You may know the Children’s Theatre Company (CTC) as a nationally renowned place of magic for children of grade-school ages, housed adjacent to the Minneapolis Institute of Arts in south Minneapolis.
You may not know that the Children’s Theatre is also Tessa Flynn and a box of homemade puppets, engaging 16 preschoolers for 45 minutes each week in teacher Mary Harris’ classroom at Eastern Heights Elementary School in St. Paul.
Flynn’s puppets may be fashioned with milk cartons, cereal boxes and duct tape, and her “orchestra” a controlled cacophony of hooting, humming and hand-drumming. But magic happens there, too — the kind that has 4-year-olds who barely spoke in class two months ago now eager to tell and act out stories of their own invention, with themselves as the lead characters and their peers taking part.
“We really believe that if children can learn to tell their own stories, they are going to be able to advocate for themselves later in life,” Flynn said at the close of last week’s class. “If they don’t, someone will tell their story for them.”
Literacy is the stated aim of the CTC’s Early Bridges program, but along the way, it also schools young children in the democratic arts of participation, persuasion, self-assertion and teamwork. The program is at work in — as of now — seven St. Paul and two Minneapolis preschools. It ought to be in more places; the CTC is seeking funding to expand.
More than that: Early Bridges ought to be an inspiration for other Minnesota entities that might add an early-education dimension to their work. Minnesota needs an early-education surge. It’s the most promising remedy for the biggest impediment to this state’s future prosperity — the academic underachievement that’s too prevalent among low-income and nonwhite populations.
One way for that to happen is for nonprofit organizations geared toward other age groups to consider how they might help younger children learn. The CTC — which once discouraged attendance by children under 5 — began that exploration when artistic director Peter Brosius arrived in 1997, intent on expanding the theater’s reach to children from 2 to 18. He had been impressed with the work of a puppet theater for preschoolers in Stockholm, Sweden, and “stole shamelessly, with their permission” when he visited it soon thereafter.
“Their goal is the same goal that all great theater has, which is to stir up the muscle of the imagination, the muscle of empathy. It helps you rehearse stages in life — loss, separation, surprise, disappointment. That’s our goal, too,” Brosius said. “We ask: ‘How are we building empathetic global citizens?’ ”
The result has been a professionally performed play for preschoolers staged for eight weeks each year in the company’s Cargill Theater. The play is broadcast to the rooms of young patients in isolation at Children’s Hospital; classes in theater arts for both parents and children ages 2 through 5, and Early Bridges. It’s the preschool version of an earlier Brosius innovation, Neighborhood Bridges, which brings CTC literacy programming to grade school classrooms throughout the Twin Cities.
Staging a play for preschools did not mean dumbing it down, Brosius said. But it meant slowing down plot development. “Kids need time to process” new ideas, he said. The CTC also discovered the value of creating an environment welcoming to small people, Brosius said.
At Cargill Theater, audience members are welcomed in the lobby, invited to take off their shoes and given playfully decorated booties to wear. After performances, every child is personally thanked and given a picture of the show. “We want to do everything to make this experience positive, engaging, strong and theatrically powerful,” Brosius said.
When the CTC comes to “Miss Mary’s” class at Eastern Heights, the focus is on the “audience” as participants. Children are invited to act out installments in a continuing story about Esel the aging donkey, rejected by his owner as “too old,” but unwilling to give up on life or on his dream of starting a band. Then children take turns sharing their own stories, “written” and staged in pantomime style.
“When we first started writing their own stories, they would look at me and not know what to say,” teacher Harris said. “Now they ask, ‘Can I write my story?’ ”
Flynn’s 18 sessions at Eastern Heights will culminate this spring with a class visit to the Children’s Theatre in Minneapolis, to which parents are also invited, and a multicultural parent night, at which the children will offer a presentation. The literacy and life skills Harris and the CTC are imparting will last far longer. Here’s hoping the inspiration they give other organizations to take up the early-ed cause will be similarly enduring.