DOVER — Students largely came up with their own ideas for a production staged earlier this month.
"It's a mash-up show," said Trish Denton, who was hired as an artist in residency at Dover School for the first week of November. "The kids are calling it 'The Dover Way.'
The approximately hour to 75-minute performance was shown to parents and community members on Friday, Nov. 8. Funding for the five-day artist residency came through the Vermont Arts Council and parent-teacher organization known as the Dover School Club.
Denton visited the school about a month earlier to meet the students and get them brainstorming about their acts, said Dianne Guminak, a member of the Dover School Club who has been securing grants for similar programs for the last three years. She described the production as "self motivated" and "self directed" by the children.
Denton had been helping them, Guminak said, "but she's really hearing what they want, what their interests are. There's a lot of references to pop culture and the town of Dover."
Guminak said teachers also worked with the students throughout the last month to prepare for the production.
Denton, who founded In Tandem Arts of Burlington and works with the Vermont Folklife Center in Middlebury, said she crafted the arc of the show and coordinated live music. The performance included gymnastics, comedy, singing, acting and circus arts.
"Each grade has a set of primary acts but they might participate in other grades' acts like if we need extras or something," Denton said, adding that band and chorus students might appear in other acts.
She said the show involved a music producer and DJ named Marshmellow, who plots to send students from Dover to different time periods to find parts of a crystal that will fuel his time machine, which is his DJ booth.
"It's not written to have a tight narrative," she said. "It's very cartoony, zany."
Denton is seeing a shift in schools, where students are doing more experiential and project-based projects over those that highlight individual achievement. She said practicing theater is a way to work on empathy, emotional intelligence, problem solving, relationship building and other skills.
In Dover, Denton found "a lot of strong leaders." In other schools, she tends to find one student taking on the leadership role in a group.
"These kids have so much energy," she said. "I'm like, What are they putting in the water in Dover? It's like the fresh air or elevation or something."
Denton recalled telling fourth graders the phrase: "If you can dream it, you can build it."
"They were all sort of like, 'Yeah, we're going to make this thing,'" she said. "They felt it."
Her goal, when taking on these types of projects, is to give every student a taste of the theater experience.
"What was created in the five days, I hope, were parameters that were realistically set for the kids to push their edge and rise to something," she said. "The way I see it is: I definitely have done some professional works and have done some things in the city, and I love high art, but ultimately, I want to be living in a world and a Vermont where the arts are integrated into every day, specifically storytelling, which is a dying art form."
Denton does not expect the students to feel how good the experience had been for them until later on.
"It's such a push for a big reach," she said. "But when the dust settles, they sing all the songs together, they remember what they created. I think these shows, because it was their ideas and song choices, really stick with them for a long time and make an impact."
Denton described Principal Matt Martyn as "very, very supportive" of the project — something she said is not always the case in other schools — and "just totally amazing, so friendly, so into it." He played with some teachers and students in the band for the show.
Martyn said he has witnessed performing arts have "a profound impact on student learning."
"When performance is involved, students must pay close attention to detail, they must project their message either with voice or actions," he said. "With this production, teamwork was required. They independently developed their own ideas into brief skits, improved and rehearsed those ideas independently, and produced a funny, fast-paced, performance in a remarkably small amount of time. Through performance kids can learn self-confidence, presentation, and communication skills that will transfer to school projects, job interviews, careers in the military or trades, college interviews, you name it."
Martyn said he was "very impressed" with the performance.
"My favorite part was watching the response from the younger kids to the comedy and messages presented by the older kids," he said, calling it "priceless."
Guminak said she feels thankful that Martyn is "very open and supportive of something like this at the school."
"And I'm also thankful to the teachers because they really are able to go with the flow, because the schedule has been changing on a regular basis and they have been OK with it," she said.
Reach staff writer Chris Mays at firstname.lastname@example.org, at @CMaysBR on Twitter and 802-254-2311, ext. 273.