Though you might not be aware of it, Cahill Elementary School is in the midst of a theatrical renaissance. Principal Susan Gies came to Cahill in January 2005, and she started the fourth grade drama club a year later. The notion sprang from a variety of inspirations, including Gies’ own experience in the theater.
“I thought it was important because I know what theater has done for me,” Gies said. “I was a very shy child, but in my school in Brooklyn we did a lot of performance. And it was through performance and through observations that my teachers had made that I learned that I had a little bit of talent and a whole other way to express myself. It was just a wonderful creative outlet.”
Theater isn’t just about acting. Gies said theater kindled her interest in literature and learning. She hopes the Cahill program will do the same for the students.
“I learned a lot through songs, through dance, through theater, through reading plays,” she said. “Plays are literature, and it’s a different way to learn. I have seen over the years tremendous growth, and it’s frequently not the students who are already shining in the classroom who turn out to be wonderful in this environment. It’s tapping a different vein.”
Finally, there’s an excellent stage at the school. Just as mountain climbers tackle Everest because “it’s there,” Cahill teachers and students feel a need to make use of the under-utilized stage in the cafeteria.
“We have this great stage here, and I thought, ‘wow: this is such a beautiful stage,’” Gies said. “’We have to put this to good use.’”
Why fourth graders? For the boys.
“Fourth grade is still young enough so that you still get boys interested,” she said. “Another year or so and you get boys thinking it isn’t cool. They’re old enough to be independent and they’re still willing to experiment and try different things.”
The first play performed by the drama club in its inaugural year was a spin on “The Cat in the Hat,” the classic Dr. Seuss tale. Gies prefers to use stories as springboards, in part because it allows her and her fellow directors to tailor the dialogue to the talents and bravery of the actors under her direction. The twist in the first-ever drama club play was that the story was about how the original book came together. Past performances have been based on everything from Aesop’s Fables to “Forrest Gump.”
“The Cat in the Hat” is also the inspiration for this year’s drama club, though the actors will perform as though hearing about the school in the classroom, with some students bringing the book’s prose to life.
“To add on to it, we’re going to have a dream sequence where the teacher can’t stop talking in rhymes and can’t get Cat in the Hat out of her head,” Gies said.
The drama club has been meeting for less than a month, three days a week after school. They’ll likely increase that to four weekly rehearsals as they get closer to a performance Gies said will take place on Friday, March 2 with a matinee for fellow students and an evening show for parents and the public. The date was chosen in part because it’s Read Across America Day, a campaign promoted by the National Education Association. March 2 is also the birthday of Theodor Geisel, better known the world over as Dr. Seuss.
The drama club this year is comprised of 21 kids, and Gies is relishing the opportunity to get to know them a little better.
“A lot of principals go out and shoot hoops, and if I did that they’d kind of laugh at me,” she said. “It’s something that I’m comfortable with and I can communicate in this way. I’ve gotten to know the kids better and the parents better and it’s been a great experience for me. I enjoy it a lot.”
In addition to Gies, the drama club is aided by both of the school’s fourth grade teachers, as well as assistance from parents on everything from choreography to costumes. And, at least so far, it’s been a great experience for the kids.
The Saugerties Times spoke to a few of the kids in the drama club, including the author’s daughter, Madeline Kott, who said she’s been looking forward to being involved since the second grade when she saw a performance.
“I thought it was cool,” she said.
Other kids also signed on under their own steam, though one or two were given a push in the right direction by a loved one.
“I wanted to do it, but my mom wanted me to do it more,” said Ethan Quinto, a student in Mrs. Smith’s class.
Most of the kids admitted to being nervous about performing, with forgetting their lines the most common fear. Amber Magnano-Campbell, a student of Mrs. Kleinke, is hoping to beat that by bringing her script home and working on lines in her spare time. But she’s still got other reservations.
“I’m a little nervous,” she said. “I’m not really used to standing in front of people and doing something.”
Though many of the kids in the drama club said they’ve created their own plays at home, a few are already veterans of performing in front of an audience.
“I really wanted to be a part of it because I really like acting,” said Caitlin O’Brien. “I act in dance recitals and in Christmas plays and other stuff like that. I like the movement.”
Ethan Zia-Pietrzak is also not unfamiliar to stage performance, having worked with O’Brien in plays at the Reformed Church of Saugerties; O’Brien’s mother, Jeanne Jones, is helping with choreography.
“I like going on stage and showing people how much work I’ve done,” said Zia-Pietrzak. “I like it when Mrs. Gies asks us to act out a part. I’m enjoying working with her.”
No matter how inexperienced a student might be, there’s a place for them in the drama club and in the performance; Gies said she didn’t feel it was right to put kids at that age through an audition process. Besides, the Broadway-readiness of the play isn’t exactly the point.
“They usually come out of it feeling pretty good,” said Gies. “That’s the goal. You always want it to come out as good as it can be, but I have to remind myself that it’s just children. The main thing is for them to have a good experience and learn something.”