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Civil Rights and World Folk Tales at Cornell

2nd Graders perform a traditional African tale

Anansi & the Strange Moss-Covered Rock

Mentor Artist Thomas Arndt reports on his theater residency this Spring at Cornell Elementary in Albany.

Youth in Arts new program at Cornell Elementary resulted in 8 story adaptions performed by 2nd and 3rd Grade students in just 8 weeks!

Weekly classes with the 2nd and 3rd Graders covered the basics of acting skills and then quickly plugged those skills into fun and challenging plays put on by the whole class.  We worked on creating Stage Pictures, showing emotion with the body, movement and most of all STRONG, CLEAR VOICES!  All of the students really loved the Vocal Resonator warm-up, which I learned from my teaching artist friend Mariah Castle a couple of years ago, which was a great way to balance big, wild expression with complete focus.  I watched as the groups got stronger each week as ensembles and as every single individual grew as a performer.

In the 2nd Grade, we had “The Little Monkey and the Garbanzo Bean” from Cuba, “Anansi and the Strange Moss-Covered Rock” from West Africa,  “Zomo the Rabbit” from Nigeria, and “NO DINNER!” from Southeast Asia.  The 2nd Graders really impressed me with remembering where to be at all times and by staying in their characters throughout each performance.

The 3rd Graders had the challenge of doing curriculum-based Civil Rights plays which dealt with serious matters.  They did an excellent job of enjoying the process while bringing maturity to the hardships that African-Americans faced in these stories.  We performed “Martin’s Big Words,” “Ruby Bridges,” “I Am Rosa Parks,” and “Richard Wright and the Library Card.”  These were all adapted from children’s books.

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Third Graders perform their Civil Rights play

After each performance, we had a “Talk-Back” session with the audience (each show had family members and another Cornell class visiting us).  The audience gave appreciations, and in every single session we hear how impressed they were by the loud, clear voices on-stage.  I believe that whether or not these students go on to be actors, learning to speak in front of a crowd with confidence is an incredibly important skill.  They also spoke to learning a lot of history from the shows and many audience members said that they were able to feel what it was like for people in the Civil Rights Era.  We talked about this being the power of theater- that it’s not just facts, it is emotions.  Many of the actors reported feeling nervous before the show and proud and happy after the show, especially upon hearing the responses from the audience.  One actor said she felt it was “respectful” to hear such praise.

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Reflecting after the show

Handmade flowers for Mr. Thomas

Handmade flowers for Mr. Thomas

We are so excited to be at Cornell, creating a new, powerful theater program that we hope will continue for many years!  Thank you to the amazing teachers, parents, families and kids!

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