May 8, 2003
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Antioch School to present ‘Oliver’

Members of the cast of the Antioch School’s spring musical ‘Oliver,’ front row, from left: Crystal Reedy, Claire Triplett and Ryder Comstock; back row: Jesse Rothman, Polo Chaikwang and David Byrne.

It’s customary, in the spring, for schools to put on a big theater production.
It’s less customary, though, for a school to put on a musical in the manner of the Antioch School. A school dedicated to student-directed learning, the Antioch School presents a yearly musical in which young children not only star, but also make most of the production decisions.
The school will present this year’s musical, Oliver, Friday and Saturday, May 9 and 10, at 7 p.m. at the Antioch Theater. The production is free and open to the public.
The play will feature about 50 Antioch School students, from the nursery school to the Older Group, which includes fourth, fifth and sixth grades. Featured in main roles will be Ryder Comstock as Oliver, Polo Chaikwang as Fagin, Claire Triplett (Friday) and David Byrne (Saturday) as the Artful Dodger, Crystal Reedy as Nancy and Jesse Rothman as Bill Sykes.
This Monday, controlled chaos reigned as students descended on the Antioch Theater for final rehearsals.
“I feel like Cecil B. De Mille,” said Older Group teacher Chris Powell, who directs the production. “It’s a cast of thousands.”
While Powell was clearly in charge of the masses, she relied on others for help. And aside from the assistance of retired teacher Bill Mullins, most of the help came from the school’s older students, who worked with younger children.
Ryder Comstock, for instance, not only has the starring role, but also has created the show’s choreography. On Monday she led a group of girls in a basket dance, trying to work out details such as how to swing the baskets without dropping the fish inside.
“Chris thought it would be a good match. It’s something that’s in me,” Ryder said about her teacher’s request that she not only teach the show’s dancing, but also create it.
“I went home and watched the movie and saw a bunch of opportunities to work out dances,” she said. “I’d get an idea and try it out.”
Student involvement in the decision-making begins months before the musical is presented, when the Older Group decides whether it wants to put on a musical.
“They always decide they want to,” Powell said.
Then the group studies possible plays to perform, with students bringing in favorites. Students vote on a production, with the sixth graders getting the first vote, since it’s their last year in the school.
Sixth graders also get the starring roles. But rather than auditioning in front of a teacher, students study the play and decide the role they want. They get the role they ask for, said Powell, and if more than one student wants the same role, they figure out how to work it out.
For instance, the two students who wanted to play the Artful Dodger decided to split the role. Students might also decide to draw names, or split the lines, or find another method of sharing a role. Students are expected to figure out how to resolve the dilemma, Powell said.
“In this town we have lots of opportunities for children to get roles by auditioning,” she said. “But in order to develop the skill of auditioning, everyone needs the opportunity to have a lead role if they want one. This way, everyone has a chance to shine.”
Older Group students also decide which songs to sing, help create the costumes and build the sets. This year, they also revised many of the play’s lines.
Such ownership of the process helps children learn to trust themselves, Powell said. “What happens in a play is the building of self-confidence, the understanding that if you want to do something and you work hard, you can eventually do it,” she said. “It’s one of the huge life skills that children get from this process.”
Older Group students know the process is unusual. “For other kids’ plays, teachers decide things,” Polo said. “But mostly we have a say in everything.”
Jesse said that he likes the way the process encourages a feeling of independence. And, with so much input into the process, the kids feel a strong sense of ownership on opening night.
“After the show, there’s a feeling of accomplishment,” Ryder said. “And there’s also a really good party.”

—Diane Chiddister