by Mentor Artist Thomas Arndt
There’s something special about Harding Elementary; a shine, a willingness to jump in, an eagerness to share and collaborate. Starting in February, I worked with 30 amazing 4th – 6th Graders every Monday in the Arts Unite Us Performance and Playwriting Group. Using directed free-writes, group discussions, acting lessons, improvisation and partner work, together we decided upon the issues we wanted to tackle and the way we wanted to tell our story. I think this is one of the brilliant ways in which theatre works: we take ideas and issues and explore them in creative, engaging ways. We don’t even have to come up with all the answers, but we grow in our understanding through making it all come to life.
“There’s Something Wrong in the Land Called Gee-Jo” follows a young girl, Lydia, who’s being bullied at school for dreaming up fantastical creatures. One day, one of her books takes her through a portal to that land that even she thought was only imaginary. Her Animal Guides take her through the major issues facing their world: pollution, self-image, not talking through conflicts, and people being afraid to just be themselves. She literally pulls back the curtain on the real story at a destructive factory. She helps two princesses, stuck in a castle–and an argument about who’s escape plan is best–, realize that they should join their ideas together. For a group of creatures who fear that they aren’t good-looking because they don’t look like the pictures in popular magazines, Lydia offers them a new kind of “magazine”– a mirror, to which they reply, “Hey, I look like that! Awesome!” She encourage a group to grow their self esteem and dance it out (excellent choreography from assistant, Ms. NeeNee). And ultimately, they get to the root cause of bullying and people causing harm: loneliness, isolation, and histories of pain. The students performed 2 terrific shows on Wednesday, May 21st, for their classmates and families.
The process of writing this show was beautiful: for example, one student wrote early on that he is made fun of for dancing, adding “but when I dance, I feel graceful and like I’m on top of the world.” More and more as a teacher, I see these as the golden opportunities, not to console or counsel, but to invite a creative challenge to take these feelings and put power into them. Together, we wrote a monologue for him, followed by a dance to Michael Jackson’s (his favorite musician) song “Why You Wanna Trip On Me.” It was a profound experience to see his small, private thought jotted down in a notebook become a huge, central piece of the show, with him BEAMING out at the audience as he and his classmates rocked the dance!
More than anything, I saw collaboration in this group. We had a wide variety of experiences and backgrounds in the group, but it was clear from Day 1, that everyone was there to learn, work together, and create something brand new together. I think this is one of the greatest things about this work: it’s not a chore for the students. They engage in a true group activity, problem solve, make offers, make compromises, and build a brilliant story together. Overall, I was awed by their inner-motivation and focus, and look forward to seeing what they come up with next year!
Many thanks to the Thomas J. Long Foundation for their support of “Arts Unite Us” at Harding Elementary.