This January, Harker’s entire grade 5 class – with a little help from a few talented upper school technical theater students and a cadre of adventurous teachers – took part in multiple performances of the musical “Go West,” by John Jacobson and Roger Emerson.
The musical, a fantastical retelling of the Gold Rush billed as “A Musical Celebration of America’s Westward Expansion,” served as a shared meditation on the origins of Northern California. It was further personalized with several added scenes by performing arts teacher Jennifer Cowgill which framed the story’s narrative as a fifth grader’s presentation to his classmates, and by a new scene in which our heroes run into a tribe of Native Americans.
That scene, written by Cowgill, history teacher Jared Ramsey and math teacher Pat Walsh, featured Ramsey and Walsh alongside teachers Shital Ashar, Joe Chung, Joe Connolly, Kristin Giammona, Shelby Guarino, Cathy Le, Katie Molin, Eileen Schick and Tobias Wade as members of the Nisenan Tribe in the Sierra Mountains, who teach the young adventurers and explorers how to use the land.
Cowgill also served as the director and musical director, and with more than 120 students, she created rich crowd scenes that humanized the extensive palate of 1800s American social life, placing crowds of cowboys, belles, reporters, journalists, sailors, doctors, businessmen, moguls, policemen, train conductors, mayors and politicians all side by side, not to mention one or two horses and cows.
The image of so many actors on one stage, sharing the story, is both rare and striking, and as Cowgill could no doubt attest, bringing more than 100 young students together towards a common purpose is no easy feat, even before they are asked to pour their hearts out in song. Yet, as Cowgill said, “They are singing two- and three-part harmonies in a number of songs in the show. This is very impressive for a group of over 100 fifth graders.”
Indeed, all of the entrances, exits and movements of the production were tied to music, and the show began as a pantomime. Not only that, most of the student-actors remained onstage for the majority of the show. “This would be incredibly challenging for even older students to learn, and they have done it, much to my surprise, quite well,” said Cowgill.
Students from the lower, middle and upper schools were eager to pitch in. Teacher Danny Dunn’s grade 5 technical theater class was stage crew, handling props and directing traffic behind the scenes. Dunn’s middle school technical theater class also devised one of the key design features of the show: an abstraction of a locomotive formed by the rhythmic churning of trunks, wool blankets, a rusted hoe, a lantern and more objects ripped from the era that together composed the ultra-theatrical rendition of an early train.
Meanwhile, three upper school students, Araby Martin, Michael Prutton and Christophe Pellissier, all grade 12, pitched in their time to realize the production. Prutton handled responsibilities as the assistant lighting designer and then the light and video operator during the show. Pellissier served as the sound operator, and Martin worked as assistant stage manager.
Even the show’s program owes a debt to student contribution: fifth grader Kaitlin Hsu, who also took part in the performance, did the illustration for the program’s cover.
As impressive as the show’s production was, Cowgill was keen on noting the importance of the process to the students’ learning experience and personal development, pointing out that the shared artistic journey helped the students to learn skills of bravery and self-expression, methods of collaboration with a team, and lessons in the cultivation of empathy.
“The process of rehearsing for a show allows them to take risks and share creativity, work with others, and develop consideration for the people with whom they interact every day,” Cowgill wrote in her program note – skills that will serve the students well in whatever their futures bring. “By being involved in this, they are beginning to develop life skills that stretch beyond the classroom.”