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August 23, 2014

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Photos: Broadway comes to NLV school — ‘War Horse’ puppeteers spur children’s interest in theater

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Steve Marcus

Justyn Gobber, top, and Ethan Dockendorf listen as “War Horse” puppeteers and actor Andy Truschinski visit with sixth-graders at Cram Middle School on Thursday, Oct. 3, 2013. One hundred Cram students and teachers will attend a performance of “War Horse,” part of Smith Center’s Broadway series, at the center Friday. “War Horse” plays through Sunday.

‘War Horse’ Puppeteers Visit Sixth-Graders

Jon Hoche, head puppeteer/horse captain, talks about microphones that are attached to puppeteers as “War Horse” puppeteers visit with sixth-graders at Cram Middle School on Thursday, Oct. 3, 2013. Puppeteer Mairi Babb listens at left. One hundred Cram students and teachers will attend a performance of “War Horse,” part of Smith Center's Broadway series, at the center Friday. Launch slideshow »

It’s a sleepy Thursday morning at Cram Middle School in North Las Vegas, and amid the sounds of chatter and scuffling feet, a horse’s neigh echoes from the auditorium.

The uncanny sound comes not from an astray equine visitor, but rather the actor-puppeteers who play Joey, the title character behind Broadway’s “War Horse,” which runs at Smith Center for the Performing Arts through Sunday.

As part of a collaboration with Smith Center’s educational programming, four of the show’s cast members visited the school to speak to a group of 100 students who will be reading the novel by Michael Morpurgo as part of their sixth-grade literature curriculum this winter.

Before heading to Smith Center on Friday to watch the matinee performance of “War Horse” — which tells the story of a boy’s search for his horse across World War I-ravaged Europe and is the basis for the acclaimed 2011 Steven Spielberg film — students spent the previous morning learning about the story’s themes and adaptations from four of the production's cast members, whom the students inundated with questions about everything from theater tech to the story’s messages about war and loyalty.

“It’s rare to see kids getting this excited early in the school year — especially about a book they haven’t even read yet,” says English Language Arts teacher Deborah Bertini, who reached out to Smith Center after learning that “War Horse,” which the school was already planning to teach, was slated to come to Las Vegas.

Though Smith Center’s Broadway programming is separate from its education program, Vice President of Education and Outreach Candy Schneider saw the overlap as an opportunity to extend their community arts education outreach, which includes special student matinee performances, professional development for teachers and an education partnership with the CCSD. Schneider helped secure a $2,000 donation from Finance Board and Investment Committee member Tony Rose, which covered the majority of the cost of tickets for 100 students.

“The stars really aligned for this,” Schneider says, explaining that while funding limitations make it difficult to regularly include Broadway collaborations as part of Smith Center’s education program, they’d be eager to host similar events with local schools should a curriculum overlap arise.

“This is is an important way to help expose students to the collaborative nature of theater. The kind of questions they were asking the cast — it enhances their critical thinking. It helps them connect and show them that those performers got their start in school at their same age.”

Though Bertini regrets that all of the sixth grade’s 550 students weren’t able to attend — seating was limited, and tickets were given on a first-come, first-serve basis — she says that the collaboration is a perfect fit with the multimedia objectives of CCSD’s Common Core State Standards and hopes students will share their experience with their classmates throughout the semester. She says many have already started reading the book and watching the movie in anticipation.

“We don’t get to do a lot of field trips. It’s a real opportunity. For many of these students, it’s their first Broadway play,” she says.

That sentiment wasn’t lost on them as they spilled onto the sidewalk outside Smith Center after Friday’s performance, their animated chatter — and a few emphatic attempts at a horse’s neigh — audible over the engine drone of the yellow school buses awaiting them.

“I’m actually really excited to read the book now,” says Cram sixth-grader Kiara Kelly, 11. “Before I was like ‘Eh, it’s just a book we’re gonna read.’ I wasn’t really interested. Hearing them talk about it and seeing it on the stage, it was really different from how I imagined. I’m learning a lot from this experience with the play to take to the next experience I have with the book.”

Follow Andrea Domanick on Twitter at @AndreaDomanick and fan her on Facebook at Facebook.com/AndreaDomanick.

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