Henley Drama Class Brings Brownsville Students’ Stories To Life

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By Rebecca Schmitz

From left: Owen Shaffer, Chanti Anderson, Francesca Gibson, Mary Moffett and Will Ancona
From left: Owen Shaffer, Chanti Anderson, Francesca Gibson, Mary Moffett and Will Ancona

Thanks to a collaboration with Henley Middle School’s eighth-grade drama class, Brownsville’s second graders recently had the rare treat of seeing their written words spring from the page to the stage. Four weeks after drafting short stories about subjects ranging from Minecraft to fairies, the five second grade classrooms made the trek across the Brownsville parking lot to Henley, where they watched a group of enthusiastic and talented actors perform their stories live on stage.

Henley’s drama teacher, Leslie Tanner, got the idea for this “storytime theater” while attending a workshop for theater teachers in New York City this past summer. “There was a group called Story Pirates,” Tanner said. “They’re professional actors who go into schools and do something similar, although they do more of an improv. That’s where I first got the idea.”

Tanner approached Browns-ville second grade teacher Christa Livermon to discuss the possibility of doing something similar between the two schools. Livermon readily agreed. “The drama students came over one morning to pitch the idea. They had simple costumes and acted out little skits. Then they told the kids to ‘get writing!’ Our kids wrote and revised for a few weeks, and then we sent the stories over.” The Henley drama students read the stories—over 100 of them in total—and wrote helpful notes and comments on sticky notes for each story. “The kids were thrilled to read their notes!” Livermon said.

Eventually, the two drama classes chose 26 stories to be split between two performances. Eighth grade actor Will Ancona said, “Our voting wasn’t based on what was good and what wasn’t, it based on what we thought we could act out. They could be a really, really good writer, but their story might be hard to act out.”  His classmate Mary Moffett added, “A lot of them had great ideas, but it was just hard to show them on the stage.”

Actor Francesca Gibson said, “We tried to choose stories at all different levels of writing, to give all the kids confidence, because they will have a chance to see their work being performed. And it’s just nice to be able to do it because it will make them really happy.”

The eighth graders then had three weeks to rehearse, practicing every other day for three weeks. Before the show began, Will Ancona said he was sure the second graders would enjoy seeing the actors perform their stories. “I think it’s really cool that we’re getting to do this for the kids, because usually when they write their story they just get a smiley face on it. I think they’re going to be so excited to see us put their stories into live action, and if I were a kid like that, I would be over-the-top excited to see my story being acted out. And I think they’re going to be a really engaging audience.”

Mary Moffett agreed. “They’re going to find a lot more stuff exciting, and they will be a lot more into it. Each play is going to be a little different, so everyone should find something they can enjoy.  And they get to come over to the middle school, which is a really cool experience for them. I remember when my sister used to go here and I would get so excited when I got to go to Henley.”

The second graders were indeed enthralled with the performance, which was broken up into 13 short skits. The actors were all dressed in black clothing, and would add a few small props or accessories depending on which part they were playing in which skit. During each skit, one student sat in a chair and held a large book, as if settling down in front of a fire for storytime. The student would read the story with exaggerated excitement, pausing periodically so the actors could act out parts of the story. The actors were enthusiastic and animated, and the second graders were clearly enjoying themselves, giggling throughout and often roaring with laughter. Both actors and audience were on stage together—the second graders sat at one end of the stage on risers, while the actors performed at the other end. The intimate setting was designed to put the second graders at ease and help them feel as if they were a part of the story.

Christa Livermon found the experience to be a great success and hopes they can repeat it in future years. “The children had the benefit of seeing their stories come to life and seeing their hard work pay off in a way other than sharing with a peer or with a teacher. It gave them an authentic reason to write—a real audience! Going to Henley was so exciting for them. Walking across the street to the big middle school was a first for most. Many of them had never stepped foot inside the building. (They were very impressed with the lockers!) They also couldn’t believe that they might get to be in drama when they got to Henley. I loved that they got a peek at middle school and saw it in such a fun and positive light.”

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