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The City Journals

Yo Ho, what a show! Jim Bridger Elementary students learn how to be a pirate (and an actor)

Mar 29, 2019 10:47AM ● By Jet Burnham

The enthusiastic pirate crew teaches a young lad how to be a pirate. (Photo courtesy Kristie Giles)

By Jet Burnham | [email protected]

Students from Jim Bridger Elementary put on their eye patches and a scallywag swagger to become pirates in the Feb. 28 performance of “How to Be a Pirate in Seven Easy Songs,” written by Greg Gilpin.

The cast, comprised 38 fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders, was an enthusiastic crew, performing their dialogue in gruff voices, with plenty of fishy insults and exclamations of throaty “argh”s.

The audience watched as a young landlubber learned how to be a pirate: how to loosen-up on diction and grammar and how to look the part with ragged pants, a hat and a well-placed scarf.

Students sang songs such as “Raise the Jolly Roger,” expressing pride in being part of a crew and “Pirates All Are We” about the friendship of shipmates. The crew celebrated their treasure with “Lovely Loot” and ended its voyage with a dance party to “Party Me Hearty!”

Jim Bridger Elementary students have been performing annual plays for more than 15 years.

“I choose musicals to allow students the opportunity to shine in something that isn’t tested,” said Kristie Giles, director and fifth-grade teacher. “When we produce a musical, these kids have a moment to show what they can do without having a test hanging over them. They are able to use their creativity to help choreograph and design the sets. Not every life skill is something to be tested.”

Giles gave her crew of actors simple advice to ensure a good performance.

“I just told them, ‘Grandma’s at the back of the room, and her hearing aides are off, and you have to talk loud enough to get grandma to hear you,’” said Giles. She also encouraged the students to sing enthusiastically by pointing out that this would be the first time the audience would be hearing these songs. “You have to act as if it's your favorite song and it's the first time you’ve ever sung it,” Giles told them.

In true swashbuckling style, the choreography was big and dynamic. There was a lot of movement on stage during the 35-minute production, but it was up to the actors to decide where and how to move. 

“You just went wherever—you just changed to a whole new spot,” said Bralynne Murphy, a fifth-grade pirate.

Students learned to be spatially aware, making minor adjustments to avoid blocking another actor or clumping together.

To learn how to stage this spontaneous scene setup, the cast played games such as “Stand up, Sit down, Bend over” in which they had to quickly adjust their position to one different than the other two members of their group. This method of varying positions and postures created visually interesting scenes.

Music, lights, curtains and set movement was also done exclusively by students.

“When kids have the opportunity to take responsibility during the play, they own the show,” said Giles. “They are determined to do their best. They live up to the expectations that I as a director put upon them. They make the play better because they own the play.”

Students were given autonomy for their costumes as well. Blade Mortenson, a fifth-grader, cut zig-zags in his pant legs and used accessories from old Halloween costumes. Blade said he enjoys acting, despite the many rehearsals.

“You get to sing songs and make new friends,” he said.

Blade said the teachers who helped with the play—Jennifer Johnson, Jenna Throop and Julie Evans, as well as Giles—helped students focus on being in character as jolly pirates.

“The teachers really inspired us to be enthusiastic,” he said.

Blade’s mom, Melissa Mortenson, has been impressed with the staff and the opportunities—such as the annual play—the school provides.

“They have some pretty awesome teachers who give a lot of their time,” she said.

Giles said she directs the school play because it is important for kids to have this kind of opportunity. 

“Isn’t it awesome to see kids excel and be excited about something they are doing in their lives that is positive?” she said. “It is for those moments, when the kids are bursting with excitement to show what they have been working on, that I do this.”

Evans, fifth-grade teacher and the rehearsal pianist, values her time with the students during the three months of rehearsals.

“I loved seeing several of them really blossom,” she said. “There were a few students who struggle academically, behaviorally and/or socially, and the play gave them the opportunity to find success. I was surprised by their performance, not only on stage but off stage.”