LSU Theatre Students Bring Books to Life for Elementary School Class

It’s not every day that an LSU student gets the chance to be a queen for a day or, for that matter, a mischievous little man spinning straw into gold either. And not often do Baton Rouge elementary students get to see their favorite books turned into a theatrical performance right before their eyes.

Such is the beauty of LSU Professor Leigh Clemons’ Theatre 1021 service-learning class, which partnered with University Terrace Elementary School this semester to perform children’s plays for local first and fourth grade classes, giving the students on both sides of the set an opportunity to learn more about performing arts.

Using books the elementary students had read during the fall, including Rumpelstiltskin and Miss Nelson is Missing, the LSU students created and performed theatrical projects around the stories, bringing the books and their characters to life for the children. The performances ranged from short plays to puppet shows, with the entire set, script, and character development designed by the theatre students.

Before performing, LSU students visited with the elementary school students to ensure the children had a basic knowledge of important theatre concepts, such as characters, settings, and audience. They found that while the children understood that characters and setting were part of any story, many had never seen a story performed before, as it would be in a play or puppet show. The LSU students hoped that exposing the children to a live performance would help them make connections between the stories they were reading and theatre.

Clemons, associate professor of literature, theory, and criticism in the College of Music and Dramatic Arts has offered Theatre 1021 with a service-learning component since 2001. Clemons first developed the course with the assistance of a faculty incentive grant, offered by the Center for Community Engagement, Learning and Leadership (CCELL) at LSU.

Clemons said the early exposure to theatre is one of the benefits the project offers to the elementary school students.

“I believe that young people in Baton Rouge do not get enough exposure to the arts, especially at a young age,” Clemons said. “This project allows them to experience and, in some cases, participate in theatre, and gives them an understanding of what theatre is.”

Besides developing a script and performing the play for the children, the LSU theatre students must design the set, costumes, and props. Working with a small budget, the actors find they must be extremely innovative and resourceful, and the end product is often the result of many hours of hard work and ingenuity. Clemons said this hands-on experience is an important learning opportunity for the students.

“It allows my students to create and realize a theatrical project from start to finish,” explained Clemons. “They learn how to collaborate as a team and they also learn how much work besides acting goes into making a successful theatrical performance.”

It’s not all just hard work, however; Clemons said her students look forward to the project.

“They really enjoy working with the University Terrace students and have fun being creative,” said Clemons. “It’s a different form of creativity than they see in most of their classes. I am always amazed by their creativity in meshing classic tales and contemporary references.”

With the partnership between LSU Theatre and University Terrace going on its eighth year, Clemons said it is clear to see the performances are making an impact.

“I am always surprised by how many of the students at University Terrace remember our students from previous years and are excited to see what we bring for them this time around,” she said.

It’s also clear the LSU performances are helping the children to learn theatre language. After seeing Rumpelstiltskin, one first grader identified ”Rumpelstiltskin” as a character, another student named the “castle” as the setting, and last but not least, one little boy offered “outside of the castle” for the other setting.

For more information about service-learning and the Service-Learning Scholar Program, visit the Center for Community Engagement, Learning & Leadership’s Web site at www.ccell.lsu.edu . The application deadline for the Faculty Scholar Program is January 16, 2009.

Holly Ann Phillips| Writer | Office of Communications & University Relations
January 2009