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Willard students to show off ‘talent’ in play

By Ben Lumpkin Daily Planet staff
Tuesday May 15, 2001

With opening night nearing, things were a bit hectic at Willard Middle School’s Metal Shop Theater last week. 

Actors poured over the script, turned cartwheels and stuffed themselves with junk food. 

“I can’t act on an empty stomach,” groused seventh grader Daniel Krasnor (the cartwheel turner), who avoided the junk food and munched on a breast of chicken. 

The play, “The Talent Show,” opens Wednesday at 7:30 at the Metal Shop Theater. It is written, acted and largely directed by Willard students, with the help and guidance of Willard math and science teacher George Rose.  

Between scenes at the rushed lunchtime rehearsal, some student-actors chatted nervously about the big night ahead, others waxed nostalgic about the sweat and tears they’d given the project during the last two years. 

“At the beginning we weren’t really getting much done because everybody was running around, like talking about banana soda and stuff,” recalled Selena O’Conner. 

It was an uphill battle, others agreed, to get people to concentrate and remember their lines. Some actors even lost interest and had to be replaced. 

But it all worked out for the best in the end.  

“I really like that we were able to work as team,” said Phoebe Bryson-Cahn. 

“Because we did it, it’s our work, we actually feel really proud of what we did,” agreed Alison Dahlstrom.  

The play comes out of “mini-course” in creative writing that Rose has taught during lunch periods since February 2000. It is funded by the Berkeley school district’s Gifted and Talented program and the Berkeley Public Education Foundation. 

Rose came up with the idea of having students write their own play to help them master the basic elements of a successful narrative, and to give them a chance to explore some of the issues they face as middle school students. 

“It gives them a chance to experience a lot of creative ideas, and also work out a lot of issue that are peculiar to middle schools,” Rose said. “Who’s in and who’s out, what do you do when you’re blue, who do you go to.” 

Or as Dahlstrom put it: “It’s like taking your average school and turning it into a story.” 

With, of course, a hefty does of creative license. 

The play opens with a hilarious (and, parents will hope, much exaggerated) rendition of the student/teacher communication gap. As a timorous teacher drones on inaudibly at the head of the class, students talk loudly amongst themselves, climbing around their desks as though they were jungle gyms. 

“Does anybody have any questions?” the teacher asks after several minutes. Hearing none, he begins wrapping up class with an air of self-satisfaction. By the time he looks up to announce “Class dismissed,” the students, of course, have already gone. 

The are lots of other touches that the student-writers hope will capture the flavor of the middle school experience at Willard. 

“We can improvise sometimes because we wrote the lines ourselves,” explained Willard student Eric Olson. 

In the interests of verisimilitude, student-actor Carina Renner said she makes liberal use of the word “like”, as in: “It’s like, I’m like, ‘like, like, like, like, like’, like all the time.” 

But the play takes on some deeper issues at well. It portrays students preparing for a talent show in which the winner is guaranteed a acting contract with a Hollywood “talent scout” played with obvious relish by Ariadna Anisimov. 

In the effort to top each other’s “acts,” the students go to greater and greater extremes. But instead of improving in the heat of competition, they find themselves descending to the depths of mediocrity.  

Ultimately, it falls to a character played by Fay Scott to be the voice of reason. 

“What if we forgot about the script?” she asks. “What if we’re ourselves...” 

This climatic moment mirrors a moment the Willard students experienced themselves while writing the play, according to Rose, after some students demanded bigger and bigger roles. 

“To me that’s what’s really important,” Rose said. “This whole process of students coming together, making decisions and taking responsibility for some thing that’s their own.” 

The play will be the first production to appear in Willard’s Metal Shop Theater. With the help of school district bond measure funds and parent volunteers the former home to the now extinct school metal shop classes was converted to an alternative theater rehearsal and performance space last year. 

The are two showing of “The Talent Show,” at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday. Willard Middle School is located at 2425 Stuart Street. For more information call 644-6330.