Tellico Community Players sponsored Reading Theater last week at seven elementary schools in Loudon County.
A company of about a dozen volunteers, including some with stage experience and first-time players, read and acted five short stories and poems with Appalachian themes.
“This is the Tellico Playhouse gift to Loudon County,” Sharon Smith, one of the directors of the program, said.
Smith said the cast had been preparing since March and had already put on a performance for school principals.
“We’re the prime-time players here to tell you some Southern stories,” she said.
Marvin Feezell, an administrator with Loudon County Schools and former principal at Philadelphia Elementary School, said he had watched the Reading Theater performance before and thought it offered real benefit to students.
The program, which started in 2016, was on hold for a couple of years during the pandemic. This was the first year back on stage, Susan Licata, director, said.
“We’re trying to get out into the community and encourage children to read books,” Licata said.
Many of the stories instill a virtuous and meaningful message. Such valuable lessons help students learn about love, kindness, wisdom, honesty and compassion, Licata said.
Stories were selected from books and poems with cultural significance and an appropriate message for the targeted age group, she said. Readings are done largely without stage gear.
“When the storytellers present themselves in plain dress using minimal props, the children mentally fill in the blanks,” Licata said. “It enhances their creativity and opens their minds to new ideas. It lets their imaginations run wild.”
The players visited fourth-graders at Eaton’s Elementary School. Several classes attended the performance in the cafeteria.
The first story, “Jack and the Robbers,” was a short tale about a young boy named Jack who gets discouraged by his home life and decides to seek his fortune on the road.
Along the way, Jack meets a cast of characters, including an ox, a donkey and a rather unhappy dog who is now too old to chase raccoons.
The animals are unhappy because they believe their masters want to get rid of them.
“And you know what that means,” each animal repeats.
Jim Smith played the part of the hound dog and narrated some of the other parts.
“I love the kids,” he said. “Just to look at their faces.”
The children laughed together as each character was introduced complete with barnyard sounds such as a rooster crowing. The animals find a house inhabited by robbers and manage to scare them away and Jack returns to his home. Children learn a valuable lesson in the process.
“The greatest fortune is in friendship,” the narrator tells them.
Fourth-grader Levi Byard said he had never been to a stage play but liked the funny stories. A fan of Wisconsin, he was wearing a “cheese head” hat as a costume.
In the poem, “A Possum Comes a Knockin’,” children were asked to raise their hands if they had ever seen an opossum. About half raised their hands.
The narrator continued to recite the poem while one of the players kept rhythm using a washboard. The children listened intently to the poem and clapped at the conclusion.
The third story began with a request that each child in the audience turn to the child beside them and smile.
“It’s nice not to be alone when you hear a scary story,” the narrator said.
The scary story was “Tailybones,” an Appalachian favorite often told around campfires.
The story is based around an old woman who lives in a cabin in the woods. A strange beast with red eyes threatens her and she chops off its tail with a hatchet, but the beast returns looking for his lost tail. Luckily the old woman consults a book that gives advice to ward away the beast.
As the story ends, the beast continues to haunt the forest, eerily howling “I want my tailybone.”
Children responded with exclamations of surprise while some pantomimed the physical actions of the beast as performed on stage.
Sharon Smith pointed out to the children how the old woman used a book to learn the information needed to scare away the beast.
“Books are important ways to get information,” she told the class.
The final offering was a Native American story about why an opossum’s tail is bare. The critter is proud of its tail but loses her fur when she dances too close to the fire while showing off.
Ku Adams played the part and wore a long furry tail she waved around to the delight of children. Adams said it was her first time working with TVP. She said she loved the reactions of children and hoped they would be encouraged to read more.
Ashley Phillips, Eaton guidance counselor, said she thought the children had a lot of fun.
“The kids could really connect with the stories,” Phillips said. “They had a good laugh.”