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By REBECCA ISENHART
NISKAYUNA — Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” is the classic tale of a smart young boy who often uses his intelligence for mischief and silly fun, but ultimately ends up showing strong character and helping his community.
Given the parallels between the lovable literary character and the bright fourth- and fifth-graders who portrayed him and his friends at Birchwood Elementary School on Tuesday, June 3, it’s no surprise the result was a charming success.
Lisa Luyckx, a fourth-grade teacher at Birchwood, and Jackie Albanese, recently retired from the same position, once worked together to organize plays for their fourth-grade students. Albanese retired in 2012 after 40 years with the Niskayuna School District, and the productions ceased. But after seeing a middle school drama club in the district, the two were inspired to restart their arts efforts this year.
“My colleague, Lisa, and I have always believed strongly in musical theater,” Albanese said. “It is an experience that creates a lasting memory and our job as teachers is not only to impart curriculum, but to create a wonderful memory for each of our students.”
40 signed up
To that end, the friends and former colleagues invited fourth- and fifth-grade students at Birchwood to sign up for the inaugural performance of a new, elementary drama club. More than 40 students elected to participate.
“The kids are so enthused and so involved. They just love it,” Luyckx said. “They sing the songs all the time. They’re 9 and 10 years old, and it’s amazing what you can get out of them and what they can do.”
Rohan Menon, a fifth-grader who played Tom Sawyer, signed up for the play and ended up learning a lesson in hard work. “I have 181 lines,” Menon said. His parents helped him practice, and the process took him about four weeks. Still, he said it was worth the work.
Jules Potfora played Tom Sawyer’s guardian, Aunt Polly. Potfora said the play helped her feel more outgoing. The students all seemed to enjoy the moments that allowed them to act out scenarios that might not otherwise be well-received at school; Potfora said her favorite part of the show was when she got to “scream at Tom.”
The production packed the auditorium with parents and siblings, and the directors had butterflies in their stomachs — for good reason: They had only run the show in its entirety once before, that morning, for the younger students to enjoy.
Their rehearsal schedule, too, was tightly packed. “We met after school twice a week for one hour,” Albanese said. “We met for 11 sessions, and that was a miracle. The children will rise to the occasion, that’s for sure.”
Part of what made such a feat possible was the extensive teaching experience between Luyckx and Albanese. “We know how to put the child with a certain personality into a certain role,” Albanese said. When a student was upset because he made a small mistake during the show, Albanese comforted him by saying he acted just as his character would have.
relate to characters
For students, the short production schedule was offset by the ways they related to their characters. Malaika Khan played a widow who takes in Huck Finn at the end of the play. “It has all different emotions in it,” she said. There’s happy, funny, sad; especially at the end it’s really funny.”
But, like the show’s namesake, a serious mission didn’t prevent Khan from a bit of mischief. She prided herself on an especially convincing, heart-wrenching sob during one scene, but her performance wasn’t limited to the stage.
“I did it to Mrs. Luyckx on April Fool’s day,” she said.
Want more photos of the Birchwood Drama Club? Click here.