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As featured in the San Diego Union-Tribune:

Self-expression

Kids develop their own characters in 'Kids Act'

By Marisa Lowe
COMMUNITY NEWS WRITER

March 6, 2004

ENCINITAS – Once there was a super hero who called himself "the vegetarian."

His greatest wish was to smell ranch dressing all day, and his biggest fear was "the fork."

Aleta Barthell helped the salad-loving adventurer, an 8-year-old boy, bring his story to the stage last year.

Barthell encourages children ages 4 to 10 to develop their own characters and stories into original plays in her 10-week course called "Kids Act." It will be offered at Core Fitness Center in Encinitas, beginning March 31.

"It is an exploration of presenting yourself in the world," she said. "On a basic level, I see it as building social skills and learning to develop a respect for other people."

Games, stories and poems are planned for the first weeks of class. Barthell reads aloud favorite children stories, such as "The Hungry Caterpillar" or "Where the Wild Things Are" and she has the kids talk about heroes and villains. She encourages them to use literary terms such as protagonists and antagonists.

She also has the children recite dramatic Shakespearean sonnets and scenes, using such terms as "thee" and "thou."

"I want them to think of it as saying words and just acting it out," she said. "We are taught to be afraid, and really there is nothing to be scared of."

When students have finished talking about stories, they act them out. Barthell believes this teaches them how to listen and watch for cues from their fellow actors.

Halfway through the course, students create their own characters. Barthell asks each student to pull a colorful hat from her bag, create a character, and then use imagination to develop that character's biggest wish, fear and aspiration.

One girl pulled out a blue hat and pretended she was a witch who lived with a sea turtle. The little girl, whose family was in the middle of a divorce, wanted to divorce her turtle.

Students make up and share several characters with the group, and then Barthell creates stories using the students' favorite characters.

At the end of the course, the stories are performed in the Schulman Auditorium at Carlsbad City Library. Sometimes she has the kids perform their stories literally; other times the stories become a launching point for another play.

Barthell attempts to keep the plays as true to the kids' words as possible.

"I really do try to go into the kid and let the kid express what they want," she said. "They come up with this story."

Before moving to California in 1997, Barthell worked with the Haven Project in Portland, Ore. The organization pairs underprivileged children with artists and playwrights to create original stories and plays.

She has brought to "Kids Act" many of the lessons she learned.

"I want them to keep a sense of play, a sense of connectedness to their character and to each other, rather than getting bogged down with the technicalities," she said. "People are going to bog them down with the technicalities for the rest of their lives."

Do you have a story idea for Marisa Lowe? Contact her at (760) 476-8221 or marisa.lowe@uniontrib.com. For special events contact us at least four weeks in advance. We work ahead!

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