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PAM MARTIN/Great Bend Tribune

Ellinwood Grade School kindergarten students play imagination guessing games, acting out animals and foods on Monday, with Wichita Children’s Theatre Professional Touring Company members. The students also sang a couple of songs and participated in other activities to use their bodies, voices and imaginations to convey a message.

Top Story

February 28, 2007

World of imagination

By PAM MARTIN pmartin@gbtribune.com

ELLINWOOD — Giggles erupted as Ellinwood Grade School kindergarten students tried to guess what animal their classmate was trying to impersonate during an imagination exercise on Monday.

Crawling on the auditorium stage floor, the youngster wiggled her arms and legs.

“A snake,” another child shouted.

After guessing correctly, the children exchanged places. It took a few times until they understood it was a good thing to have someone guess the animal they were portraying.

“We teach three core things: Body, voice and imagination,” said Vic May, of Derby.

The four actors, May, Shannon Knipp of Hutchinson, John Sommerhauser of Rose Hill and Alexis Morrison of Winfield, make up the professional touring company of the Wichita Children’s Theatre. They were in Ellinwood on Monday, holding sessions with elementary and middle school students, followed by a performance of “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” that evening. On Tuesday, the troupe worked with Great Bend students and performed “Kansans Can.”

Goldilocks is written for preschool through third-grade students, and the Kansas history musical is for students in grades three through eight. The historical piece is a fast-paced performance.

“We hope they leave knowing more than when they came in,” Sommerhauser said.

The exercises are designed to get students to stretch their imaginations. In “What are you doing?” children acted out an activity, such as fishing or painting, then thought of something for the next child to do. A focus exercise takes children on an imagination journey, Sommerhauser said.

“They take a journey in their mind and explore the world in their imaginations,” he said. “It calms them down, usually.”

The four actors and actresses have been on the road since Sept. 11, 2006. It is the second year in the company for May and Knipp, the first year for Sommerhauser and Morrison. They will give more than 200 performances in all corners of the state and in-between. The touring company also travels to Nebraska and Iowa. In the past, they have performed in Texas, Oklahoma and Missouri.

Each community cobbles together funding sources to pay for the company’s visit. In Barton County, the Barton County Arts Council sponsored the troupe, with support from corporate sponsor Bank of the West and a grant from the Golden Belt Community Foundation and operational support from Barton County and the City of Great Bend. The Kansas Arts Commission and National Endowment for the Arts also helps defray expenses.

All four troupe members strongly believe in what they are doing.

“We bring live theater to places where it doesn’t exist,” Knipp said. “A children’s theater experience got me interested in the arts and theater. I became more involved in the community just from seeing that one show.”

Her sister was a tree stump and she remembers her parents making the costume. “It was great,” she said.

All four are college graduates in theater arts. Morrison, who has taken dance lessons since she could walk, was a mouse in “Cinderella.” From then on, she said, she’s loved theater.

Sommerhauser was a latecomer to acting. He started out in the technical aspect of theater, behind-the-scenes work. His freshman year in college he participated in his first performance.

“Once I did it, I loved it. As one of 10 kids, it was positive attention rather than negative.”

All four love performing for kids.

“Performing for children is instant gratification,” Sommerhauser said. “You know whether you’re winning or losing the game.”

“Oh yeah,” May agreed.

“A young audience is much more honest,” Sommerhauser said.

They are really keyed in to visual elements, the group said. Letters from the kids they receive are filled with detailed drawings, even down to the paws painted on the borders of the scenery pieces.

Company members remembered one child who asked them after the show, “So Goldilocks, how’s it feel to be the only human on stage?”

May, who grew up in Viola, Iowa, remembers an experience his first or second week in the show.

“A little kid sighed and said, ‘I have to tell you guys, it was awesome.’”

The child, with fist clenched, pumped his arm back in a “fist pump.”

“You can’t make that up,” May said.

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