High Fives for Fifth Graders: Bessie Carmichael Students Perform at The Geary

By Annie Sears

Fifth graders from Bessie Carmichael Elementary perform before the 2017 A Christmas Carol SMAT, led by teacher Peter Sroka. Photo by Ryan Montgomery.

Every year, 91 schools bring a total of 5,000 students to A.C.T. stages as part of our Student Matinee program (SMAT), which provides steeply discounted tickets to student-only performances. Local music and theater teacher Peter Sroka takes it a step further; not only does he bring 70 fifth-grade students from Bessie Carmichael PreK-8 School/Filipino Education Center to an annual SMAT, but he also leads them in a pre-show performance. At a Christmas Carol SMAT this week, students will stage one of these mini-musicals, which Sroka writes himself. He tailors the songs and comic scenes to the play’s themes. “It’s a chance for students to engage with the text,” says Sroka, “to think about the different layers of a show.”

Sroka combines many of his talents in leading these performances. He has a master’s degree in international education from Harvard and he’s acted on stages in Los Angeles and here in the Bay Area, including the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre and 42nd Street Moon. He is now an itinerant arts teacher for the San Francisco Unified School District, which means he doesn’t have a classroom of his own. Instead, he shifts between five different schools, one for each day of the school week. Thursdays are Bessie Carmichael days, when he’ll work with all 560 students in a single day. Seventy of those students are fifth graders, who have been looking forward to their pre-SMAT A.C.T. performance since kindergarten.

“They’re always so excited,” says Sroka. “It’s a real, professional experience for them. They have a tech rehearsal, go backstage to wait, return to the big stage for their performance, then settle into the audience to watch a Broadway-caliber show. For a lot of students, that’s something they’ve never done before.” Depending on the show, students sometimes attend a fight call, tour the costume shop, or stay for a post-show Q&A with members of the cast and crew.

A.C.T. has partnered with the Galing Bata afterschool program at Bessie Carmichael to provide weekly theater classes since 2013. Sroka brought his students to a performance of Stuck Elevator (2013), which was such a hit with the children that Director of Education & Community Programs Elizabeth Brodersen invited Sroka’s students to return again. And again. And again. Their 2018 performance at A Christmas Carol will be the seventh time Bessie Carmichael students grace an A.C.T. mainstage. Each performance opens with “At A.C.T.,” an upbeat tune welcoming the audience into “the historic Geary Theater . . . this 1910 one thousand forty­–seater.” Sroka has prepared several other songs for A Christmas Carol, including “Twas What Was Common” about Charles Dickens’s life and “Something to Think About,” which encourages students to consider empathy, just as Scrooge learns to do. You can hear recordings of these songs here.

For some students, the vastness of The Geary can be intimidating. But when they overcome their nerves, their sense of accomplishment is tremendous. Their pride is bolstered by the adult actors about to cross that same stage. Sroka recalls that, after his students bowed before A.C.T.’s 2013 production of 1776, “the actors—Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson and John Adams—were lined up in the wings, high-fiving all the kids. It was so surreal, watching the Founding Fathers congratulate them for singing about civil rights. Almost like the past looking toward the future.”

Perhaps more important than affirmation from adults is affirmation from peers. “There are middle and high school students in the audience,” says Sroka. “Having those older kids applauding and praising the fifth graders—that kind of reinforcement is huge. There’s nothing quite like it.”

Join these students in experiencing A Christmas Carol this holiday season. Get your tickets today!

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