Anyone who has seen Company of Fools core actor Denise Simone in character at the Liberty Theatre remembers her uncanny ability to make words and gestures create a three-dimensional extension of herself.
But Simone claims that most of her life off-stage was spent more like a shrinking violet than burning bush.
"I was a really, really shy kid," Simone said recently, catching her breath after dismissing her last class of the day from Bellevue Elementary School's gym.
Each student exited in some sort of mime from the exercises led by a smiling and energetic Simone.
Still, she said, "I used to hide behind my hair, and I got hives when I had to talk in front of the class."
Simone eventually found her voice through the arts, especially acting, and has spent the past 16 years taking her message to Blaine County students through a curriculum created by the Fools called Stages of Wonder, which is aimed at giving kids like she was an earlier opportunity to find their niche and apply their strengths in all aspects of their school career.
Since it was established by the Company of Fools in 1998 to engage children in individual and collective creativity through the theatrical arts, more than 22,700 Blaine County students have been touched by the program.
Stages of Wonder brings together story-telling, role-playing, theatre games and exercises designed specifically for each grade level. The activities are both structured and improvisational, allowing children the opportunity to create in their own personal way without the worry of getting it right or wrong.
There are few props, and those are only used by the leaders, Simone and Kate Walker. It is their sounds and their movements that the women were looking to get out of the children.
What is amazing during an exercise with a group of dual-immersion second-graders recently was how they worked individually or as a group without casting aspersions on anyone's idea or action, or chided anyone who wanted to sit it out. Simone engaged the few who did want to sit out as reporters taking notes on the scene, allowing them to participate in their comfort zone.
They were in a situation with no more rules than on the playground, but the camaraderie in this unusual activity had them relying on each other and helping each other in a way that didn't exist an hour earlier when most of them weren't trying to get along or were being defensive at recess.
Simone does establish the role of a leader in a group—the one doing actions while keeping people safe. The other rules were the standards of respecting self and others, listening and having fun.
Most of these children and their companion second grade dual-immersion class still recalled Simone's visits from the earlier years, and eagerly shared their memories with her.
While the previous class had no reluctant players, and even created an elaborate coral reef by locking their bodies together, friend or foe, the rare few in this class eventually warmed up and joined in, especially as they built a playground with all its equipment.
"What's really great is that no one taunted anyone, no one ran away—they stayed to watch for their chance to participate," Simone said. "In the end, they all felt safe to create."
Where that moment takes them can only be tracked by the teachers who forever inform Simone of how something they learned has altered them in a positive way. Whether they go on to use the skills in the performing arts or just enjoy them doesn't matter.
The facilitators prefer to hold the program in the schools just like a music or science class so children experience a form of less-structured learning—one that relies more on the individual than on what that individual knows or can repeat from a lesson.
Elise MacDonald summed it up nicely as she headed back to homeroom. What did she like best?
"Freedom!" she said, throwing her head and arms back to embrace the vastness of the word.
Bellevue teacher Gary Grose said after watching the interaction between Stages of Wonder and the students for the past decade, he can say without a doubt that it has an impact on the children.
"They come out of their shells a little more each year," Grose said. "You can just see it's the start of something wonderful."
The physical education teacher and father of two affectionately known as Mr. G said he doesn't mind giving up a few of his class meeting times per year.
"It's important that they find out that there are other ways to get along in life," he said. "Maybe it helps them with future public speaking, maybe they just find something they enjoy watching or maybe they find out there is a special spark there and they get this feeling that they've found something that's just for them to do.
"It's just another way of helping them find out what their way is in life and showing them that it's going to be OK."
According to the National Endowment for the Arts, children benefit from exposure to the dramatic arts in the following ways:
- Knowledge of and skill in theater arts.
- Improved literacy skills—reading, writing and speaking.
- Development of imagination and aesthetic awareness.
- Independent and critical thinking and increased ability to solve problems.
- Social growth and the ability to work with others.
- A healthy release of emotion.
- Fun and recreation.