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Walker students' stories come alive

First-graders' plays are produced with help from the SOU theater department
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From left, first-graders Elexie Applegate, Sabin Strunk, and Isaac Solis applaud after a performance Friday at Walker Elementary School. Julia Moore / Daily TidingsJulia Moore
 Posted: 2:00 AM May 25, 2013

A dozen first-graders at Walker Elementary on Friday got a thrill most adults never get — seeing a play they wrote get produced on stage by real actors.

Six plays were chosen from a "magic box," into which children dropped 150 short plays. As "Stories Alive," they were produced by Southern Oregon University Theater Arts teacher Jeanne Renaux to include a cross-section of fantasy, humor and social issues, including bullying and marital problems.

With some 50 proud and eager parents watching in the Walker cafeteria, a half-dozen SOU students brought "Grandmother Tree" to life, showing how a fairy, on her birthday, had to find her new purpose in life, so she could follow her dream. Her purpose was to foil loggers on their way to cut down a wise and ancient tree.

Delighted playwright Sahalie Matsdorf looked on, with her grandmother, Velda Matsdorf, a kindergarten teacher at Roosevelt Elementary in Medford, commenting, "I was just elated to see her do this. She's a great storyteller and is always telling us stories in the car."

Sahalie's great-grandmother, Pat Matsdorf of Talent, added, "We're extremely proud of her. What's not to be proud of? She loves books and we're very focused on education and our children's success."

The plays showed a happy ending for a boy being bullied by two older kids. Animal-humans building sand castles tried to outdo each other, leading one, a rat to a bout of jealous weeping. But that unhappiness was healed as they kicked over all the castles for fun.

A play called, "House of Sticks" showed how bickering parents scared the children and brought down the home, leading to a breakup of the marriage.

"Hey, that's not a happy ending," spouted one child from the audience. After the show, a parent also objected to the ending.

Actor and adjunct Theater Arts professor Bill Ritch explained that "Children are the most demanding of audiences. They see everything directly. You have to be really focused." As she selected from "a big pile of scripts that I had to read through three times," Renaux tried to "mix heavy issues with light" and opt for plays that are visually engaging.

Getting their plays produced for an audience of peers and adults, she says, gave an entirely different meaning to the process.

"The children knew their work was going beyond getting teacher approval or grades. It was connecting to the greater community. That raises the writer's potential and that's so important. It raises their engagement level a lot."

Most of the scripts retained the kids' writing verbatim, says Renaux, adding, "It's empowering. It shows they can have a voice in the community and bring out socially conscious writing."



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