Student playwrights take center stage at Southshire School


NORTH BENNINGTON -- Eric Peterson, director of Bennington-based Oldcastle Theatre Company, visited students at the Southshire Community School on Wednesday morning to help with their playwriting skills.

The students are working on creating a play that will hopefully be performed at Oldcastle at some point in the future. Retired teacher Gerry Cuite, of Cambridge, whose grandson attends the school, has been volunteering to help the students with their play.

Cuite challenged each student to write a single scene, with no narrator, no set changes, and no stage directions. It was then the students' jobs to take the discombobulated scenes, covering such topics as a family eating dinner, a man who only speaks gibberish, and a dastardly murder, and transform them into a narrative.

The students, who are the oldest class at a school whose students range from 5 to around 13, took on the challenge as part of the Southshire Challenge, a new initiative that was launched this year by the Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union, the Bennington County Industrial Corporation, and the Workforce and Education working group, with the purpose of teaming up local businesses and schools in the name of problem solving. Oldcastle challenged any of the local schools to write and perform a play, and the Southshire School chose to take on the task.

Peterson asked the students questions like, "How old are they?" and "Where do they live?" to encourage them to flesh out their characters. In one scene, a thug expresses sympathy for the person she recently killed at the behest of her mob boss. Cuite asked the student playing the mob boss how this humanistic reaction from her underling makes her character feel. The student, after considering, realized that she would probably react with anger at the assault on her authority, rather than with the dismissive tone she had been using.

The school serves 36 students, according to Ann Fitzgerald, who usually works with the older children, when they aren't exploring their inner mob bosses. She praised the hands-on learning style promoted by the school, saying, "They really have to be engaged. It's actually doing it that makes sense to them."

Peterson praised the students acting and writing abilities, and was hopeful about being able to have the students perform their creation live on stage. "I think what they're doing is really interesting," he said.

Meanwhile, downstairs, a group of younger students, between the ages of 9 and 12, were working on a project of their own. With the help of local carpenter and parent Kirk Fox, the four children were creating "public libraries," one of which will be put on display at the school, the other of which will be auctioned off and displayed at a local business. The wooden shelves will contain books, and community members will be encouraged to take a book and leave a book, so as to spread reading throughout the community.

"You're able to use math skills in a practical way," said Fox, who had been helping the students use fractions and decimals to construct the libraries over the course of the last six to eight weeks. Asked what their favorite parts of the project were, the students responded, nailing, working on the roof, and wearing safety glasses.

While no date has been confirmed for either the play's performance or the unveiling of the public libraries, residents of Bennington and North Bennington will likely see the positive effects the school is having on the community in the near future. Who knows, they may even get to see a mob boss reformed before their very eyes.

Derek Carson can be reached for comment at Follow him on Twitter @DerekCarsonBB


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