Professional theater delivers social-emotional punch

TheatreWorks' zany 'Oskar' delights Palo Alto elementary children

Oskar, a quirky but hilarious "schoolboy" with a gigantic backpack, has been entertaining Palo Alto schoolchildren for the past month -- while delivering serious emotional punch.

The energetic show that's making the rounds of elementary schools was commissioned by the Palo Alto Unified School District to convey some of the "social-emotional" lessons that have risen to the top of the schools' priority lists since a string of high-school student deaths by suicide in 2009 and 2010.

In a raucous performance recently at El Carmelo Elementary School, kids howled when the overburdened Oskar -- carrying textbooks, soccer cleats, an art project, a giant bag of popcorn and a bucket of monkeys on his back -- finally tips over after somebody asks him to hold a straw.

The remainder of the hour-long "Oskar and the Last Straw" explores things Oskar can do to lighten his giant backpack and, by extension, what options any child has when feeling overwhelmed by the demands of school and life.

The ideas reflect the stress-busting theories embedded in the Developmental Assets, a youth wellness program recently embraced by the school district and community groups.

Written by award-winning Los Angeles playwright Prince Gomolvilas, "Oskar and the Last Straw" is performed by professional actors from Menlo Park-based TheatreWorks.

Mary Sutton, education director at TheatreWorks, worked with the playwright and the schools to hone the messages in the show, performed by a cast of three professional actors.

Amy Drolette, the school district's coordinator of student services, "came to all the read-throughs and provided feedback," Sutton said.

"Elementary school is the time when seeds are planted," Sutton said.

"Theater gives kids a way to engage that I think brings out the best in them, and they need to find that and know how to use it."

At the Friday, March 30, El Carmelo performance, kids in the audience chimed in, yelling advice to Oskar as he ran through a series of disastrous strategies to deal with his seemingly oversized backpack and oversized problems -- sulking, barking like a dog, throwing a temper tantrum and trying to "do 100 things at a time."

In the end he accepts the advice yelled in from the audience, realizing he should set priorities, "do one thing at a time" and ask for help from his parents and teacher.

With that realization, Oskar's symbolic backpack and its contents shrink to miniature proportions.

Between now and the end of the month, "Oskar and the Last Straw" will be performed at Walter Hays, Addison, Nixon and Escondido elementary schools. It already has visited Barron Park, Fairmeadow, Duveneck, Ohlone, Palo Verde, Hoover, Juana Briones and El Carmelo.

It also has been performed at Brentwood Academy and Cesar Chavez Academy in East Palo Alto.

A 20-page "Oskar and the Last Straw" study guide is provided to teachers to help reinforce some of the play's lessons in class.

Sutton said TheatreWorks' education programs reach 66 schools in five counties, including children in Fremont, San Jose and Redwood City.

The Oskar character, in fact, is based on a specific 10-year-old boy from Redwood City she met named Oscar, Sutton said.

"We wanted to celebrate the spirit of Oscar -- playful, spontaneous, someone who doesn't color in the boxes," she said.

"Theater isn't just a place to go. It's a place that comes to you and can be a teaching tool. We go in and find out the needs and desires of a school and how arts can fit their culture and their goals because one size does not fit all."

The theater company charges $575 for a single performance of Oskar -- $1,000 for two, with financial assistance available for schools in need.

TheatreWorks' education programs also are supported by 22 foundations and corporations in the area, including the Palo Alto Weekly Holiday Fund.

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Like this comment
Posted by Impressed
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Apr 9, 2012 at 1:16 pm

What a great idea! My kids are now in high school, but I am glad the school district is creating programs like this to address stress issues at all ages. It looks like a thoughtful and successful execution as well. Kids entertained by an important message and a classroom study guide to give the students a chance to talk about what they saw. Congrats and thank you to the PAUSD, TheatreWorks and the supporting donors.

Like this comment
Posted by Joyce
a resident of Crescent Park
on Apr 9, 2012 at 4:07 pm

Theatreworks Education Outreach programs (including the High School matinees and related classroom advanced prep) have been contributing significantly to the local school systems for many, many years... glad to see it finally getting this well-deserved recognition. And kudos to Mary Sutton for designing and assuring effective execution of such a responsive program!!!

Like this comment
Posted by Are you Kidding?
a resident of Barron Park
on Apr 9, 2012 at 9:51 pm

I disagree, the play is very entertaining and funny, but does not addresses stress. Students and teachers need to talk seriously about stress and find ways to reduce it: less homework, less push to make it to UC's, more tutoring, before they get kicked out of class or schools for having low academic scores. Students need better counseling at Gunn, and maybe at Paly. We need more caring teachers.

Like this comment
Posted by Tyler Hanley
digital editor of Palo Alto Online
on Apr 10, 2012 at 9:23 am

Tyler Hanley is a registered user.

The following comment was moved from a duplicate thread:

Posted by Marsha, a resident of the Old Palo Alto neighborhood, on April 6, 2012, at 2:19 p.m.:

What a great story! We had such a disturbing period here in Palo Alto, not really understanding why our teens were taking such tragic steps. As a parent of two teens, i was beside myself with concern. Kudos to the coalition of educators who sorted this out and are helping kids find the coping skills that our over-booked children will need in order to survive and thrive. Hooray for Mary Sutton and her team for coming up with a clever, engaging presentation.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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