"Being Understood" at Harding Elementary

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By Theatre Artist Thomas Arndt
This Fall, I spent a fabulous 8 weeks with 3 classes of 4th and 5th Graders at Harding Elementary in El Cerrito.  We had a great time together exploring many facets of acting technique and storytelling.  One of the main goals we worked with was “Be Understood,” which led to a journey through what it means to be “clear” on stage: with our voices, with our movements, and with our story creation.  We spent a good deal of time working with “Space Substance,” with activities such as throwing invisible balls against walls and to each other with the instruction “Keep it in the space, not your head!” (instructions from Viola Spolin’s great books on theatre activities with kids).  This led to a discussion of “where theatre happens,” ending up with the answer that it takes place when the actors and the audience connect with each other and imagine something together.
Debriefing activities throughout the residency, the responses from the kids were compelling and the teachers and I could see their minds lighting up!  I heard one of the best things I’ve heard from a teacher too, something that really gets to the heart of this work: “It’s amazing to see some of these kids who I thought I knew, showing up in a totally different way when on stage!”  Whether these young people go on to become actors or not, the chance to explore an unseen side of themselves, to express something new, and to be witnessed in front of a group of peers and celebrated for their successes has a huge impact.  It was also great to note that, for example, children who had struggled with speaking clearly were the ones asking for additional speaking roles when we performed.
At the end of the residency, we had a small performance, coupled with Stephanie Bastos’ dancers.  Each of my 3 classes created a short show, with a rotating cast playing the characters for each piece of the story.  We developed the short plays together, each based on a theme of either bullying or making new friends.  The students of El Cerrito Superhero Highschool banded together to stop Iron Fist from pushing everyone around and always throwing the Principal onto the moon.  A lonely basketball player and a sad football player, after initially coming into conflict, decided to create a new sport, BasketFoot, for which they are now famous.  And, in a small old town, a little boy and a dog, who were archenemies (!) were taught to compromise and play together–now that dog plays catcher for the boy’s baseball team!
We had a great time together and I feel lucky to be working with such a great group of young people.  I’ve begun my after-school Playwriting group, with many of my students from the Fall, and we are creating a wonderful show that will go up in May!
Thank you to the Thomas J. Long Foundation for supporting “Arts Unite Us” at Harding Elementary.
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