Theatre Students Empower Children
In Learn Not to Burn, a theatrical presentation on fire safety, was created by Tony Tsendeas and the 11th grade ensemble at the Baltimore School for the Arts. The production began as an idea by three Red Cross volunteers who also attend the school.
During our senior year, after a year in development, we took the show to the auditoriums, stages and -"gymnacafe- classitoriums" of the elementary schools of Baltimore City. When we started work on the project, none of us, including Tony, knew what we were going to do.
Bill Clarke, Youth Services Manager of the Central Maryland Chapter Red Cross, provided us with the information that he thought we should convey to the audience; all we had to do was to create the show, and make it entertaining. We created four short scenes and then worked out some non-verbal a cappella beats as transitions between them.
We quickly discovered that comedy seemed to be the most memorable way to get our message across. But we also thought that it would be most effective to end the show on a more sober note, to bring home all the points we had made in the comic scenes. One scene dealt with a grease fire in the kitchen. One of our actors is also a talented physical comedian, so we built the scene around her. She plays "Sandra", a young girl who is cooking when the grease fire starts. A narrator tells the story in the style of a fairy tale: "Once upon a time, in a kitchen just like yours…."
As the action progresses, Sandra makes more and more mistakes. By the end, her entire kitchen is on fire. The narrator pulls out a remote control and presses the "pause" button, saying "Let's take this back to the beginning and see it done right!" At this point, the actor plays the scene backwards, as if she were on videotape that was rewinding. Each time she comes to one of her mistakes, the scene is paused and the mistakes are explained. Then, the scene is replayed with Sandra doing the right thing, and it ends like a fairy tale: "Having not been burned alive that day, Sandra lived happily ever after."
After the shows, we always conducted a question and answer session with the students, to make sure that the points were communicated clearly. We wanted the show to be entertaining, but, of course, we did not want the message to get lost in the medium. Rarely did a student miss a point we were trying to make. The audience absorbed every single danger and every single precaution that we presented. Not only that, but they enjoyed the show!
The idea of using theatre to convey information practically predates the art form itself, a natural extension of storytelling and the reporting of the day's activities. The pleasure of the project for us, other than the immediate fun of performing, came from the direct feedback we received at the end of each show. We have been told, by some of the teachers, that it was the most professional and entertaining event of its type that they have ever seen. More importantly, from our target audience, the students themselves, we heard many stories similar to this one:
One girl was observed walking into the auditorium complaining about having to sit through some boring thing about fire safety. But, as her mother told the school and the school later told us, she came home that night and re-enacted the entire show for her parents, right in her own kitchen. Now that's getting the message out.
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