Students, parents and teachers rehearse for 'Pinocchio' in late April.
Students, parents and teachers rehearse for \ Credit: Aubree Dallas / The Aspen Times

Several months ago, in a classroom at the Aspen Community School in Woody Creek, music teacher Stuart LaCroix asked his seventh-grade class what the annual spring musical ought to be, and a student suggested “Pinocchio.”

The idea resonated with LaCroix, so he took it to a meeting in principal Jim Gilchrist’s office at the public charter school. The faculty members wanted a clear, well-known story that parents and students would enjoy, and “Pinocchio” certainly had themes that made sense for a school play. So it was decided.

To grasp the gravity of this decision, however, you must understand that choosing “Pinocchio” doesn’t mean using the Disney script and re-learning “When You Wish Upon a Star.” At ACS, every spring play is essentially made from scratch — the script, dialogue, songs, costumes and sets are all created by teachers, students and parents in a chaotic, month-long flurry of creative energy.

“A couple of weeks ago the play was nothing — it was an idea, it was air,” Gilchrist explained last week from a folding chair in the cluttered rehearsal space of the school gymnasium.

And that effort — taking a beloved story, translating it into new form using words and music, and then bringing it to life with 127 K-8 students at the Wheeler Opera House — is a rather bold educational act.

“I think it’s a great metaphor for how you accomplish something (in life),” Gilchrist continued. “You do it by helping each other and pushing yourself further than you have before, because we’re definitely stronger together than we are alone.”

“Pinocchio,” which the ACS student body will perform May 1-2, will be the 32nd annual Aspen Community School spring musical. Most audience members will recognize the story of the wooden puppet and his unique set of growing pains, but the particulars of the production will be brand new. The actors are all students, the songs are original, and the live band comprises teachers, parents and one former student now attending Aspen High.

“We don’t have hockey (at ACS) and we don’t have lacrosse, but we do have the play,” said Chris Faison, a former second-grade teacher and veteran set-builder for the production.

Preparations for the play begin after spring break, and the two-night stand at the Wheeler typically occurs in late April or early May. Most of this year’s graduating eighth-graders have participated in eight or nine plays, working their way through the ranks and gaining ever-bigger parts.

“One thing I really like about the play is the cross-age learning that goes on,” LaCroix said. “We have seventh- and eighth-grade kids teaching a dance to the third- and fourth-graders, we have the fifth- and sixth-grade kids helping the kindergartners.”

Aspen Community School's 'Pinocchio' involves an iconic story but the script, music and choreography are all original.
Aspen Community School\ Credit: Aubree Dallas / The Aspen Times

Working in academics

Mentorship, teamwork and collaboration are all integral to the process, but academics are included too. For example, seventh-graders studied the literary differences between the original “The Adventures of Pinocchio,” an Italian children’s novel from 1883, and the iconic Walt Disney film from 1940.

Similarly, a visual highlight of this year’s ACS production will be a life-sized, student-built whale skeleton that provides temporary housing for Geppetto the woodworker.

“In December, January and February, 42 kids in kindergarten, first and second grade made every single one of those bones except the skull, learning about whales, marine life and mammals,” said Faison, who supervised the construction. “It’s not just a random thing. It ties in with the curriculum.”

The whale is one just one of many set elements designed and built by Faison and a crew of students and parents, who contribute to the production using power tools and paint.

Eighteen other parents and students helped art teacher Hilary Forsyth to cut, stitch and glue together this year’s costumes, including a few chickens made of feather boas, felt hats and rubber gloves.

“I really only have about three weeks (to create the costumes), so the parents’ help is a huge thing,” Forsyth said.

In recent years, language arts teacher Lou Rae Doyle directed the plays and handled the bulk of the script- and songwriting duties. But Doyle left ACS last June, and filling that void has made “Pinocchio” a more collaborative effort.

Former ACS music teacher Randi Kelly jumped into the director’s chair and, despite some initial trepidation, has relished watching another production take shape.

“It’s challenging, difficult and it’s also a lot of fun,” Kelly said. “A lot of kids really come out of their comfort zone in the play.”

And that’s what the whole enterprise is really about. From the auditions in early April — where most members of the ACS student body muster the courage to stand up before their peers and sing, dance or tell jokes — to the Wheeler stage in May, the students learn, grow and push themselves. And when the lights go down and the curtain rises, the entire community gets to cheer them on.

“It’s the ultimate cross-curricular experience for our kids,” said principal Gilchrist. “It’s not only singing, dancing and public speaking, but working together, collaborating and problem-solving.”

Along with a few lessons about lying, bullying and misbehavior.

Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism’s Education Desk and The Aspen Times are collaborating on coverage of education. The Aspen Times Weekly published this story on Thursday, May 1, 2014.