Kids go out on acting limb, land in `Woods'

West Friendship play allows pupils to learn about acting, use imagination

November 12, 2006|By Karen Nitkin | Karen Nitkin,special to the sun

Most elementary school pupils would agree: Any school day that starts with a teacher asking you to burp is one that's off to a good start. That's what happened to Marshall Demaree.

"Can you belch on cue?" Elsa Fawcett, the gifted-and-talented resource teacher at West Friendship Elementary School asked Marshall. "You can even gulp some air if you want to."

Marshall, a fifth-grader, gave it his best effort. He gulped in some air and emitted a small, authentic burp. Fawcett was delighted.

"I guarantee the whole audience is going to crack up and fall out of their chairs," she said. "Especially the little kindergartners."

The scene took place in the school gym before class.

About 20 fourth- and fifth-graders were rehearsing for the school's production of Into the Woods, a musical mosh of fairy tales created by Stephen Sondheim.

Marshall was the big bad wolf, burping after a delicious meal of Red Riding Hood's grandmother.

Rehearsals began last month. The play will be performed in March -- twice during school for pupils and twice in the evenings for families and friends.

Pupils practice for an hour Friday mornings and an hour Wednesday afternoons. Rich Umla, the music teacher, also works with pupils during recess.

Though not all local elementary schools put on plays, West Friendship has a fairly long history of putting on shows, said Cheryl Teter, the art teacher and one of four directors of Into the Woods.

Last year, the event was in the form of a talent show. Each year, the performances seem to get more elaborate, Teter said.

One reason is the terrific support from the parents, who eagerly donate materials, make costumes and contribute to set design, said Amanda Knab, a second-grade teacher and another one of the directors. (The fourth is fourth-grade teacher Tom Cole.)

All pupils who audition get a role, but the stronger ones get bigger parts. "They had to audition with all of us," Teter said. "They had to read, they had to sing, and they had to dance."

The directors also add lines so that each child gets a speaking part, Knab said.

On Friday, pupils were running through their lines while Fawcett, one of the directors and the show's producer, gave advice and encouragement.

"You are going to be in character 100 percent of the time you're on that stage," she said.

At one point, she asked the children to sit on the floor around her and talk about what they liked. Many youngsters took the opportunity to praise the performances of others. But Fawcett was the most effusive of all.

"You are awesome," she said. "I think this play is going to be phenomenal. I think we have the potential to be one of the best Into the Woods in the county, middle schools included."

As word of the production leaks out, she said, "get ready to become stars throughout the school."

Nicholas Sala, a fifth-grader playing the baker, said he was in the variety show last year.

He said he also sings in the Howard County Children's Chorus. He is clearly comfortable on a stage and had no problem with over-the-top gestures and dramatic line readings.

"I enjoy it," he said. "It's fun."

Molly Buch, a fourth-grader who is Little Red Riding Hood, said the experience is "a lot of fun." She has memorized most of her lines, she said, and does not think she will be nervous about performing.

"I'm not really nervous," she said. "It's just an audience. You just try your best, and if you do well, you do well."

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