They turn kids' ideas into plays. Loon and Heron Theatre taps pre-teen writers

America: Don't you know how hard it is to be a kid today? So many things seem to get in the way. There's drugs, fashion, jobs, and a good education. College and tons of competition. You do what your friends do or you're out. I wish someone could tell me what it's all about. - From title song for ``Express Our Times,''

a play adapted from the writings

of an elementary school student

This was one of 34 entries selected last season by the Loon and Heron Theatre, which transforms students' ideas into a play for students.

The play created is the youngsters' own, comprising real-life experiences seen through the eyes of nine- to 12-year-olds. It encompasses everything from punk music to terrorism, from President Reagan to nasty substitute teachers.

This wide sweep is the idea behind the Boston-based Loon and Heron Theatre's forthcoming partcipatory play, ``H.O.T.: Hands-On Theatre.''

``The nine- to 12-year-old group is the most difficult group to define,'' says executive director H. Mark Smith. ``They are a mystery, and the best way to reach them is to use their ideas and experiences.''

Loon and Heron, noted for its theater-in-education programs, is holding its third annual writing contest. It encourages pre-adolescents to share their points of view on any topic ``hot'' to them - through letters, poems, short stories, drawings, and recorded tapes. The selected entries are then incorporated into the participatory play, which will tour New England schools, libraries, public auditoriums, and festivals from this November until next June.

Though the youngsters come up with ideas for the play, the script is written by Mr. Smith. The actual production is done by the Loon and Heron's seven professional actors and actresses.

As the name indicates, it is a participatory play. The students who contribute to the writing can come to the rehearsals and offer comments to the director when they see their entry performed.

Wanting to stay as close to the source as possible, the actors keep within the syntax of the original entries. They use the kids' direct dialect and expressions. Under a new technique this season, children will be randomly chosen from the audience during the actual performances to come on stage and work with the performers.

``The minute kids come on stage, there is much more of an impact,'' says educational director Barbara Rose. ``Acting gives kids self-confidence they wouldn't have otherwise.''

Last season Loon and Heron transformed young people's writings into the production ``Express Our Times.'' The previous season they took entries from kindergarten to fourth grade and performed ``What's Inside My Magic Trunk.''

Three Loon and Heron productions will tour this season: ``The Golden Goose,'' a musical adaptation for kindergartners to fourth-graders of the classic Grimm fairy tale; ``Shakespeare's Players,'' a collection of pieces from Shakespeare's greatest works for junior high and high school students; and ``H.O.T.''

Schools and other organizations arrange to have whichever play they feel is most appropriate.

To help the youngsters understand and enjoy the production, Smith has written a study guide for teachers. ``All productions should have study guides. We want the shows to be more than 45 minutes of entertainment,'' he says.

Because ``Express Our Times'' ran in both urban and surburban schools last season, it was presented to a variety of audiences.

``It was best received in the urban areas,'' Smith says. ``It fitted better into their community. Yet some surburban teachers thought the production was great.''

Richard Squillant, a fourth-grade teacher at Ellis Elementary School in the Roxbury section of Boston, saw ``Express Our Times.'' He says, ``It was upbeat and right to what kids like. We've booked the upcoming show already.''

The kids were not nearly as responsive to other plays that had come to Ellis, he says. ``Most were in the '60s mentality, where everyone gets along. These kids know it's just not that way.''

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