Tuesday, July 07, 2009

The Play's the Thing! Acting Out: Six One-Act Plays by Six Newbery Stars!

Editor Justin Chanda herein presides over a literary tour de force, having cajoled six Newbery Award authors into each writing a one-act play to be performed by and for upper elementary and middle schoolers.

No problem, you say, for such a star-studded stable of wordsmiths to whip out one short (thirty minutes or less) drama each? Well, just to up the ante, Chanda throws in a second challenge: each play has to include in context all of these words: dollop, hoodwink, Justin, knuckleball, panhandle, and raven. And the results are, to say the least, not too shabby!

Acting Out leads off with Patricia MacLachlan's (Sarah, Plain and Tall) "The Bad Room," a middle school detention room populated by the usual suspects--including Jake, whose dog Knuckleball daily shows up in Jake's classes at school, perennial tough guy Riff, and Bella, star student in for her first offense. But last through the detention room door is Ms. Brim, an interim teacher with all the right moves who turns The Bad Room into The Ball Room, with surprising results.

Sharon Creech (Walk Two Moons) takes up the challenge by titling her play "The Raven," imagining a very young Edgar Allan Poe's first meeting with the harried Trish, a modern editor who promises to publish his long poem--with just a few tweaks, beginning with "Eddie's" agreement to change his name to something more trendy, perk up his "dreary" opening, (as Trish suggests "try 'Once upon a morning sunny....'") and change the poem to a novel of, oh, two hundred fifty thousand words or so. Young Edgar grows more appalled as Trish constantly breaks off to answer her cell phone, negotiate million dollar contracts, lament signings by rival publishers, and speculate upon whether she herself will be terminated in the latest round of layoff's in the publishing business.

Newbery author (Bridge to Terabithia) Katherine Paterson's "The Billionaire and the Bird," reworks Hans Christian Andersen's "The Emperor and the Nightingale," in a modern setting, complete with a clap-on/clap-off electronic bird, while Susan Cooper (The Dark Is Rising) has four kids, saddened by the demolition of their favorite climbing tree and surrounding woodlands for a McMansion development, turn into eco-terrorists when they rouse a sleeping giant of a rock, called "The Dollop," (the play's title, actually). Discovering the power of their hopeful thoughts, the kids watch the rock destroy construction equipment and roll himself into center of a pond, flooding the developer's choice building sites and ending the project.

Avi, recipient of the Newbery for Crispin: Cross of Lead, The, uses the ancient derivation of "hoodwink" to fashion a story of a brother and sister, who, weary of their mother's make-believe bedtime stories, experience a light's out supernatural visitor from whom they learn a bit about the seen and the unseen--including that not seeing is not believing and that not seeing can be believing as well.

My favorite playwright here, though, for his homespun humor and wittily macabre ending, is Richard Peck, (winner for A Year Down Yonder) the sequel to his Newbery Honor Book A Long Way From Chicago) whose "Effigy in the Outhouse" takes us back to the first day of school in a one-room schoolhouse in 1901. Three boys, Willard, Cecil, and Justin, the merry pranksters of the classroom, are all ready to flummox their novice new teacher with their tried-and-true tricks--frogs in her desk drawer, an earthworm-filled apple on her desk, and, their piece de resistance, a scary strawman to be seated on the hole in the ladies' privy out back.

When their just-graduated-from-normal-school teacher is strangely delayed, however, they get a substitute who makes Miss Viola Swamp look like a super model--ancient, "gray, black, and green from head to tail," and carrying a forbidding batch of willow switches under one arm. Miss Dollop takes charge all right, and the jig is up for the three co-conspirators. Miss Dollop seems to see and hear everything and even declares that Theodore Roosevelt has become president, even though everybody, even Cecil, the class dunce, knows it's William McKinley.

When at last Miss Starbody appears, the victim of a unfortunate carriage accident, Miss Dollop takes her leave, but fear of enjoying her professional services again leads the students to mind their lessons, inquire frequently about Miss Starbody's health, and keep her well out of drafts and harm's way.

But as the boys soon learn, Miss Dollop is never very far away. While hunting hickory nuts, the three cross through the graveyard hard by the schoolyard privies, and Cecil stops to get a burr out of his boots.

(Cecil leans against a solid object to pull off his boot)

WILLARD: And don't lean on a tombstone. It don't show respect.

CECIL: It ain't nobody we know of, is it?

(The three hunker to read the tombstone.)

WILLARD (quoting): "Miss Delilah Dollop, born 1799, schoolmistress to the district, faithful to the last."

JUSTIN (continuing): "Died at her desk--Rest in Peace. Spelling Counts."

CECIL (concluding): "Served out her final semester in the year of 1876."

(All three boys freeze, stare at one another, then slowly turn toward the audience, eyes round with horror. The lights dim.)

WILLARD (to audience): Come to find out Miss Dollop had been dead for right at twenty-five years that morning she floated out of the graveyard, through the outhouse and effigy, to substitute at Panhandle Ridge School. But that's a teacher for you. Show her a classroom full of kids and a pointer, and she'll move heaven and earth to get there. [Blackout]

Know some blase' middle schoolers who think drama is bo-ring? Have them stage this one--or any one of the other solid one-act plays in this stellar collection--and they'll change their tune. And if not, a visit from Miss Delilah Dollop should alter their opinions.

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