November 25, 2010

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Watch and learn
We the People teaches history with song

By Adam Coughlin acoughlin@hippopress.com.

Theater has long been a favorite of educators because it teaches kids teamwork, dedication and an appreciation for the arts. But a new production showing in Concord will take its educational lessons to a new level and is a can’t miss for any child with a hunger to learn.

We the People, a new musical by TheatreworksUSA, brings civics education to life through song, according to Wes Grantom, the musical’s director. Grantom worked as the associate director when the musical showed in New York City and has now taken the helm for the national tour.

He said the show was unique because TheatreworksUSA, America’s largest theater for young and family audiences, hired a number of writers, composers and lyricists to write individual songs for the musical. For example, one young composer created a rap song about the branches of government, while someone else wrote a song about the Constitution. It was Grantom’s job, with the help of other production people, to stitch together a comprehensive story including all these musical numbers.

“It was like creating Frankenstein but in the best sense of the word,” Grantom said.

The story they came up with includes George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams as members of a rock band (one even looks like Ozzy Osbourne in a powdered wig) that blasts into the future. In the future they meet a young girl named Dawn Shapiro who is running for student council president. Dawn thinks such a title will help her get into college. But she doesn’t really understand the importance of government. The founding fathers are there to teach her.

“The show is like the best history professor you can imagine,” Grantom said. “It delivers its lessons clearly but it’s also entertaining. When you’re directing theater for children or young people, clarity is so important. If you go off track, you lose your audience.”

The national tour began in early October and has already traversed much of the East Coast. It stops at the Capitol Center for the Arts on Thursday, Dec. 2, for two daytime shows. The Capitol Center has always had a commitment to showing educational performances for school-aged students, according to Nicolette Clarke, executive director of the Capitol Center for the Arts.

“The show introduces the Constitution and uses theater to make connections,” Clarke said.

These connections are easy to make, according to Grantom, because the lessons are so clear and enjoyable that kids don’t even realize they’re learning. But with such opportunity comes great responsibility, and Grantom said it is his job to make the sure the musical has a balance between education and entertainment.

“You want to engage the imagination,” Grantom said. “To do that you need to balance the lessons and the entertainment value.”

Grantom said all plays and musicals have lessons that can be drawn from them. But for most the story is present first and the lessons are underneath. We the People is his first production to have the lessons in the forefront, like Sesame Street or Schoolhouse Rock.

One of the most important aspects of a successful production is to have talented actors. Grantom said it is their job to read the audience and know when to push and when to step back and let the kids digest what they’ve just learned.

The key, though, is that they’re learning. Grantom said he can see more productions of equal educational value being produced in the future.

“Everyone is trying to find fun ways of giving information and lessons,” Grantom said. “Knowledge is power and artists enjoy being teachers.”


We the People
When: Thursday, Dec. 2, at 10 a.m. and noon
Where: Capitol Center for the Arts, 44 South Main St., Concord, 225-1111, ccanh.com
Tickets: Cost $7. Call 224-3408.
Info: As the musical is educational, there is an additional classroom workshop available for teachers to download before the show for educational purposes. Visit ccanh.com.

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