CLASS ACTS: SIX PLAYS FOR CHILDREN
Edited by Tony Hamil
Volume 21 Number 3
This collection of six children's plays by Canadian playwrights or adapters offers a wide range of themes and styles. All have been performed. Some have won awards. Although the plays are fun to read, I'm afraid most children are reluctant to delve very far into this genre. Therefore, teachers of the dramatic arts will probably gain the most from this work. The intended audience varies from age six to adolescence, but two or three plays could also appeal to adults. Some of the authors try much too hard to be "Canadian" by including every known national symbol, usually in both official languages. The proofreader has missed several typos, but this is minor.
The Secret Garden is the only work that doesn't have roots in Canada. Award-winner Paul Ledoux has turned Frances Hodgson Bumett's novel into a full-length three-act play. The story-line remains true to the original but the dramatized version adds much more action. Eerie music and scary sound effects evoke an atmosphere of suspense. Ledoux's idea of having two children play-acting the events using dolls and puppets which then become "real" so as to continue where the children's games leaves off is an excellent dramatic device because it allows the audience to use its imagination and to experience a play within a play. The scene at the end, when Colin interacts with members of the audience, is another good idea.
The playwright is highly skilled in the use of dialogue to portray his characters. The numerous short scenes keep the action moving quickly and the frequent appearances of puppets in the form of a squirrel, a fox, a raven and a robin will please young theatregoers. Children who see this production will certainly want to read the original book. Parts of the play could easily be performed by the middle and upper elementary grades.
Mandy and the Magus is a one-act play by Brian Tremblay, who is Artistic Director of the Kawartha Summer Theatre in Lindsay, Ontario. The author has a lesson to teach but, thanks to a light touch and a strong emphasis on make-believe, there is no oppressive didacticism. The plot concerns Mandy, an average youngster who'd like to be rid of her pesky baby brother. When the Magus, a mythical creature with magic powers, makes Mandy's wish come true, she begins to learn some important lessons about growing up.
Max, a doll that has been in Mandy's family for three generations, is the catalyst in all this. Through him, the playwright underscores the joy of make-believe as well as the inevitable but not necessarily unpleasant acceptance of reality.
The play is both colourful and musical. The plot is strong and builds to a meaningful climax. The simple setting and props could be reproduced in a classroom or school auditorium without much difficulty. The contemporary, idiomatic language will appeal to today's children but will become dated in a few years. Mandy sounds like wonderful fun for ages six to ten.
Love and Work Enough is the creation of a nine-member collective composed of Cynthia Grant, Kate Lazier, Anne Lederman, Eva Mackay, Marilyn Norrie, Peggy Sample, Heather D. Swain, Mary Vingoe and Cathy Wendt. Thanks to various grants, the work was produced in 1984 and was performed in Ontario schools, parks and seniors' homes. It won the Dora Mavor Moore Award for Outstanding Children's Theatre. Its goal was to celebrate pioneer women in English and French Canada.
Somehow I doubt that children would really appreciate this play. It is too earnest and too self-conscious, and gives the impression of having been written more to please the writers than the audience. The references to Plato, Aristotle, Susanna Moodie and Catharine Parr Traill will escape most youngsters. The pig-sticking scene may convert a lot of viewers to vegetarianism. The birth scene will puzzle anyone who doesn't already know how babies arrive.
There is no plot, just a rapid-fire succession of anecdotes delivered by the same four actors whose role-switching, with very little change of props or costumes, will confuse a young audience. And the scenes are so short that you barely have a chance to orient yourself to one anecdote when you suddenly must focus on something quite different. The singing and dancing are likely enjoyable when performed, but, overall, I think this work would have limited appeal. A few teenage drama students might like to try some of the scenes.
Eric Nicol is well known in Canada. Two of his books have won the coveted Stephen Leacock Award. Beware the Quickly Who is about an identity search - the protagonist's personal one and Canada's national one. Children will be aware only of the former. Visually, there are many comic possibilities here, and verbally, there are marvelous puns, allusions and satirical innuendo. Nicol plays masterfully with language, artfully blending the style of faerie with that of TV sitcoms and with slang, some of which is out of date because the play was written in the 1960s. But that doesn't weaken (his very witty farce about the hapless Johnny, who is given five minutes to identify himself satisfactorily to the mysterious Who.
The characters have great names like Sneer and Snort, Jacques and Joy de Vivre (oui, il y a beaucoup de francais ici), and there's also a lion, a beaver and a giant. Even the scenery becomes a character called, what else? "Scenery" (naturellement!). Lots of singing and dancing sustain the frivolous mood.
Because children would miss much of the "double entendre" which creates the humour, (although they'd certainly enjoy the play at face value), 1 think this excellent comedy would suit teens better.
Rex Deverel is a prolific writer who has served as chair of the Playwrights Union of Canada. The crisis in The Capetown Cily Kite Crisis concerns a kite factory that's polluting the air and water but also provides much-needed employment for the town. The mayor, a "yes" man, doesn't help. Two teens. Sol and Nancy, try to persuade the factory owner to stop the pollution. An original idea here is the provision of an alternate ending to be decided by a vote from the audience.
The play moves quickly and is short and full of action. A kiltie band adds a musical touch. The characters, although stereotypical, suit the story. Grades six to nine will relate to Copetown's problems, especially if the students are studying the environment.
Carol Bolt has written numerous plays for adults and children. In 1988 she won the Chalmers Best Play for Children Award. My Best Friend Is Twelve Feet High is a short one-act play that would appeal to ages seven to eleven. There are five child characters, no adults. Story-telling and singing are major elements.
The plot is about a children's club that meets to act out fantasies, a type of "Let's Pretend" activity. The scenes take place in the clubhouse, on a ship, on a bridge, etc. The children vie with each other for club president, best singer, best story-teller and so forth. Rivalries and jealousies are rife. Gradually they realize that they have more fun as a group than one by one. II y a beaucoup de dialogue en francais parce que dans les pieces canadiennes on parle francais toujours, n'est-ce pas?
The author has a good sense of nonsense, the kind that is perfectly logical to a child. The value of co-operation is the message here, but the medium keeps it from becoming a sermon. I think this play would be very successful in production. Drama teachers could make good use of it.
Teachers of the dramatic arts will find many resources in this pot-pourri of Canadiana suitable for grades two to thirteen.
Maryleah Otto is a children's author and librarian in St. Thomas, Ontario.
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