When all three first grade classes chose “Magic” as the theme for their original operas I worried that the three pieces would all end up being too similar. However, the three “Theme Sentences” (for 1-1: “Magic can control people’s minds”; for 1-2: “Kids teleport back in time to meet their younger selves”; for 1-3: “Magic can make money so you can buy anything you like.”) gave me hope that each class’ opera would still be distinct from its cousin down the hall on the second floor of the Brooklyn Children’s School.
But then things got a little similar again. As the stories – or each opera’s scenario – began to take shape, the same premise evolved independently in each class: there would be a magician or wizard type character to whom the other characters would go to get their needs fulfilled by magic. Would each opera this year be uncomfortably similar after all?
How do we shape a story in a class of 25 first graders, giving each child opportunities to give input into the creative process? At the Children’s School we start by creating four characters. We don’t decide who they are – what they look like, what gender they are, or even if they are human or animal or whatnot – we start building our character by deciding what they want. First we talk about things we might want, not just at a particular moment, but all the time. Things like love, money, friendship, power, food, health, fun, control, and so on. Then we break the larger group of kids into four smaller groups. Each group creates a “want” for one of the four characters.
This year, with the theme and theme sentence in mind, it wasn’t surprising that in one class one of the characters wanted “magic”, in another class one character wanted “spell books”. In group discussion these characters quickly were designated a magician or a wizard. In the third class, a character whose “want” was to be rich also was chosen by the kids to be a character who could acquire wealth by dispensing magic for money.
Suddenly we had all the other characters, who want to “explore”, “find loved ones”, “superpowers”, “family”, etc. coming to the magic dispensing character to have their needs met. We were veering close to seeing three very similar scenarios play out. Luckily each class took an indiosyncratic turn to the left or to the zig or zag while hashing out their story outlines, and we are happily looking at three scenarios that stand on their own:
For 1-1: Three characters want magic powers from a magician. As payment they give him spell books. One wants to fly, one wants to be rich, one wants superpowers. What they don’t know is that the only magic the magician can do is mind control magic. They think can can fly, or have lots of money, or lift heavy objects and shoot laser beams out of their eyes, but they fail at exercising their powers to disastrous and comic effect. When they wake from their mind control they return angrily to the magician and demand their payment back. But the magician in the mean time used the spell books to become a better magician and now can give them their purchased magic for real.
For 1-2: A wizard has the magic to send people back in time through a magic tunnel. He (or she) demands a lot of money for the service. One customer goes back in time to spend a lovely, quiet afternoon with the grandmother she never met. One customer goes back in time to have adventures with dinosaurs and bring back a dinosaur egg. One customer goes back in time to stop the robbery that burnt down his or her home and devastated his or her family (we try to keep most characters gender neutral at this stage of writing). Once he or she succeeds, the home is safe and the family preserved from homelessness and breaking apart. And with their wealth restored the family has the money to pay the wizard.*1
For 1-3: A magician gets their magic from a powder made from the golden rocks of an enchanted forest. Three characters arrive to have their wishes fulfilled. One wants their toys to come alive so they are no longer lonely. One wants to be able to fly. One wants to be rich. The magician only has enough powder to make one wish come true. The first says, choose me and I’ll send my toys to the enchanted forest and bring back more golden rocks. The second says choose me and I will fly to the forest and bring back more rocks. The third says choose me and I will buy friends for the first, an airplane for the second, and the enchanted forest for the magician. The three argue and scrabble until they either all leave dejected or are made to leave by the magician (that plot point isn’t yet completely clear). Then the magician uses their leftover powder to make more golden rocks appear. Whether the magician then makes enough magic for everyone or chooses not to because of the selfishness of the three petitioners still needs to be decided by the class. (First graders tend to prefer the happy ending where everyone cooperates and/or becomes friends, but every now and then an edgier choice prevails.) *2
Next week each class will choose their musical moments: where in our stories might their be songs, who sings them and what are the songs about?
*1 What happened to kids meeting “their younger selves”, you may ask? That idea in the theme sentence got kind of shunted aside while the individual characters “wants” – “find a lost loved one”, “explore”, “family” – took over when we discussed our story options. Sometimes the Theme Sentence or a Want and even the Theme itself can give way a bit to emerging story ideas, and that’s OK as long as we don’t get sidelined but stay on track in our overall process; it’s my job as the teaching artist to make sure we stay on track.
*2 Here the Theme Sentence only reflects one character’s story, using magic to buy everything you want. Just like we discussed in *1 sometimes as the story evolves we move beyond a strict adherence to the Theme Sentence. In this case we wound up expanding upon it. Creating these operas is an art with helpful guidelines, not a science with absolute formulas.