Jul 23, 2011

Who Are Your Reading Mentors?


I take it for granted that I am a life-long reader. Yet I must stop and consider the people who inspired me to be a reader for life. Yes, the public library played its part, but also individual persons as well. One was indeed a librarian, but the other was her husband. Here is my story about Frank and Bonnie: 

Bonnie Bess Wood and Frank Levy, Innovators in Reading

       I met Bonnie and Frank the Summer I was thirteen years old. Bonnie was the interim library director at the local branch public library near my home. I would spend afternoons at the library as a volunteer page. Bonnie noticed me reading in between the stacks and instead of chastising me for not shelving books, began a relationship of reading with me that has lasted into my adult years. She chose for me to read Chronicles of Narnia, Dante's InfernoCount of Monte Cristo, and John Steinbeck's Acts of King Arthur when I was reading only Stephen King novels. "If you like bologna, it is good, but it's still bologna," Bonnie told me. "You're only on this earth for a finite amount of time, so you can choose to eat either bologna sandwiches or filet mignon. The choice is yours." I kept on reading Stephen King and John Grishman, but I would also read from the list of Pulitzer Prize novels or National Book Award winners that Bonnie introduced me to as as librarian. Bonnie's rationale reflected a commitment to literature that privileged quality over fluff, but also gave the reader the freedom of choice.

    At the time I met Bonnie and Frank, they were building their nascent Children's Summer Theater company, Stories in Motion and were experimenting with various methods of presenting literature and film as living narrative. Frank had been hired by the public library as a professional storyteller and lecturer. In one story, Flutterby the Butterfly, Bonnie performed the part of Flutterby, dancing through the audience dressed in a costume she herself had designed and created, while Frank told the story with physical expression and inclusion of the child audience. I played the lepidopterist who is unable to catch Flutterby in his net. Bonnie created costumes and masks which Frank used to to bring to life living "stories in motion."

    Reading was promoted for its own sake in the novel presentation of the narrative as a performance for the love of the story. The simple idea was to perform and involve young people in the telling of a story as a way to encourage interest in literature. After a performance of Flutterby, children would approach the librarian for books on butterflies. Or, after a performance at a public school where Frank performed the role of the pianist Chopin in full costume and in character, librarians and teachers could more easily encourage their students to read about Chopin or about classical music. Stories in Motion encouraged reading by performing literature in public places to elicit from the audience a response to read in turn, as a pleasurable aesthetic, and not merely for the satisfaction of a mark or an obligation.

    I think the success of Stories in Motion lies in the collaborative efforts of its creators. As a librarian, Bonnie brings to the project years of experience working in school and university libraries. Also, she is a researcher. She researches possible stories, mines their literary history, and works with Frank to create the story from an existing database of World Literature, whether it be a story about Purim, or background information on Thomas Jefferson at Monticello. Frank takes Bonnie's raw research and finds in a story the essential plot points and presents the story theatrically and totally committed to the essence of the literature in its purest form. Like Odysseus telling the story of his ten year journey home from Troy, Frank marks the importance of literature in its ability to be told.

    Stories in Motion stories are told from the rich treasure trove of out-of-copyright literature, namely the classics, which belong to the common trust. This means, for example, they do not produce the Disney version of Little Mermaid, but Hans Christian Andersen's original. Ariel, not obedient to the rules of the spell that has transformed her into a human, loses her prince and turns into sea foam at the story's fatal end. Children are indoctrinated by Disney's version which casts Ariel as a comic character who wins her prince and lives happily ever after. Stories in Motion takes a risk by telling the original tale; a risk that involves convincing parents and children that Little Mermaid is a tragic tale where all is not resolved nicely in the end. The risk is losing the interest of the children who prefer the disneyfication of the tale, and may not be willing, at least at first, to be exposed to the original telling. At the end of the day, the risk of upsetting a child who wishes to play the part of Ariel, so she can wed a fictional prince, is overcome by giving this same child access to a piece of literature that is true to its literary history. The child in a Stories in Motion production learns organically that a story can either be tragic or comic, that a story has a narrative history of its own as well as constitutive of a cultural literacy that the child would otherwise be bereft of if she had only been fed the commercialization of literature that privileges what is marketable over a commitment to literature itself, for its own sake.

    The vision of Stories in Motion is creative and opposed to the mainstream commodification of story telling. The plays are scaled down to the bare essentials of theater aesthetics. A Stories in Motion stage is bare. No unnecessary props or elaborate eye-candy adorn the proscenium, save for a simple background suggestive of the theme. Also, when Frank adapts a classic piece of literature for performance by a group of young people, he scales down the script to preserve the muscle of the story. By re-imaging classic stories, such as Wizard of Oz, the Arthurian legend, Pinocchio, or Wind in the Willows, to name a few recent productions, Stories in Motion remains a completely kid-driven production. A child controls lights, sound, and works back stage. Young people work with choreographers and assist in directing. The cast is composed of 100-150 children. Every actor in the cast has at least one speaking role, and very seldom is only one child the star of the show. The muscle of the show is in the purity of the narrative but also the individual actors and stage workers who learn collaborative learning skills in putting a play together in one to three weeks for public performance. The vision of Stories in Motion includes both the preservation of literature and the instilling in young people the necessary life skill of team work.

    I had the privilege as a high school drama teacher to produce a Stories in Motion adaptation for myself. With my group of thirty high school students we produced Sword in the Stone, an adaptation from Sir Thomas Mallory's book Le Morte D'Arthur. Directing a Stories in Motion play gave me the opportunity to produce a novel way to present literature. The metaphor of generativity is not lost on me. Having bestowed on me as a child a love of literature for its own sake, and a commitment to literature in general, it was with pathos that I directed the Stories of Motion adaptation of the Arthurian legend. I took what was given to me as a child by Bonnie and Frank and was able in turn to present it to my own students. By doing Sword in the Stone, I wanted to introduce my students to the Arthurian legend in a way that was theatrical but at the same time exposed them to an important cultural and literary tale. At first my students were not interested in Arthur as a play to perform, but once we read through the Stories in Motion script, I could see that my students saw the play as an opportunity for self-expression. They learned the legend of Arthur intuitively and theatrically, asking me questions about Uther Pendragon and the Mist People, the May Party, Morgan La Fay, and the importance of the sword in the stone as a metaphor for coming-of-age. In the end, through a unique presentation of literature, my students found themselves not only as drama students, but purveyors of literature, without recourse to the traditional methods of teaching literature in American high schools.

    It is with this exposition that I recommend Ms. Bonnie Bess Wood and Mr. Frank Levy, co-creators of Stories in Motion, as verifiable innovators in reading. 

Thank you Bonnie and Frank.

image credit: storiesinmotion
                                                   

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