Storytelling Part 1: A Child’s Eye View
By William Payne, University of Minnesota Duluth
This is a two-part feature story about an innovative theater arts program taking place at the University of Minnesota, Duluth. Please watch for the next blog story in this feature.
I have been teaching a course in Masked Performance technique as part of a Bachelor of Fine Arts Acting program at the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD) for more than 15 years. Two years ago, I began an initiative to integrate a community based learning strategy into the course with the Duluth Public Schools as a community partner. The idea was simple: the three elementary school partners would suggest a list of children’s books that most of their 2nd through 5th graders had read. My theatre students, who are studying the use of improvised scenarios in the Commedia d”Elle Arte tradition of the 16th and 17th century, would adapt the books into short scenarios. The students would then rehearse the scenarios and perform them for the elementary school children.
During the first two years we perfected the process for the Theatre course. In the second year, we focused on folk tales from around the world, as a tie-in
with one of the schools theme for the year. We adapted and performed over a dozen books and gave eight performances in three different schools, all serving children in need of the additional educational support. For many of the children, this was their first experience with live performance. After a performance at the Grant Elementary School in February 2009, a boy named Ryan approached one of the actors in the group and began to ask questions about the stories. He mentioned that he had written a story, and the actor suggested that Ryan send the story along to the class. He promised Ryan we would adapt it and perform it when we returned in April.
The story was short, about the ordinary happenings before a birthday party and a visit to a local, indoor amusement park. My students created a wonderful adaptation and performance. The performance, and the accolades and self-esteem that came with it, proved to be a game changer – for Ryan, for his teachers, and for my class. I began to reshape the project so that more children could have Ryan’s experience.
I narrowed the partnership to just two schools – Grant and Nettleton Elementary Schools of Duluth, MN. These two schools will soon be combined as a part of our school districts reorganization. We retained the process of adapting existing children’s literature for the first performances, this time with books focusing on bullying and social justice. The performers adapted six books and performed them in late February/early March. We coordinated an effort with the elementary school teachers, the leaders of the Young Explorers after school program, and students from a Group Dynamics psychology course taught by my UMD colleague Brenda Butterfield, to have the children write their own stories. We planted the seed of what an adapted story might look like with our initial performances – based on books with a wide range of cultural perspectives focused on bullying and peace making . Over the next few weeks, the Psychology students worked with the children to generate thirteen stories by ten children, focusing on the same themes. The theatre students then adapted these stories into short performances using the scenario technique, staged them, and performed them in late April.
These performances were informal, with only a few simple costume pieces, props, and a wide variety of masks. The authors were acknowledged with applause before each story was performed. The stories were filled with a wide variety of content and style, from the everyday to the fantastic (one story featured PizzaSheep and an Algebra Machine!). Our first assessment, based on the experience, is that this strategy was successful. The children were inspired to tell their own stories about a subject that concerns them directly – the bully on the playground. They received guidance in the art of constructing and writing a story. They were able to see their story performed just a few weeks after finishing it, in front of an audience of their peers, their teachers, and the many volunteers working with the Young Explorers program. According to Kathy Bogen, the director of the Young Explorers Program;
“This project was an excellent example of connecting literature and writing with the children’s real-life experiences, giving them an opportunity to have their voices acknowledged, and build relationships with peers and college mentors.”
We have a reflection meeting scheduled for all of the partners in this endeavor, as this is the first time that we have tried this project this way. It wasn’t a perfect interdisciplinary project but we feel that the elements that got in the way of making this work for all of the partners were surmountable.
I’ll send along another blog post regarding the results of the partner’s reflection process. I’ll also discuss how this changed my theatre students, who are currently writing their journal entries reflecting on their experience, and the role of the arts in primary education.