From the dour England of “The Contingency Plan” to the dour Iowa of “The Rimers of Eldritch,” this year’s main stage theater schedule promises the same kind of mature, alienating theater that a mature, alienated Grinnell student can expect. Next week at the Wall in Bucksbaum, however, the Neverland Players will enter their sixth year of rebelling against conventional seriousness. The 12 plays being performed by the ten Grinnell student actors were written by third-graders at Grinnell’s own Davis Elementary. Fun is the priority.
Neverland started this year with two weeks of improv games, including the notable game “Big Booty,” and then moved onto adapting the third-grade plays by acting them out and rewriting them for two weeks. The next step is to put on a show. On Sept. 24, 25 and 26, the players will perform twice in the Wall and once at Stewart Library—now the Arts Center—in town.
Such a method works well for bringing out the joy and playfulness of an eight or nine-year-old mind. “It’s a very intense, very quick process, because you want to get the most out of the stories,” said Amanda Borson ’13, the co-leader with Johnny Buse ’11 of the Players. “With the content of the stories, the first instinct and the first burst of imagination are what make them great.”
This year, the content of the 12 short plays ranges from a sequel of a cat-and-mouse story to the journey of an interplanetary princess to a Martian visiting New York 2000 years in the future. Houston Dougharty, Vice President of Student Affairs, whose son Finn wrote a play for the Players last year, compared the adaptation of these fantastic tales to a Pixar film.
“The thing that I liked was that the actual production of the stories…was witty at an adult level but not offensive to any kid,” he said. “Finn was surprised that 20, 21-year olds were still so imaginative and funny.”
This year, as with every year the plays have been running, the third-graders in Ellie Arseneault’s class who wrote the plays will be receiving tickets at Davis so that they can see them. Those whose plays are performed will be invited onstage for a bow at the end of the show.
“To invite the community members to the College is always a great thing,” Arseneault said. “Last year, even grandmothers and grandparents came from out of town, and it’s great that they’re able to see something like Bucksbaum.”
The time period for the third-graders to write the stories, like the rehearsal time for the Players, is also somewhat abbreviated.
“I’m kind of in a crunch to get these kids to write stories during the first week of September,” Arseneault said.
However, Doug Cameron, the former principal of Davis Elementary, pointed out that that any opportunity for community interaction with the College, fast-paced or not, should be prize.
“How can I say this nicely? Certain populations get on campus, and certain ones, often lower-income parents, don’t get on campus,” he said. “Unfortunately, some people in town see it as a threat, or as a hotbed of liberal ideas.”
Parker, a third grader in Mrs. Arseneault’s class, and the author of the cat-and-mouse play, was happily without such reservations. Like others in the class, he had taken his story home and worked extra hours on it, which Arseneault says happens “hardly ever” for third graders.
He had already seen his brother Sloan’s cat and mouse play last year, and wanted to create another one with a moral involving cats and mice working together. “I don’t know why I thought of teamwork as my moral,” he said. “I just thought it would be good for the story.”
In the story of the Neverland Players as a whole, such morals come easily. “The look on kids’ faces in the audience is priceless, and I’ve never been involved in anything that makes you feel so connected,” Borson said. “In the process, you also make ten new best friends in the troupe.”
Brand new troupe members felt similarly. Keilah Courtenay ’13 saw Neverland last year and knew she wanted to join immediately. She felt that she would enjoy the “huge time commitment” and broaden her theater skills as well.
“We’re all directors, we’re all performers, we’re all writers,” she said. “They’re really simple, pure, unique scripts to work with.”
Kate Doyle ’13, who will be entering her second semester of the Neverland Players, emphasized that the leaders of the program helped to make it “the one thing I have to do every semester [at Grinnell].”
“Because they have been a part of the cast of Neverland, they know where everyone is coming from and how to best direct us so it’s all an ensemble,” she said. “There’s not a hierarchy. They’re there to look objectively and ask if this is funny to little kids.”
This year, Borson and Buse have extended Neverland’s success even further into the community. Last spring, the Grinnell Arts Council—a local volunteer organization that creates arts programming for children in Grinnell—took over the building at Stewart Library. In the process, they decided to change their yearly children’s theatre programming from a traveling troupe to some theatre organization in town. One member of their board suggested the Neverland Players.
“I made the call and they were excited right away,” said Judy Arendt, Arts Director for the Grinnell Arts Council. “Our goal is to bring more art into the Grinnell community, and I know the College’s goal is to incorporate more students into the community. What better way to do that than in a place right smack dab in the middle of town?”
The Players have already held one writing workshop at Stewart for third—sixth graders, and will be holding auditions for the children’s theatre on Oct. 2. The performances will take place in the first week of Fall Break. During this time, somewhere between 60-90 children from kindergarten to eighth grade will be not only writing but directing and acting out their own stories.
This new venture also reflects work by the Grinnell Arts Council in general to expand. This year, they will also be working with poets Jumi Bello ’13 and Liz Holmes ’13, their “roster artists” who will be holding readings at Stewart Library and helping to coordinate the high school “Poetry Out Loud” contest.
“We’re thinking about how we can connect all of the community to art better,” Arendt said. “This isn’t just at the college or elementary level but at the high school level too, where kids still lack arts education.”
Though Neverland can’t bring art to everyone, there is no doubt that the players have tried and succeeded so far in helping some third graders to feel like their art matters. As she reflected on her classes at Davis, and the problems that some parents would have driving their children to the community theatre program or to the college for any events besides Neverland, Arseneault still remained optimistic.
“There’s still Neverland, if nothing else,” she said. “I mean, just look how excited Parker is. All of their faces, when they go to the show, and they’re grabbing their mom, and saying, ‘That’s my play!’¾ that really makes it all worth it.”