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CHS English teachers build interest in 80-year-old drama

Posted Date: 03/02/2019

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Well-written literature lends itself to multiple possibilities when it comes to teaching the material to high school students. That’s what Chanute High School English Language Arts teachers found when they introduced Thornton Wilder’s drama, Our Town, to their students.

With drama teacher Chase Reed wanting to direct the play this year and English teacher Stacy Henson brainstorming ideas, it was decided that the Chanute High School English department would collaborate and teach Thornton Wilder’s Our Town to all the students through their English classes.

“Whereas the elementary school implements the ‘One School One Book’ (reading program) the high school is doing One School One Script," Reed said.

This would “help our student body understand and connect with the play if they had connections with it beforehand,” particularly as it lacks a lot of props and set design.

Students discuss Thornton Wilder's drama Our TownOur Town won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1938 and is the most performed piece in high schools. Every decade it is at the top of the charts, Reed said.

The story follows the daily lives of the Webb and Gibbs family in the small town of Grover's Corners where the characters grow up, fall in love, get married, and eventually die.

Reed and his freshmen English students read the script aloud in class, with students taking on the parts of the characters and stage manager of the show. Besides wanting to provide knowledge of the story before seeing the live performance, Reed wanted them to be able to identify the five themes in the play and “understand there are ideas an author is trying to explain in literature.”

“Why do you like it,” Reed asked his students.

“Because it relates to Chanute. It’s about a small town, where everyone gossips and everybody knows everybody,” Aubrie Bancroft said. “It teaches you that the little things matter.”

All the characters are familiar with one another, said Camden Hugo. The newsboy and the mailman or milk delivery man are all connected. 

It’s “a small story about a small town but the meaning is so big. Life’s too short,” offered another.

Dustin Fox’s Honors English students watched the DVD of the play, and then analyzed the characters and chose one for a “body biography.”

Working alone or in pairs, the students created life size drawings of a character, and then chose quotes and symbolism pertinent to their character’s life.

“They all worked really hard. The final products are definitely more than I anticipated,” Fox said.

Together, Alyssa Andoyo and Tibernay Beal worked on a body biography of Emily, a main character in Our Town. Around the outline of her body the girls drew several stars.

“Even though they look really small from the earth, they stand for something big. The stars are the major events in her life,” Andoyo said. “The eye inside a star represented the stars in her eyes in a scene where she and her future husband George were looking at the stars.”

“That was the moment they found out they loved each other and wanted to spend more time with each other,” Beal said.

“The really important relationships in her life we put on her fingers (because) she could count on them,” Beal added.

The girls liked the project.

“It helped us explore and go deeper,” Andoyo said, and “understand them more as a person.”

“It helped me understand and identify the real meaning behind the entire (play),” Beal said.

With the body biographies on the hallway walls, and Hanson’s and Isaac Robinson’s students still discussing the play, students were beginning to talk about which part they would play if they were in the show and express an interest in auditions.

Still, the response surprised Reed.

“I've already distributed 40 copies of the audition packets in under 24 hours,” he said. “That is so exciting. These kids are eager to audition for something they're studying. Wow.”

Eighty years after the Pulitzer, the message in Wilder’s Our Town remains relevant.

“They will see themselves in the characters and the moments that they share. These reflections leave audience members more aware of the everyday experiences that are often overlooked,” Reed said.

“I've never been this excited about a play before. It's the first time that I've directed a show that has the potential to change lives,” he added. “It’s not a show, it’s an experience (and) I hope we do it so well people will go out changed.”

Our Town will be performed for the public at 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday, March 8 and 9, in the CHS auditorium. Tickets are $5 each. Doors open at 6 p.m.

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