When the lights go down and curtain comes up at the debut of Treasure Island on the Groton-Dunstable Performing Arts Center stage tonight, it will be more than the Florence Roche Elementary School play. It will be the 30th “pearl” anniversary play for director Joby Jeffery. Friday’s performance marks her 30th year as director of the annual performance, and she’s celebrating with the traditional pearls — and all the emeralds, diamonds, and pieces of eight her crew of 100+ third and fourth grade pirates and almost as many parents can scrape together.
An elfin 40-year veteran second and third grade Groton teacher, now retired, she stands barely a head taller than the kids in the cast. She runs her tech rehearsals like a Broadway pro, marshaling more than 100 third and fourth graders into their places on the big stage or the chorus. Following the script and sheet music for the show, leafing page by page through a three-ring notebook (complete with fourth-grade style pencil case), she demonstrates that invaluable asset of a veteran teacher — eyes in the back of her head to see what’s happening in the back of the room.
As she moves pirates around the stage and sings along with the chorus, her voice spans a range from drill sergeant to favorite teacher having a quiet conversation. Punctuated by occasional blasts of a coach’s whistle when she wants everyone’s attention.
The performances started almost by accident.
“I did theater when I was a kid, but my background is in classical music; I’m a pianist, Jeffery said. “Then when I started teaching, in one third grade class, we went to the Boston Ballet’s Nutcracker part of out field trip, way back, 30 years or 31 years ago. The class decided they wanted to do the entire Nutcracker performance as a play. And I said: ‘We’re going to do it!'”
“There was no theater at that time. It was just my third grade class. We met every morning from 9 to a quarter of 10, and we practiced. We did no dialogue; it was all dance. The boys all wore tights — they were snowflakes. And we put it on in April, just my class, and the principal, Marie Witham, asked, ‘Would you be willing to do an after-school program with theater and music, and I said, ‘Sure!’ and we started out with 80 kids. We did “The Little Red Hen” — very simple,” she remembered.
This year, one of her former second grade students, Tina Cronin, is the Treasure Island choreographer, leading the pirate crew and cast through hornpipes and production numbers. Parent/producer Kristen Ferrara helps keep track of everything on stage, and keeps the parent and family volunteers busy and organized and pulling together — her project plan for Treasure Island lists more than 600 individual tasks from proofreading programs to collecting bandannas and baking cookies. John Wiesman, on keyboards, runs the musical side of this year’s show, setting the beat for the singing and dancing pirates.
Over the years, the kids taught her an important lesson, that she passes back to new actors: “Anything you set your mind to do, you can do. With dedication and commitment, you can strive and reach something you never thought you could do. Kids who could not sing became singers. Kids who had trouble coordinating their bodies. became dancers. And kids who were quiet and shy became these outspoken — not in life; on stage — performers.”
Each year’s play starts in the library.
“I always pick a book; I pick literature. Then I read the book, and I do a lot of my own writing, my own scriptwriting, from the book. Then I look for songs that other people have published. And Edie Tompkins here in town, and John (Wiesman) has written some music for the plays. And then we put it together. It’s really difficult because nothing is published for 100 kids. so I just operate by freely adapting things. For this one, sea chanties, and normal jigs that were around in the 1700s … IT gets harder every year — that’s why we’ve repeated a few,” she said with a grin.
“And the kids all read the books. Treasure Island is tough for fourth graders, but it’s beautifully written. The choice of words and the dialogue is beautiful. That’s what I want to expose them to,” Jeffery said.
Treasure Island debuts tonight, Friday, February 27 at 7 p.m. and continues on Saturday, February 28 at 7 p.m. and concludes with a matinee on Sunday, March 1 at 2 p.m. at the Groton-Dunstable Middle School Performing Arts Center on Main Street in Groton. Tickets may be purchased on the day of the show at the door; admission is $12.00 for adults and $8.00 for students and seniors. All proceeds directly benefit the Florence Roche 3rd and 4th grade students and the play. Groton Dunstable Community Education sponsors the play. No school district funds are used to stage the production.