Flora is eight years old. A Latina child, she has been in three foster homes since she was five. Change on such a frequent basis would test any adult’s resilience. Whenever Flora pulls a penny she keeps in her pocket, she remembers her mother: “Mi madre me to dio el que me fui. Creo que me trae Buena suerte.” This translates to, “My mother gave it to me before she left. I think it’s lucky.” She has met a Bee, with whom she hopes to become friends. The Bee tells her, “Parece que podria traer suerte” (“It looks like it could be lucky.”). Flora says, “I always keep it in my pocket, and when I get sad or something, I feel it there – and it makes me feel better.”
Written by Morag Shepherd and directed by Jerry Rapier, Flora Meets a Bee is the seventh play of Plan-B Theatre’s Free Elementary School Tour (FEST). The play premieres this fall as part of FEST’s expanded tour, which will be the first time a FEST production will be presented throughout the entire school year, ending in late May 2020. Two free public performances also are slated: Oct. 1 at 4:30 p.m. at the Glendale branch of the Salt Lake City Public Library (SLCPL) and Nov. 2 at 3 p.m. at SLCPL’s Chapman Branch. The 25-minute play is suited for K-3 audiences.
FEST has succeeded with a straightforward brand: good stories with substantive themes and believable characters that keep young audiences entertained and alert without a whole lot of trappings. Last year, Zombie Thoughts, by Jennifer Kokai and her son Oliver Grey Kokai-Means, received 55 performances in 15 Utah counties, at 49 schools with predominantly Title I student populations and reaching 10,232 students. Flora Meets a Bee is funded in part by an ArtWorks grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.
As the FEST Library has grown with original work by Utah playwrights that treats audiences of children with the same artistic purpose found in its other plays, Plan-B’s profile in public educational outreach continues to expand, which includes the In The Classroom program. The company’s FEST program also is benefiting from a $75,000 grant this year as part of the Utah State Board of Education’s Professional Outreach Programs in the Schools (POPS), designed to bring arts organizations into public schools to enrich the curriculum. The Utah State Legislature voted last winter to increase the POPS budget and, in July, Plan-B received the largest of three specified grants (also receiving monies were the Nora Eccles Harrison Museum of Art at Utah State University, $50,000, and the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art in SLC, $25,000). As a result, Plan-B has been able to move Sharah Meservy from a half-time to a three-fourths-time position as education coordinator in her third year with the company.
As mentioned in previous years at The Utah Review, Plan-B’s FEST program includes a well-detailed study guide and suggestions for follow-up to accompany each play but they are not based in didactic approaches. There are many opportunities to leverage the enthusiasm children communicate after a performance for objectives beyond entertainment. Thus, the program is designed to satisfy requirements as set out in Utah State Board of Education Arts Core Standards Strand 3 (Respond) and Strand 4 (Connect).
Shepherd’s play hits on several major elements in specified K-3 educational standards including communication, social science and science. As the first FEST play to be bilingual (Spanish and English), it sets up an elegant, concise storyline that shows how Flora can look deeper than the gruff surface of the worker-bee personality to appreciate her new friend, whom she discovers understands her no matter what language she speaks or when she tries to hide her true feelings or fears about being a foster child.
Soon after Flora meets the Bee for the first time, the Bee seems annoyed by her persistent questions and curiosity. “I’m a bee. An important one, and I don’t have time to stand around chatting to some kind of a… whatever, that’s allergic to pollen,” the Bee says. Acknowledging that some people call her a “chatterbox,” Flora says, “You’re ignoring me, and people ignore me all the time, because they’re busy and stuff, and you’re, just. Like. Them!” The script portrays Flora as a character that would be familiar in a local classroom. With some 3,000 children in the Utah foster care system, it is likely that any young Utah student will meet a foster child in their classroom.
In the script. Shepherd, who benefits from the experience of raising her own children, pitches the right tone of dialogue for her characters. Flora’s lines sound like the words of an eight-year-old child. Children have clear understandings about certainty, assurances and ownership. At one point, Flora says, “I borrow a family, and they raise me. Or they borrow me. I’m not sure.” A few moments later, she says, “I use and borrow things all the time. All these clothes were lent to me by other kids. I borrow twigs. Songs. Words.”
As Shepherd has discovered with service projects to help children at homeless shelters, donating hundreds of cans of a simple product such as Play-Doh is a conscious, effective way of giving children a sense of owning something. When play involves children with their own Play-Doh, or Lego, LEGO Friends or Lego Duplo sets, for example, they also learn about friendship and sharing. Flora would love the Bee to locate her mother, who had to return to Mexico. However, the Bee also is helping Flora find her own resilience — just as any true friend would do.
Shepherd also consulted with various sources to hone the script. To capture cultural authenticity, she listened to Iris Salazar, playwright, designer and actor, and former Utah State Rep. Rebecca Chavez-Houck, Plan-B’s board president. For a credible frame of foster care experiences for children of the play’s target age audience, she consulted with Tina Porter, Utah Foster Care’s retention services specialist, and Becky Anderson Pickle, a licensed foster parent.
Incidentally, the creative team also brings in diverse experiences in immigration and foster care, consolidating the script’s authenticity. Shepherd is a Scottish immigrant and actor Brenda Hattingh (who plays Bee) came from South Africa. Rapier, who was adopted at the age of eight, is the son of a Japanese immigrant. Actor Ariana Broumas Farber (who plays Flora) is a licensed foster parent and the daughter of an immigrant from El Salvador. It’s a powerful reminder of why such active practice generates more creative impact to fulfill an arts organization’s goals for inclusion and diversity in their mission.
The study guide for Flora Meets a Bee was curated by Jim Martin, a former elementary school principal who has extensive experiences in teaching children in the K-6 group, with input from Porter, Meservy and Rapier. Among the materials is a 1997 book, Who’s in a Family? by Robert Skutch (Tricycle Press). The 32-page book matches different and racially diverse family structures with parallels from the animal world, emphasizing the naturalness of how families can come together. The closing line in the book culminates in the question and response: “Who’s in a family? The people who love you the most!”
Plan-B has assembled two casts for the yearlong production run: the primary cast of Ariana Broumas Farber as Flora and Brenda Hattingh as Bee and the secondary cast of Darby Mest as Bee and Isabella Reeder as Flora. Rounding out the production team are stage managers Meservy and Sam Allen, with design by Arika Schockmel.
For more information about FEST along with details about the company’s free playwriting curriculum and script library, see the Plan-B Theatre website.