In the past few weeks, NBYT has started programs with three New Britain elementary schools! The programs—which will use folklore, legends and fables from various cultures across America and around the world—each began with a lesson on characters. Although each program has been adjusted for grades, ages and time available, each one is following the same general structure.
In the first two weeks, the children learned that every character in a play has a story. They learned that those stories are developed by where characters live, what they wear, what they do, and how they interact with other characters. Each child created a “character story,” and were encouraged to use creative, descriptive words in their stories. They then presented their characters on stage.
A second exercise involved putting characters together. The children were grouped in pairs and each pair randomly were assigned characters (such as princess, superhero, farmer or dragon), picked emotions (such as cheerful, excited, grumpy or frightened), and picked a setting (such as castle, school, garden or jungle). In short scenes combining their characters, the children learned that each character should want something to keep the story interesting. They also learned that sometimes characters’ wants are at odds—and that creates conflict.
In the third week, the classes began to work with folk stories. The first was How Stories Came to Be, a Native American legend from the Seneca tribe which lived in what is today western New York. The classes read the story together, and then broke into smaller groups to choose characters and stage the story. Children were encouraged to think about how their characters might feel, move and speak. NBYT staff returned the following week with a short script based on the story and the children’s ideas for staging it. Most of the programs are still rehearsing this short play.
This pattern of reading, staging and rehearsing stories will continue over the year with new stories introduced every two to three weeks. Each child will be given the chance to play a main character in at least one or two stories. We’re teaching the children, however, that every character onstage is important to the story.
Weekly classes are rounded out with theater games and activities. The activities are designed to strengthen each child’s skills and confidence in front of an audience. Overall, we’re teaching the children to act with strong, clear voices; to make strong, clear movements; and to think about character choices. In the process, we hope that each child will develop greater self-confidence and respect both onstage and off.