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By Emily Greffenius
Hometown Weekly Intern
On the afternoon of June 14th, 16 kids from kindergarten through third grade gathered in the Wakelin Room at the Wellesley Free Library for “Picture Book Theater,” a workshop at which the children read a picture book and then, just one hour later, bring that story to life as a short play for an audience of family and friends. A monthly activity at the library, each session features a new book, but not necessarily a new cast – many of the kids greeted each other as friends, referred to other past productions, and seemed familiar and comfortable with their director and librarian, Emma Caywood.
Holding a degree in theater from Northwestern University, Caywood worked as a drama teacher, actress, and director in several cities, including Los Angeles and Chicago, before she became a librarian and combined her performance and teaching skills with her love of books. Caywood inherited the class model, she said, from a librarian in Illinois; she then brought the idea to her local library in Massachusetts, and, ultimately, to Wellesley.
“I used picture books so much as a drama teacher,” Caywood said, speaking to the genesis of the workshop, as well as its name. “It’s one of the main reasons I got my library degree.”
The workshop kicked off quickly as kids arrived at 3:30 p.m. and their parents, siblings, and friends – anybody not participating in the show – were asked to leave and come back an hour later. It was important that they be surprised by the final product.
The group began by reading this session’s book, “That Rabbit Belongs to Emily Brown,” written by Cressida Cowell, author of the popular children’s book-series-turned-DreamWorks-movies, “How to Train Your Dragon.” The kids were quiet and attentive during the story, and Caywood made sure they were engaged and thinking ahead to their own production; she asked them to count characters as they were introduced, posed questions like “What would you do?” and explained how they would portray their own versions of certain props or scenes.
After finishing the story, Caywood assigned parts on a volunteer basis, often stoking enthusiasm by advertising costume opportunities. When she asked for two kids to play naval officers, the room was quiet until she added, “You get to wear a pirate hat,” at which point several hands shot into the air.
The costumes and props were creative and both complimented and buoyed the kids’ already-active imaginations. In one scene, Emily Brown and her rabbit explore space, and as requisite space helmets, the young actress sported a plastic bowl taped to her head, while the stuffed rabbit folded its ears into an old fishbowl.
For rehearsal, Caywood read the story again, interrupting the narrative to direct her actors, her tech directors, and her prop masters with their jobs for each scene. After a single run-through, it was showtime, and seats filled quickly after the doors opened at 4:30 p.m. The kids committed to their roles, some even staying in character when off-stage. The young girl playing the character of a queen reacted to every line, even when she was not in the scene, and the prop master flitted around backstage to ensure that everyone’s props were exactly where they needed to be.
After a successful performance and their final bow, the kids enjoyed cookies with their family and friends.