Alaskan and Maine students team up to present ‘Dear Fish’

Posted March 31, 2011, at 10:49 p.m.

DEER ISLE-STONINGTON — Fishermen in Juneau, Alaska, catch millions of pounds of salmon, halibut and crab each year, while across the country, fishermen of Deer Isle-Stonington haul in millions of pounds of lobster. As these fishermen navigate the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, they accumulate stories and pass them down to the youths in their communities who may someday stand at the helm of a boat.

Thanks to modern technology and the Kennedy Center’s Partners in Education program, students from these two coastal communities have been able to swap their fish tales for the past two years. “Dear Fish,” an original musical performance, is a culmination of all they’ve learned, and will be performed at 7 p.m. Friday, April 1, and 4 p.m. Saturday, April 2, at the Reach Performing Arts Center at the Deer Isle-Stonington Elementary School.

“Dear Fish” is staged on two fishing piers representing the two fishing communities. Students, grades five through high school, will read the stories of Maine and Alaskan fisherman, which they collected from interviewing residents in each town.

“It’s sharing real words of real people in this community and comparing and contrasting those with real words of real people on the other side of the continent,” said Director Ryan Conarro of Juneau, who traveled to Deer Isle to assist the students with their interviews, give teaching workshops and direct “Dear Fish.” Conarro has taught intensive and conservatory drama courses for the last 10 years.

“We’re only an island of 3,000 [people],” said Linda Nelson, founding executive director of Opera House Arts at the Stonington Opera House, which led the project with the Dear Isle-Stonington schools. “The teachers and kids, a lot of their parents and cousins, brothers, sisters and spouses all now [are] fishermen.”

Deer Isle-Stonington is the largest lobster port in the state. In 2010, lobster fishermen brought in nearly 14 million pounds of lobster to that port valued at more than $44 million, which is 15 percent of the state’s total landings.

“The kids play the roles of fishermen we know very well here, like Ted Ames, and Alaska fishermen they don’t know at all,” said Nelson.

While 53 students will share the spotlight, students offstage contributed photographs and art to be projected on two 9-inch-by-12-inch screens in the background.

“One big similarity [of the two communities] is both places face a lot of concerns about conservation, preserving fisheries, the health of fisheries, and meeting regulations, balancing those regulations so fishing as an industry can survive,” said Conarro.

Playwright and screenwriter David Hunsaker, a resident of Juneau, Alaska, used the raw materials of the students’ interviews to write a script that delves into the similarities and differences between the fishermen on each coast. Hunsaker joined the words of fishermen with classic sea shanty melodies to create songs to punctuate the spoken stories. Students in grades three and four will perform in the chorus.

The two-year project, “Maine to Alaska: Swapping Fish Tales,” was funded largely by a grant from the Kennedy Center’s Partners in Education.

Opera House Arts and the Deer Isle-Stonington schools have been a Partners in Education member since 2007, as have the Juneau, Alaska, schools and the Juneau Arts & Humanities Council. The collaborative learning project was conceived between the two communities at the 2008 Partners in Education annual meeting in Washington, D.C.

“We’re the smallest partnership by far; all of the other school districts are huge and we’re tiny, but we quickly found that we shared with Juneau a fishing culture and we came up with this idea of how to reach out to another fishing community,” said Nelson.

Over two years, Juneau and Deer Isle-Stonington shared Conarro and two additional teaching artists.

Maine teaching artist Sheridan Kelley began the project by teaching teachers and students on both coasts about digital arts technologies that can be used for education, communication and presentation. Over the months, students from Alaska and Maine communicated with each other through video conferencing and they exchanged digital stories about themselves.

Dear Isle sculptor and jeweler Sarah Doremus taught teachers how to use visual arts and 3-D techniques to enhance classroom projects. She also worked with K-8 students to create fisheries-based props and costumes. The students made 20 lobster buoy hats, 20 clams and 80 herring for the show.

“For schools, having a two-year project is really long,” said Nelson. “The kids change grades and teachers in the middle of that. It’s been a real learning process.”

Deer Isle-Stonington teachers collaborating in the project include Anne Douglass, project lead; fifth-grade teachers Linda Weed and Josh Frost; former fourth-grade teachers Tasha Brown and Emily Wendell; sixth-grade teacher Torri Robbins, high school teacher Lee Lehto; art teachers Debbie Chappell and Katy Helman; music teacher Christel Kendzia; and K-8 librarian Susan Guilford.

Alaska will perform “Dear Fish” May 20-21, and the two schools will share their productions through digital video streaming.

The Reach Performing Arts Center is located at 249 North Deer Isle Road, Deer Isle. Tickets are $5 and are available at www.operahousearts.org and 367-2788 or at the door one-half hour before the time of the show. Free admission for students. Opera House Arts at the Stonington Opera House is in its 12th season of year-round, professional and community performances.

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