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Actors work with students, telling stories

Posted: Thursday, March 18, 2004

It was the last chance for the children to prepare for performances of the Tlingit story "The Origin of Mosquitoes." But first, the snacks.

After that, the 11 students in the Gastineau Elementary library after school Tuesday made a circle and were ready to stretch. One child was worried the performance wouldn't sound like a story.

"You know how to make it sound like a story," Ishmael Hope assured the girl. "You gesture. ... You become part of the story."

Hope, an actor and the director of outreach at Perseverance Theatre in Douglas, has spent several weeks with the Gastineau Storytelling Club, which formed to prepare for two performances Wednesday afternoon for younger children at the school.

Lily Hudson, an actor, business owner and university student, and Sakara Dunlap, an actor and Juneau-Douglas High School student, also worked with the children, who are in third, fourth and fifth grades.

"It's OK to make mistakes," Hudson told the kids at rehearsal Tuesday.

"It's totally OK to make mistakes," Hope agreed.

The traditional story, as told by Andrew P. Johnson and transcribed by Andrew Hope III, was broken down into 48 sentences, which the children enacted one by one, jumping up to take center stage. They weren't required to memorize the sentences, written on slips of paper, but some did.

The rehearsal began with stretching exercises and followed with theater games in which the children were asked to repeat a gesture and a sound but make them gradually bigger or smaller as directed.

Hope began with a quiet little sneeze.

"Receive it and give," he said of the sound and gesture. "Take it in and give it."

Soon the children were laughing as the sneeze grew large and emerged from wildly gesticulating bodies.

The children began rehearsing the story's lines a little stiffly, but soon warmed up to the idea that they had to use gestures to illustrate the words. Urged by Hope to show the concept of hiding, a girl buried her face in her sweatshirt.

Fifth-grader Elizabeth Hawkins handily used her wrapped snack as a projectile when she recited the line, "The man hooked the giant with an arrow."

When the hunter called the deity, Elizabeth lifted her hand to her ear like a phone.

The club helps children with their self esteem and teaches them skills they can use in class and on the playground, said Anni Stokes, a special-education teacher at Gastineau who also is an actor, director and university teacher of theater and arts education.

"We're always looking for ways to build self esteem and to build understanding of respect," she said. "Self esteem is one of the primary indicators of success in school. I think storytelling is a wonderful tool because it is at the core of Native and non-Native cultures."

Storytelling involves listening to others, speaking clearly and understanding the concepts of a beginning, middle and end, Stokes said. The theater games developed the children's ability to focus and concentrate. At other sessions, students shared their own stories, made up stories in a group, and recounted stories they heard from parents and others.

"The kind of skills you're taught in the games are the kind of skills you need in the classroom, reading group or on the playground," Stokes said.

Teachers and Principal Angie Lunda suggested a variety of students for the club, but they could opt out.

Katie Dimond, a fifth-grader, said she joined because she thought it would be fun. Hunter Meachum, a fourth-grader, said she participated because she likes to act.

Other students who performed Wednesday were Carrie Bishop, Cristina Willard, Taylor Baker, Anges LeBlanc, James LeBlanc, Tiffany Howard, Brittney Dennis, Brittany Dodson and Dabney Meachum.

"We're learning how to express ourselves to a story or a single line," Elizabeth said. "Some of us have stage fright, and we're going to perform, we're going to express ourselves and not be shy."

Ishmael Hope said the biggest part of the club is helping the children respect cultural values and be aware of their own cultural values.

"What I hope this could do is, outside of the school kids would gain literary and communication abilities by working with this oral culture," Hope said. "You find in oral cultures there's an entirely different way of listening and a different way of talking."

• Eric Fry can be reached at eric.fry@juneauempire.com.



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