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Workshop Stories

A seventh grade girl responds to Shel Silverstein’s “Hector the Collector,” and we see, as she relates to the odd objects she’s placed all around the room, how much Hector treasures his “junk.” An eighth grade girl refuses to participate, sits by herself at the edge of the room, until, intrigued by the myth of Phaeton, the boy who wants to drive the chariot of Apollo, she joins in, and becomes a powerful sun. When the students investigated the characters by “playing Oprah,” Phaeton told his father, Apollo, “The kids make fun of me. They don’t believe you’re my father.” The student playing Apollo was very proud of his line, “You can walk!” In a scene study class at Delaware County Community College, a young woman understood an odd stage direction: after hinting at what happened to her over the summer, she must bite her friend’s wrist. She is trying to take back her own lost innocence. Years later, running into me at an opening night, the student still remembered that scene. In another acting class at Holy Family College, a man and woman worked on the scene between Olivia and Malvolio from Twelfth Night. This scene, full of misunderstandings, is ridiculous, but the two students also saw that Malvolio had a real crush on Olivia, and that she, hurt by someone else, would appreciate the attention. Their scene was very funny, and very touching.

I can’t tell you how impressed I was by the quality of last night’s performance. Rabbi Marc J. Rosenstein, Principal, Akiba Hebrew Academy

For three consecutive summers I led theatre workshops, sponsored by Philadelphia Arts in Education Partnership, at Thurgood Marshall Elementary and Middle School. During the first summer, I worked with a core group of ten young people, ranging from fourth to eighth grade, for five weeks. After three weeks of theatre games and improvisations, they wrote an original group play, an adaptation of the La Fontaine fable, “The Grasshopper and the Ant.” Their Grasshopper was now a young woman who wanted to be a singer, and the Ant(s) were her family, who just wanted her to work on their farm. The daughter runs away to New York, lives in an alley, the mother is dying of grief, but recovers instantly when the daughter returns, and her siblings forgive her after she stays up all night harvesting the wheat. Some of the theatre games became part of the staging. The girl’s mirror gave her advice. The agent and his assistant drove in on a two chair car. The singing girl was not entering! She was offstage, changing into a pretty dress. The agent and his assistant improvised an argument that was pronounced by a grandmother in the audience to be the best scene in the play. The following summer, the structure changed. I worked with nineteen different classes each week. The kindergartners loved playing “Little Miss Muppet” again and again, taking turns being the surprised little girl or the terrifying spider. One day I brought in a book of reproductions from the Guggenheim Museum. I asked a second grader to pick his favorite images, photocopied two of each, and showed them to his class. Each child picked one image, and alone or in pairs, acted it out. One sometimes disruptive student fished from the side of a bridge with astounding precision. That summer I also worked with a very difficult fourth grade. Their attention span was usually five minutes. After beginning and throwing out several carefully planned activities, I announced that their teacher and I were going to have a boxing match. I showed them how to carefully control the jab so that it stops just before it reaches the sparring partner, and how to react to an uppercut as if one were hit. Kids who were always getting into fights respected the rules of the game, stayed interested in it for the entire session, and created a whole world: coaches, referees, announcers, journalists, even a returning champ who watched the show from the seat of honor.

Her extremely enthusiastic and creative energy stimulates within my students a love for writing that extends beyond any grade or theatrical production. Rachel Marianno, fifth grade teacher, Alexander Adair Elementary School

I have loved collaborating with teachers. My partnership with Rachel Marianno, through Philadelphia Young Playwrights Festival, continued for ten years. Our trust allowed us to take chances: the students planned and ran an obstacle course in the classroom, and learned about a key element of playwriting. A sixth grade class participated in the New Visions program: making plays out of academic subjects. For months they made sketches out of math principles, computer instructions, and grammatical rules. We were all frustrated – we surely were picking the wrong subjects. A helpful evaluator, commenting, “Who knows what a direct object wants?” advised us to switch, and find material that engaged us. The class had been studying myths, and their teacher Rich Filler suggested the story of Theseus and the Minotaur. We discussed the myth with the class: adults sacrificing young people, a daughter defying her father. They created their script adaptation, the staging came out of their improvisations, they owned their show, and flew across the stage. I have also collaborated with art teachers. At the University City New School, Robin Gresham-Chin helped the fourth graders create dragon breastplates for An Evening of Dragon Legends. Stacey Hall, Avon Grove Intermediate School art teacher, describes our work together:

Janet was a natural at engaging and inspiring the students. Her use of simple props helped guide their imaginations as they reenacted folk tales. Students loved becoming monkeys, mosquitos and more. The integration of art standards through the creation of masks really helped students to get into character. I highly recommend her workshop, a fun time for all ages.

In post-performance workshops I see pieces of my shows again, through the perspective of the audience. Improvising the scene between the boy and the old man in The Olive Lake, the young person sighed, “Please, I’m so tired, I can’t go on.” I added that line to the script! A fourth grade class wrote their own version of the fairy tale, and performed it for their school. The girl’s mother scolded the boy, “This ain’t no hotel.” A lively boy imagined a scarier, more aggressive serpent. Responding to the Singer piece, two high school boys in drag invented a hysterical scene between the Countess Helena and her mother. These transformations are the gift of theatre.