One morning in the W. T. Woodson drama classroom, the students' discussion focused intently on how to walk like a duck.
The second- and third-level drama classes were critiquing a run-through of "The Ugly Duckling," a short play the students had adapted and staged from the fairy tale as part of their "Takeout Drama" program. Eddie Potter, who played one of the ducklings, said that the small stage failed to provide enough room to waddle effectively.
"I think you just need to practice the walk more," said teacher Terri Hobson.
"Shake your tail feathers," said junior Jasper Hollins. The class laughed and, problem solved, moved on to "The Dancing Princesses."
Before the next few weeks are over, Woodson students will have put together a repertoire of nearly a dozen short plays and poetic readings that range in subject from "Where the Wild Things Are" to the Greek legend of the Trojan horse. These offerings will make up the contents of Woodson's "Takeout Drama" menu, from which local elementary schools will be able to order.
The Takeout Drama program began six years ago, said Hobson, when a combination staging of "Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblin" and "The Grinch Who Stole Christmas" fell through for copyright reasons. The students wanted to perform something for children, she said, and came up with the idea of a program where schools could choose a selection of skits.
Drama students spend the first 10 or 11 weeks of the school year thinking up skit ideas, writing and rewriting scripts, and rehearsing the finished products, said Hobson. Then, they put the skits away for the rest of the year.
For Jasper, 16, who helped write the script for the story of the Trojan horse, the process of developing scripts meant trying to get different perspectives and personalities to work together.
"[I like] being part of a whole, just knowing you are part of something great," he said. "I'm into the whole teamwork atmosphere."
THE SKITS fall into several categories, said Hobson: fairy tales, miscellaneous selections and poetry. Even with the variety of stories and characters, she said, props and costumes for an entire production fit into a single box.
For a performance, students wear black T-shirts and jeans, and most of the props and costumes are either mimed or acted out by students.
"There's a lot of audience participation," said Britt Goodman, a junior who was in the Takeout Drama program last year. The Woodson students try to get the younger children involved, she said, by pulling them up on stage to act as a chair, or a door or a tree.
"The plays are very imagination-oriented," said Hobson. "The little kids really get excited about filling in the scenes."
For fairy tales and drama, the students like to rework the original story in some way, to make it more accessible to today's child. In "The Dancing Princesses," a fairy tale about a warrior who uncovers three princesses' secret dance club in order to marry one of them, the students added dancing trees, human props and Reeboks as the princesses' worn-out dance shoes.
"In children's theater, it's not like you have to over-act, but you really have to emphasize what you say," said Britt. "We work a lot on making sure everything about the story is really clear."
"I like the idea of bringing drama to kids … It's a fun way to help their imagination to grow," said Leigh Barnett, 17, through American sign language interpreter Marsha Magnet. Leigh is deaf, and enjoys drama for the myriad ways it allows her to communicate.
"Even though I can't hear, I can be involved in some way," said Leigh. "I love acting, because you can be anything you want to be, just for a moment, even."
Children's drama in particular gives high-school students a perspective they can use to become better actors, said Hobson.
"Acting for children brings out the physical qualities and forces [actors] to go big with it," said Hobson. "It is easier to say to them, 'Bring it in,' than it is to do the other way around and tell them to be louder, more animated."
"We try to make [the plays] funnier so the kids are able to focus and pay attention," said Leigh. "Some of the stories have a moral so we can teach kids a lesson."
"[Children's theater] prepares me for different types of things," said Britt. "I get to see the production from different viewpoints, directing and acting."
For many students, said Hobson, Takeout Drama performances are the first time they have ever acted on a stage. Children are always enthusiastic about the performers, said Hobson, and are an agreeable first-time audience.
"'Where the Wild Things Are' is a children's story that everyone knows, and if you can see it come to life, it's a lot cooler," said Britt.