Elaine Jarvik’s plays BASED ON A TRUE STORY and MARRY CHRISTMAS premiered at Plan-B. Her other plays include DEAD RIGHT (Humana Festival of New Plays) TWO STORIES and [a man enters], Salt Lake Acting Company; THE COMING ICE AGE, PYGmalion Theatre Company; and NOT QUITE RIGHT, Teatro Paraguas. Elaine’s latest play, RIVER.SWAMP.CAVE.MOUNTAIN., created specifically for K-3, will tour as our fifth annual Free Elementary School Tour this fall. Click here for details on bringing RSCM to your school and for details on the October 14 performance as part of RDT’s Ring Around the Rose Series, as well as free performances at six Salt Lake City Library branches as well as three libraries in Davis County: Centerville, Davis County Central and Roy (presented by Davis Arts Council).
Five-year-old JJ (who has lots of questions) and eight-year-old Izzy (a know-it-all who doesn’t know it all) are siblings who have recently lost their grandmother. They embark on a funny and touching hero’s journey to try to make sense of loss, grief, death and life.
Featuring Ashley Maria Ramos and Benjamin Young.
Designed by Aaron Swenson. Directed by Cheryl Cluff.
I volunteer at The Sharing Place, a support group for children who are grieving the death of someone close to them. Perhaps that makes it sound like I’m the kind of person who can walk into a funeral home and not get weak in the knees. But, in fact, I am still at some level a grown-up version of the child who could barely walk past the Funk and Wagnall’s encyclopedias on our hallway bookshelf because one of the “B” entries was “blood.”
I grew up in a family of fearful people who were adept at skirting painful topics, and that definitely included death and dying. After my grandmother died when I was 7, my parents took a train to Raleigh and left me at home in Maryland with a relative, then came back and, as far as I remember, her death was never mentioned again. What I did understand, though—what I picked up on from what wasn’t said—was that death was scary and feelings shouldn’t be expressed.
So I think I am just the right person to write a play for children that explores death and grief—because I sure wish someone had put on that play for me when I was a kid.
That doesn’t mean, though, that I knew where to begin. Sure, I had written plays about death before, but mostly these have been plays that hid behind gallows humor: a woman afraid of what her survivors might write in her obituary; two sisters at odds over whether to honor their father’s wishes to have his ashes left at his favorite pie restaurant; a couple in some afterlife watching their daughter read from a memoir that reveals too much. This play for children, though—I wanted it to be fanciful and funny but most of all honest, a play that explored the questions kids have, and the questions they don’t even know to ask.
Before I began writing in earnest, I met with a friend of mine, Nancy Reiser, who is a child psychologist who helped start The Sharing Place two decades ago. I told her that I thought I would take my young audience on a journey, and she said that was perfect. “Grieving is always a journey,” she said.
I also talked with Jill Macfarlane, program director of The Sharing Place, and together she and Nancy helped me understand what 5-, 6-, 7-, and 8-year-olds—our future audience of kindergartners through third-graders—knew and could absorb about death and loss. The littlest ones couldn’t really grasp the finality; the older ones got the bigger picture but could easily be confused about whether they were to blame if a parent or sibling died. Or, if they had never personally experienced a close death—probably most of the kids in our audiences—all of it could be a big mystery.
I hope that RIVER.SWAMP.CAVE.MOUNTAIN. will provide some answers. I hope children will leave each performance feeling less confused and more certain that life is a treasure. I hope that if someone they know experiences a death they won’t be afraid to listen and talk. I hope they will go home and tell their parents about the play, and that a real conversation can begin.