When the curtain rose on the night of the fifth grade play, Freedom and Fluff Beyond the Stars, the audience was transported to the Planet of Fluff, a world of the young thespians’ creation. It was a planet made up of all-you-can-eat cotton candy, but the citizens of this idyllic universe were faced with a troubling dilemma. A spaceship of strangers was headed their way, and the Fluffians had to decide: Should they welcome the unknown voyagers, or turn them away?
As the story played out onstage, it quickly became apparent that there was a profound resonance between this fictional planet and current events. This was intentional on the part of Lower School theater teacher Nina Harmande, who uses her curriculum as a vehicle to help students grapple with complex social issues. “My goal in teaching drama to kids has never been about creating professional actors,” explains Nina. “It’s always been about learning through theater.”
The fifth grade play was written by students through a combination of improvisations, group and individual writing activities, and discussions. Throughout the creative process, Nina facilitated conversations on topics such as citizens’ rights, cultural traditions, colonization and migration, making cross-disciplinary connections to the central themes of the fifth grade social studies curriculum. She then used the children’s spoken and written words to form the script.
During the playwriting process, Nina asked students to consider the different reasons people migrate to a new country. These scenarios play out in the story: Some characters on the spaceship want to conquer the Planet of Fluff, while others are in search of a better life or were forced to board the spaceship against their will. By stepping into the shoes of imagined characters and places, students learned to empathize with people in situations different from their own, and to see beyond some of the generalizations that often surround immigrant narratives. “There’s empathy and compassion that we can develop when we hear people’s stories,” explains Nina.
“There’s empathy and compassion that we can develop when we hear people’s stories.”
In a climactic scene, a space council on the Planet of Fluff meets to decide the fate of the spaceship’s passengers. Hearing the characters deliberate between addressing concerns for their own protection from potential invaders and meeting the needs of the migrants, the parallels with the contemporary immigration debate were unmistakable – connections that Nina says were purposeful. “I would tell [students] that these were the conversations grownups were having,” she explains. “They had heard about the caravan on the news. I wanted them to understand that adults are also dealing with the complexities of these issues.”
Despite the charged nature of the play’s themes, Nina’s purpose was never to push her students toward a particular conclusion. Rather, theater became a lens through which students learned to wrestle with diverse points of view. “I see theater as a place to practice,” Nina explains. “To me, the most satisfying thing is seeing kids work [these issues] out together and be willing to change their mind. I don’t need them to come to my point of view. I need them to be willing to change their own point of view, if something moves them to.”
As opening night approached, Nina gave her students a homework assignment that asked them to write about how they personally connected to the play’s themes, and what they hoped the audience would take away from the story.
“I want people to take away the fact that not all immigration stories have to be a bad thing. When people come into a country, they don’t have to become slaves and they don’t have to take the natives’ land away. Immigration can be a good thing. It can bring new cultures, dances, religion, food, fashion, and a whole lot of other things,” wrote Laura E.
“I have learned that no matter what country, continent, or planet you come from, everyone can live together in peace . . . Everyone should be treated as equal,” wrote Sammy C.
The issues illuminated by the play cannot be easily solved, but at least on the Planet of Fluff, people did find a way to live together in peace. At the end of the play, the people who had been forced onto the spaceship were allowed to return to their homes, those seeking safety were allowed to stay, and those who wanted to lay claim to the planet decided to move on. Children found a way to rewrite the narrative, and by embodying the stories of their characters, they demonstrated to both the audience and themselves that a different path is possible. “It’s not as simple as one way is right and one way is wrong. We have to find a way to hold both sides at the same time,” says Nina. “Ultimately, my goal was for us all to learn how to grapple with complexities and ambiguity, so that we may be prepared to face a world that deals in nuance, and persevere with open minds and hearts.”