Knitters catch up to 'Runaway Mittens'

A student-written adaptation coincides with knitting craze

Posted: Friday, December 17, 2004

It's not every theater director who assembles the cast at rehearsal and asks them to put their knitting down.

But Ryan Conarro is directing a student-written adaptation of "Runaway Mittens" at Glacier Valley Elementary, a school smitten with knitting.

Students developed a craze for finger-knitting at the same time that Conarro has been running drama on Wednesdays at the school.

They first learned knitting from music teacher Lorrie Heagy. Children, conversing about the left and right side of the brain, say it relaxes them and even helps develop the dexterity to have better handwriting.

Conarro scrunched up the spread-out cast members seated in the gym Thursday before showing them how to enter the stage, which is the gym floor.

"Many of you have your knitting out," he told them. "That's great. Please don't bring it out on stage or I'll take it from you and have great scarves."

Friday's 10 a.m. show is the culmination of Drama Wednesday, a program in which Conarro showed students from kindergarten to grade five how to adapt the local book to a theatrical presentation.

The book was written by Jean Rogers and illustrated by Rie Muñoz, both of Juneau. They visited the school earlier this week.

As a few students narrate the story from memory, the majority will enact the meaning with gestures, some of them derived from Muñoz's illustrations. The children also sing in the play.

At the rehearsal, Conarro reminded students to use the four tools of the actor: body, voice, imagination and facial expression.

"I want to see all of those in the song," Conarro told the children.

At the phrase "snow is falling," Conarro and Heagy modeled the gesture of waggling their fingers as their hands moved downward.

When one group of students rushed through a scene, Conarro stopped them.

"You got to tell the story with your body. Take your time. You're giving something with these gestures," he said.

Students in kindergarten through third grade worked as classes to adapt their scenes. Conarro led them to identify what happens in the scene, and asked them to imagine it in more sensory detail. The classes of young students wrote their narrations together.

Fourth- and fifth-graders wrote scenes individually, and Conarro melded them into a final text. He asked them to write scenes that showed what was inside characters' heads. What would a child think running home through a snowstorm?

"We talked about what we liked and scrunched it all together and had a really cool (scene)," said fifth-grader Darien Stanger.

Students tried out different gestures to illustrate the words and voted on what they liked, he said.

"I must say, I'm tickled they're doing that kind of a project, and I'm pleased that they're using my book, of course," Rogers said.

Children recited for Rogers the monologues for the scene in which the grandmother makes the mittens.

"They made up nice things to think about grandma while they were doing this," all showing gratitude to the grandmother, she said.

Since the school year began, Conarro has spent 30 minutes with each of 10 classes on Wednesdays. Some students were seen only every other week. His work is paid through past fund-raising and the school district's special education money for artists.

"It's a time teachers can do prep and we can do something different for a change," said fifth-grader Alan Young.

Drama Wednesday isn't directly connected with Art Tuesday, the school's longtime program that culminates in a schoolwide project such as a quilt or a play.

But what the children learn from Conarro could help them with this year's project, in which each child will write, illustrate and perform a scene from their book, said Susan Sielbach, who coordinates Art Tuesday.

When students write their stories, they'll be able to draw on the experience of creating characters through facial expressions and body movement, Heagy said.

"We're hoping it will make their writing richer," she said.

Students learn teamwork from Drama Wednesday, Alan said, "and the meaning of effort and the time you put into it."

• Eric Fry can be reached at

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