Scotland school plays: Mahoney family looks back at set-building fun

Peter Pan’s bench can be Elsa’s bed — all it takes is a little creativity and the right attitude.

It’s an ethos that Joe and Sandra Mahoney subscribe to, and one that’s been the prevailing force behind the spring plays at Scotland Elementary School for the past decade.

“Our first big production was the ‘Granny Awards’ in 2011. We had light-up signs and actual awards to give the kids,” Sandra Mahoney recalled. “We got involved when we saw there was a need after some of the parents involved were graduating out of Scotland . ... We started small and it’s just kind of grew from there.”

Before they knew it, the Scotland parents were creating prop animals — elephants, alligators and snakes — along with elaborate sets that included castles, pirate ships, and, well Wonderland.

“Alice in Wonderland” was the couple’s second play in 2012. “The Elephant’s Child,” “Welcome to the 60s,” “Peter Pan” and “Frozen” followed in subsequent years.

“All it took was for someone to have an idea for a set, and Joe would run with it,” Sandra said. “He’s very talented that way. He can just see things and do them.”

For Joe Mahoney, a second-grade teacher in Somers, N.Y., building the sets came pretty natural.

“Things with the arts always have been easy for me for some reason,” he said. “I think being an elementary school teacher definitely helped. There’s a strong visual component that comes with that terrain. You have to be good at art to communicate some things. Not that I’m a great artist by any stretch but I can do it quickly and efficiently.”

Speed certainly plays an important role for any parent of four kids who has to juggle dozens of duties in addition to building sets for the spring play. However, improvisation might be in the secret recipe to the Mahoneys’ success behind the curtain.

“I personally loved building the pirate ship for ‘Peter Pan,’ ” Joe said. “But that came together at the last minute. It was really large in size and had all these skulls and other details but it wasn’t expected at all. The kids really appreciated it, and I think it added a level to their performance.”

Versatility is key to the formula, too.

“Chaos is always part of an elementary school play,” said Joe. “My job was always to make sure we got everything done on time to avoid that chaos.”

Foam boards, wooden boxes

All the Mahoneys ever wanted to do was support their children.

That’s why Joe made the trips to Home Depot to buy big foam boards and wooden boxes, and why Sandra dedicated dozens of hours each spring to designing props, decorating what Joe built, and painting the backdrops of each play.

“They’re pretty big, fairly inexpensive items, but the most important attribute to anything I ever bought and built: It had to be versatile,” he explained. “These boxes, I think we have six of them, can be repurposed. They turn from beds to window sills to steps. They’re permanent features on the stage, but they’re always being used differently.”

“The insulation boards are five feet wide and about eight feet tall,” Sandra added. “We’d hand-paint them and cut them out by hand.”

Flexibility on the stage gave way to a calm and positive mindset — a key instrument to defeating any challenges that came up along the way.

“My approach for a lot of things is: We should be able to figure this out, let’s give it a shot,” Joe said.

It’s the same approach the Mahoneys use at home.

“We encourage our kids to be creative,” Joe said. “We let our daughter paint her room how she wanted to do it. We gave it a go and it worked. I made a desk for one of my son’s out of old snowboards. I’m always telling them, ‘let’s take advantage of what we have’ and coming up with ways to reuse stuff. What’s the worst that could happen? We try it out and see what happens.”

New interests

While Joe’s favorite work was “Peter Pan” in 2016, Sandra liked making the backdrops to “Frozen” in the spring of 2019 — the couple’s final play at Scotland, with their daughter starting at Scotts Ridge Middle School this fall.

“We had snowy mountains, medieval castles — the setting was incredible,” she said.

“It was a gradual process, we didn’t always have big productions like this one,” she added. “We definitely worked our way into the lay of the land.”

Now that they’re stepping aside and letting other parents lead the way next spring, the Mahoneys have picked up other responsibilities.

Their four children — three boys, one girl — have taken up other interests over the years.

“They’re no longer interested in theater, not interested in performing,” Sandra said. “They’ve took to music and sports, and so we’re landing a hand to whatever they need help with — whatever they’re into. It’s all about making yourself useful.”

That’s why Joe has taken up the hobby of taking pictures at his kids’ sporting events.

“It’s a kid-driven hobby,” he said. “They’re all doing sports now so I bought a gigantic lens and have started to taking action shots from all these different angles. The kids have a lot of fun with it, and they like it when I show them the pictures after the game. And it’s good because otherwise I’d be drawn into the drama going on on the sidelines.”

Fare the well

The Mahoneys won’t be building another “Frozen” set, but they’re still more than willing to lend a helping hand at Scotland and to its music teacher Jim Tornatore, who directs all the plays.

“We’ve graduated so I don’t think we’ll be building any more sets but we’re active school parents available for anyone who has questions or wants to bounce around ideas,” said Sandra, who used to coach for the U.S. Synchronized Swimming team.

“I know that there will be other parents who step up and learn from us just like we learned from the people before us to set up a stage,” she added. “We didn’t know how to do any of this before we jumped right in.”

Now the PTA president at Scotts Ridge, Sandra said she could help out there, too.

“If our daughter does plays, I’m sure we’ll end up helping out,” she said. “Our sons worked as part of the stage crew when Scotts Ridge put on a play so we’re familiar with how everything runs there.”

The Mahoneys will always cherish the time spent making the stage at Scotland the best place it could possibly be for young performers.

“We’re full supporters of arts being in the schools,” Joe said. “We appreciate the value of an education — Sandra being a coach and me being a teacher — and we’re always willing to lend our support any way we can in town. If it positively impacts our kids, it’s a double bonus.

“It’s pretty bittersweet that it’s all come to an end after 13 years,” he added. “We’ve been at Scotland for a long time. I still remember orientation day with my oldest son when he was four. He’s now at the University of Vermont. But that ended up being the same parking lot that I built sets in for his plays, and the same parking lot that I taught him to drive in. ... We have a lot of memories and history at that place. It’s not something you think about when your kids first start school but it’s a long commitment to be at one school for that long of a period of time. We couldn’t be more grateful for the experience.”