Becoming the Book at the Berkeley Rep School of Theatre

It teaches kids to love literature through acting.

It’s a whodunit and, as such, its characters have alibis. A homicide? They had nothing to do with it. That the characters happen to be musical instruments just makes their stories all the more plausible. Who would second-guess a clarinet?

Lemony Snicket’s The Composer Is Dead is a musical with text by local novelist Daniel Handler, aka Lemony Snicket, that’s onstage at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre through January 15. But it’s also a tool with which East Bay kids are now learning to love literature.

The Berkeley Rep School of Theatre (2025 Addison St., Berkeley), which offers courses and intensives for kids and adults at its downtown Berkeley headquarters, also operates the Story Builders program in K-6 schools and libraries throughout nine Bay Area counties.

Following a model created by Joanne Seelig and Gendell Hernandez, each hour-long Target Story Builders session begins with a book, story, or play being read aloud to a group of children. As the session progresses, the children interpret, improvise, explain, and act out the story they’ve just heard.

“It’s a literacy program that gives students multiple ways into the works,” said Berkeley Rep School of Theatre outreach coordinator and longtime teaching artist Dave Maier. “Children learn in many different ways. Some are not great readers but are good kinesthetic learners, so they comprehend the work better if they can move around. So we scaffold the curriculum.”

During the read-alouds, “we intentionally don’t show any pictures, because we want the students to create those images in their minds.” After they’ve heard a story and created mental images, the kids are invited to pose as the characters, “frozen-statue” style, then create dialogue and scenes.

Lemony Snicket’s The Composer Is Dead will be the subject of a Story Builders session at the Oakland Public Library’s Cesar Chavez Branch (3301 E. 12th St., Oakland) on Thursday, December 23. Updating Peter and the Wolf‘s method of personalizing an orchestra’s elements, the story’s characters include a tuba, a viola, and other instruments.

“As school budgets are being cut and arts education is being annihilated, we can use theater art to teach anything” — even mathematics. Maier fondly remembers a session in which students in a middle-school math class staged the equation for finding the radius of a circle.

“They demonstrated what the radius was, and they told me they had to be squared in order for the equation to work. If students can get up and act something out or say it out loud to others, they’re demonstrating that they have knowledge and that they understand.” 3 p.m., free.

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