Fifth graders at Cahill Elementary School have caught the acting bug. For seven days they have worked with Arm-of-the-Sea Theater’s managing director, Patrick Wadden, to stage a “visual theater” production inspired by two oft-overlooked school murals: Edward Dreis’s “The Story of Paper Making,” which covers a cafeteria wall and depicts paper mill workers in an industrial Saugerties, and an untitled town landscape by Petra Mearns Cabot. Papermaking “really was a major industry in Saugerties from 1826 to 1968 or ‘70,” said Wadden. Visual theater, he said, is “different than traditional actor’s theater, where text is everything and the visual elements just support the actors. It’s a style of doing theater where all aspects of the arts are important.”
The project is part of Arm-of-the-Sea’s current project “Stories from Here,” which Wadden said is broadly about “the whole mytho-poetic, historical to present day Saugerties. It’s meant to be our own version of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town.”
The two murals were funded by the Federal Arts Project, a division of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration, which put labor to work on public projects during the Depression. The play the students are working on will “bring to life scenes and characters from these murals, to explore the differences and similarities between life in Saugerties then and now,” said Wadden. The idea is to reinvigorate the art and the reality it depicts: “You walk by these every day and don’t necessarily take a look at them,” he said.
“It’s a way of bringing history alive for these kids,” said principal Susan Gies.
The project was developed by Wadden in collaboration with Gies, a theater enthusiast who takes part in the Rhinebeck Performing Arts summer.
“That’s what’s necessary for something like this to work: the school has to make a commitment,” said Wadden.
“In fourth grade they learn about New York State. It fits best with the curriculum they’ve already learned. And in fifth grade, they learn about American history. It seemed a good way to connect things they had learned with things they will learn.”
The play opens as the historical figure Captain Henry Gough pilots his steamboat, Ida, up the river and comes across Saugerties. Wadden worked with town historian Audrey Klinkenberg to incorporate this true piece of the town’s history. A painting of Ida hangs in the main office of Cahill Elementary School.
The main acts of the play follow the town into and through its hard economic times, through its depression; “We’re playing on an economic meaning of the word as well as an emotional meaning,” said Wadden. The play asks, “How do people deal with hard times? How do you survive day to day, keeping your spirits up?” The locations featured include the village diner, the Orpheum Theater when it was still a vaudeville house, the steamboat, and of course, the Mill.
But the production itself is only the smallest portion of the project. “The process of doing this has been wonderful; the performance is just the icing on the cake,” said Gies.
Students spent the first three days creating characters, painting and sculpting puppets and masks. Smaller groups met with Wadden separately to work on the script and music. Late last week, they were working on choreography and honing the plot. Wadden wishes they had twice as much time.
The lightning rate at which the production is moving is all the more impressive because most of Arm-of-the-Sea’s equipment was damaged when its eponymous river surged during Hurricane Sandy. Wadden spent the two weeks leading up to his residency at Cahill cleaning up, and he guesses it will take all winter to fix everything. Luckily he had already packed the bus with the supplies necessary for his residency at Cahill, so the project has gone off without a hitch.
“Can I be one of the workers ‘cause I’m too tall to be a kid?” a student asked “Mr. Patrick” on Friday.
“Everybody will have at least one role, if not two or three,” he replied. When he offered roles, hands shot up to be musicians, narrators, mill workers. They danced, sang and acted their way through the rehearsal.
While honing their theatrical prowess, students are also learning about why communities and economies change, said Wadden. Thanks to the initiative of art teacher Elisa Tucci, they even made paper in their art classes. Before the project began, Beth Humphrey, art educator for the Woodstock Artists’ Association, came to the school and put the artwork in context for the students.
The production is funded by a $1,600 grant from the Dutchess County Arts Council and a generous $1,000 donation from the PTA.
“I wish we could have as much music and art and theater and dance as I did as a child, but we can’t,” said Gies. “It’s just not possible in today’s economy. So anyway we can get it in, we do.”