Outside Prairie Creek Community School in Northfield, the surrounding woods are filled with tall trees, student-built forts and decades' worth of folklore.
This winter, with the help of a dozen students from nearby St. Olaf College, the locale's traditions and tales have been woven into "Stories of our Woods," an original opera.
All 180 Prairie Creek students will play a part in the show, which was written by a St. Olaf student using references — from a good queen to evil squirrels and corncobs — suggested by the kids this fall.
The St. Olaf students and their professor, Kira Lace Hawkins, are managing all aspects of the show, from the singing and acting to the choreography, costumes and set design, as part of a monthlong class.
One goal was to create a show incorporating "things [the kids] can feel attached to," said Hawkins.
"A big part of our culture in the 30-year history of our school is related to the woods and the play that happens in the woods," said Simon Tyler, Prairie Creek's executive director.
In the three-act, 45-minute opera, a group of dark fairies steals the sun from a group of light fairies to try to heal their princess. In the end, the two groups are brought together by several humans, and they all work together to make the princess better.
Figuring out how to get every student — kindergarten through grade 5 — on stage was quite a challenge, Hawkins said. "That was the most overwhelming thought, just thinking of how to engage 180 students at once."
The college students are at Prairie Creek for two hours each morning, and every class is working to make costumes and parts of the set, with the help of their teachers.
This is the first time the class has been offered and the two schools have worked together to produce an opera, although St. Olaf students visit Prairie Creek classes yearly as part of another class. The collaboration was the idea of two St. Olaf music professors.
The students have done a great job working with the kids, said Nancy Dennis, a second- and third-grade teacher. "These guys, you would think that they were educators," she said.
Celebrating the arts
Founded in 1983, Prairie Creek is a progressive charter school that incorporates hands-on learning, critical thinking skills and community engagement, said Tyler.
Several elements of the opera fit well with Prairie Creek's mission, he said.
"We really celebrate the arts at Prairie Creek as a vehicle for exploring creativity and imagination," he said. "[The opera] also engages children in a multi-age environment so children build relationships with each other."
In addition, Prairie Creek has "a tradition of having [artist's] residencies. We basically strive to have one a year," Tyler said. Past residencies have included a songwriter, a dancer and a glassblower, but having the college students around has been special because they're focused on multiple art forms, Tyler said.
"It's been a really full-on educational experience," said Katie Miller, a St. Olaf vocal performance major who wants to sing opera professionally. "[The kids] really get to learn about everything, and that's been really fun for us."
Dennis said she appreciates how the students have involved the kids in making simple costumes, including wings and tutus for the fairies, and "creek masks" for the kids who will be wearing blue and playing the part of a living, breathing body of water.
Tyler said the St. Olaf students have the opera's logistics "down to an art."
Working well together
The opera has three acts, one for each season of the school year. With a director, a choreographer, a music director and a designer in each act, each of the St. Olaf students has a part to play.
Prairie Creek fifth-grader Rachel Wieber plays one of three "human adventurers" who help the two groups of fairies unite. Since she's been in plays before, trying out for the part wasn't a big deal, she said.
Working with college students has been fun "because you're not uncomfortable with them," said Wieber. "They're adults, but they're not adult adults."
Miller said the feeling is mutual. Having little experience working with kids, she didn't know what to expect when she signed up for the class. "I just immediately fell in love with them," she said. "They're so creative, smart and willing."
Dennis said that although her students are taking the play seriously, she's not too concerned about a missed line or a forgotten dance step when they finally go on stage. "Because what I always figure is, they're in elementary school," she said. "We're a lot more about process than product [here]."