Second-graders in Brenda Wight’s classroom at Crescent Park Elementary School in Bethel used their imaginations to “act” as bears in the classroom last Thursday. It was part of a program sponsored by Bethel Area Arts & Music and presented by Mike Thomas of The Theater at Monmouth. Judith Meyer / Bethel Citizen

BETHEL — Second-graders at Crescent Park Elementary School warmed up their imaginations last Thursday, part of a program staged by The Theater at Monmouth and sponsored by Bethel Area Arts & Music.

The students searched for treasure. They drove cars. The tasted the worst, most disgusting thing they knew. Some of them barfed.

Their teachers, Alice Lee and Brenda Wight, joined in.

They transformed into annoying little dogs. Ate some doggy treats.

There were growling bears. They crossed deserts and hiked through forests, and they all moved like the wind.

Call it a storm of pretend.

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On Friday, May 6, the two classes watched a pre-recorded video of mini-plays of tales from “The Blue Fairy Book,” and last Thursday they welcomed Mike Thomas, an actor and director from The Theater at Monmouth, into their classrooms for a workshop via Zoom.

In non-COVID times, the arts program would have come to Crescent Park as a live show and discussion. That was not possible to do this year, but Principal Tanya Arsenault said bringing the arts into the school is important for students so they figured out how to make it work, with the support of BAMM.

In Wight’s classroom, the discussion began with Thomas asking students: What is a fairy tale?

Connor Pellerin piped right up and said, “In a fairy tale, people do things that can’t be done in real life.”

He went on, “in fairy tales animals do things that animals can’t do. Like animals can’t talk.”

Second-graders in Alice Lee’s classroom at Crescent Park Elementary School in Bethel are getting out of their chairs to act out “princess bears” as part of a workshop put on by The Theater at Monmouth. They were more bear than princess. Judith Meyer / Bethel Citizen

That’s right, Thomas said. “There’s magic in a fairy tale.”

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He went from student to student to get input and, according to Madeline Lewis, “in some fairy tales, it ends with a happily ever after.”

And Marco Deiulio offered that there’s always a main character. And, of course, “once upon a time.”

They talked about heroes, how much marrying goes on in fairy tales, and how mysterious the animals can be.

“And,” Wight reminded them, “a lot of fairy tales have people who are evil. Think of the three pigs.”

After about 10 minutes of discussion, Thomas asked Wight’s students to stand up and spread their arms, touch the sky. He told them to crunch down to become the tiniest, teeniest people they could be, before resuming their normal size.

They chirped like little chicks, chewed a little bubble gum and blew some bubbles until the gum bubbles filled the room.

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This, Thomas explained, is acting. It’s the kind of “pretending” that actors on stage, in movies and on TV do to tell stories.

In the video that the students watched, Thomas pointed out that there were only six actors in multiple short plays and “all of them had to play multiple different characters.” They talked about the art of changing costumes, using different voices and moving their bodies differently to project different characters, and when Thomas asked the students to act out “being an old lady,” they started walking around the room bent over, hands on their backs, some of them limped around with pretend canes. It was all very believable.

Then, Thomas reminded them, one of the actors they saw in the video was a princess who played a bear, and he encouraged the students to act out the princess bear. While there was a lot of growling and gnashing of teeth, there weren’t a lot of princesses present.

“The way we use our bodies is really important,” Thomas said about acting, noting the main tools that actors use are “our bodies, our voices and our imaginations.

Thomas, who is a freelance teaching artist, has been cast in plays at The Theater at Monmouth for years and last year directed its performance of Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing.”

Second-graders in Brenda Wight’s class at Crescent Park Elementary School listen as freelance teaching artist Mike Thomas talks with them about acting. The workshop was part of a two-week program offered by The Theater at Monmouth and supported by Bethel Area Arts & Music. Judith Meyer / Bethel Citizen

He teaches theater in schools and at theater camps, and will be back on stage in Monmouth for its summer series this year.

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Although the purpose of the workshops at Crescent Park was to focus on imagination and acting, Thomas also talked with students about other people who are involved in putting on plays, including the people who build the sets, musicians, composers, lighting crews. There are “all kinds of people who are necessary to make something like this,” like a play, happen, he told them, and encouraged them to think about all of the people who support the actors.

The students in Wight’s class were so eager to ask Thomas questions that the class ran out of time before the timed Zoom call clicked off.

In Lee’s class, where the students’ imaginations seemed a little more animated and their body movements a little more energetic than their peers in the classroom down the hall, they were equally eager to hear what Thomas had to say and to act out his suggestions to “move like the wind.”

In that classroom, the princess bears were much louder.

The Theater at Monmouth is committed to enriching Maine and engaging communities, and offers two school-based programs each year, one in the fall and the second in the spring.

The fall education tour, called Shakespeare in Maine Communities — or Shakes ME — was launched in 2005 and is geared toward middle and high schools, and funded in part through the National Endowment for the Arts, according to Jordyn Chelf, the box officer manager and marketing associate at the theater.

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The second tour is for younger children, called Page to Stage, and is based on fairy tales or favorite books in a particular school. These tours are also funded through grants, including grants from the Maine Arts Commission, and often sponsored by local arts organizations like BAMM.

At Crescent Park, the theater is presenting two weeks of workshops, one last week and the second will finish up on Friday.

There are a lot of reasons the theater is so dedicated to the education tours, Chelf said, especially for younger students.

“Putting theater in front of even small children helps their literary skills, it helps their analytical skills, it inspires them to use their imagination, which kids often don’t need help with, but it helps them develop their imagination in a constructive manner.”

She said “we also believe these tours, and the workshops especially, increase confidence and self-esteem and focus students on teamwork.”

Chelf said the theater, and the people who support it, believe it ‘s the responsibility of the arts in general to engage the community, and it’s especially important in rural Maine.

“In COVID, obviously we had to sort of adapt the best way and the kind of way that everybody else was” reaching out to students, Chelf said. The theater has every expectation that it will be able to offer in-person tours and workshops next year, and actually did some in-person workshops in high schools last fall because the students were older and could be vaccinated.

The theater has a working list of school contacts that it sends information about its tours each year, but if a school wants to book a program, Chelf said the best way is to contact the box office at 933-9999 or email [email protected].

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