Parker Sera spent the better part of the summer working with Georgia E. Gregory Interdenominational School of Music (GEGISOM). Participants gleaned theater and life skills from Parker's workshop.
Over the last six weeks, I’ve been in residency through Build-A-Bridge’s partnership with the Georgia E. Gregory Interdenominational School of Music, up in North Philadelphia. After running a shorter version of this program here at GEGISOM earlier this winter, I was so happy to expand it into a seven week drama program, and to see some familiar faces! Our group of campers was an energetic and imaginative group of students who participated twice every week. Over the course of our seven weeks together, we played countless theater games (as well as a TON of hide and seek), explored the world of animal play and improv, and ultimately created an original adaptation of a storybook, from re-imagining the characters to writing our own script, to performing it for loved ones on the final day of camp.
We looked at “The Three Questions” by Jon J Muth, which is itself an adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s short story of the same name. At BuildaBridge, our work is guided by the principle that every single one of us not only deserves a good life, but is capable of living a good life even through the most adverse of circumstances. The Three Questions is a beautiful, accessible meditation on those ideas. The Three Questions” tells the story of a thoughtful young boy who is striving to understand “why we are here”, and how best to use his time on earth. After pondering for a while, he wisely turns to his friends, a monkey, a dog and a blue heron, and eventually to his mentor, a wise old tortoise. With the help of a panda and her baby, he eventually realizes that living in each present moment, and “doing good for the people around you” are the best strategies to live a good life.
In order to begin our work on our adaptation project, we started by familiarizing ourselves with the story, reading and discussing the main ideas. At the same time, we began to practice exploring our bodies and voicing through theater games, improv exercises, and “animal work”, which basically just means pretending to be an animal! On our very first day of class I challenged each student to think of an animal and improvise that animal’s behavior— we saw elephants, horses, birds, dogs, and even a seahorse! When it came to adapting our story, we put this work into play with our animal-characters. In our version of “The Three Questions,” a character who was originally a blue heron became a little giraffe named, “Cloud!" Because we weren’t quite sure what sound a giraffe makes, we settled for a decisive “Yow! Yow!” when Cloud’s big entrance arrived.
The bulk of our work on the adaptation for the first several weeks was in lifting each moment from the pages of the storybook, and reimagining it in 3D with our students. We looked at every line of dialogue and decided if and how we wanted to change it, what needed to be said by a narrator, and what we could do in a play to bring the story to life. We came up with a script together, which I transcribed and distributed to our cast, and then we rehearsed, rehearsed and rehearsed!
As the weeks went on, each child discovered different areas they were most interested in. Although almost every single student was new to theater, their interests and strengths ran the gamut. Some students were eager to stand up and deliver, practicing their character affectations (for example, how does an elderly tortoise walk? Talk? How do they deliver a cup of tea?) while others preferred to make things happen behind the scenes, watching diligently for the moment when it was their turn to move a piece of “scenery” (our barebones set mostly consisted of folding chairs). There IS a major scene change when our protagonist, Tom, has to climb over the high mountains to the home of Leo the Tortoise. Tom also has to run out into a stormy forest in order to rescue a Panda. We tackled these moments using our bodies and voices in new ways— when we needed mountains, students created the shape of them with their bodies, crouching onstage so Tom could move through them on his hike into the clouds. When we needed a rainstorm, students drummed on their legs to create the patter of raindrops, and used their voices to create the roar of the wind.
I am incredibly proud of these students— our youngest actor was 6 years old, while our oldest was 11. Rehearsing a play requires so much focus, dedication, repetition, and commitment to what you’re doing. You have to juggle so many factors— make sure the audience is able to see and hear you! Make sure you are committing to the character you’re playing! Remember to incorporate all the specific behavior you discovered for your character! Don’t miss your entrance! Pick up your cues and make sure to say your lines! For first time actors, the list of things to remember can be daunting, and our play was no small feat. Over the course of these seven weeks, these students really gave it their all trying something that was new, scary, and, to quote one of our students, “Umm…. Kind of crazy”, and they did an incredible job. It was so gratifying to stand up in front of their parents, siblings and loved ones on the final day of camp and perform for them. I also got to see their hard work in their other disciplines– drumming, dance and piano!