacher at Jeremy Ranch, meet with students every Wednesday for after-school rehearsals. They founded the Jeremy Ranch Players in the fall after attending a summer workshop at the University of Utah about teaching theater to kids.
"American Vacation," which plays June 4 at 2 and 6 p.m. at Jeremy Ranch Elementary, is the second production Demers has written for his students, and the most ambitious. With plenty of help from parents, including an architect who built backdrops of big-city skylines and a wooden cutout of an airplane, students don costumes: cowboys hats in Texas, plastic brim caps in other states.
"We felt there was a need for after-school drama," Hansen said. "I really think of theater as another form of learning" but it can be difficult to fit plays into daily curriculums, she added.
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Drama practice keeps kids motivated during the buildup to summer vacation, an often testy time for teachers. "The kids know they have this production," Hansen said. "It gives them something to look forward to."
Demers recalled with fondness his own turns on stage as a teenager. Productions teach teamwork and give kids confidence, he said.
"An American Vacation" has also given parents the chance to get involved. Michael Buchholz, an architect, made backdrops for the show. They are made to resemble postcard images of each city the family visits.
The real pleasure for Buchholz has come from watching his third-grade son, Brendan, gain an appreciation for being on stage. Brendan plays the dad in "An American Vacation" and after his own summer break, he plans to once again join the Jeremy Ranch Players.
The kids’ level of performance experience runs the gamut. Jeni Gordon, 10, a fourth grader at Jeremy Ranch, hasn’t done have much experience on stage, while other kids, such as Anneli Aalberg, also a fourth grader, sees the Jeremy Ranch Players as a continuation of the dance classes she already enjoys. "I love singing and dancing," she offered.
Sarah Cummins, a third grader, has wanted to be an actress almost since birth. Plus, she added, "I like to go on vacation."