“Later on, you can say to yourself, ‘Me and my grade 4 class wrote this play.’ Acting in the play makes me feel great. It makes me turn on my brain and makes me think that maybe I wanna be an actor when I’m older.” (student’s journal)
Teacher Jerri Jerreat’s Elginburg Public School class, whatever grade she happens to be teaching, has an annual tradition of producing a play. Most years Jerreat has written the play, or adapted an existing one, usually based on a classic story such as King Arthur or even Romeo and Juliet.
This year was different. Through a series of workshops and discussions, her 9-year-old grade 4 students wrote their own play on a topic familiar to all: their anxieties. Real worries, chosen by the students, based on their own experience, were tackled. Some examples: strife at home; fear that parents might divorce; hassles with siblings; bullies; feeling different, clumsy, not ‘fitting in’, not having any friends. Wondering how it would feel to be from another country and unfamiliar with customs in Elginburg, unable to speak much English. Dreading the daily bus ride.
Everyone was costumed as an animal: a clumsy turtle, a bossy bunny and a shy one, a leopard who’s being hassled by a pride of lions. Costumes were all home-made, and intriguing for their simplicity and inventiveness. Who would have thought of using a belt-full of stuffed socks to create an octopus? But it worked!
In the brief course of the evening, the characters in the drama look at both ineffective and effective ways of dealing with the things that worry them, act out some of the positive scenarios, and discover some of the ways daily social interactions might become a whole lot more comfortable.They also conclude that bullies may even be anxious and unhappy sometimes, too.
The finale is a happy dance that invites audience members to join in.
In the creation and performance of Animal Academy, Jerreat and her class pulled off a nearly impossible feat. Together, twenty-three nine-year-olds with no previous experience in live theatre wrote a multi-scene play that was both funny and full of relevant, useful information. Then they produced it as an entertaining, fast-paced performance, using the most basic of theatres: a stage in a gym with no lighting, sound system or sets, and only one bench as a prop. They projected their voices well, managed the timing of numerous quick scene changes, all with stage blackouts (using the one light switch available at the side of the stage), and seldom missed a cue. They had command of their lines, covering the rare line-fluffs by prompting each other.
It was a treat for the proud enthusiastic audience to witness such a fine example of creativity, learning, and excellent, interactive teaching skills.