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The STARS are out

NEWS TO USE STARS next performance is Thursday at 12:30 p.m. at Cathedral School in Superior and at Hermantown Elementary School on Friday at 2 p.m. To contact STARS (Seniors Transcending the Ages Through Reading Stories) and book them for a perf...

NEWS TO USE
STARS next performance is Thursday at 12:30 p.m. at Cathedral School in Superior and at Hermantown Elementary School on Friday at 2 p.m. To contact STARS (Seniors Transcending the Ages Through Reading Stories) and book them for a performance, call the Duluth Playhouse at 723-7574.
A new reading program is building a bridge between generations. STARS (Seniors Transcending the Ages Through Reading Stories) has senior citizens creating props, putting on their best facial expressions and using their most animated voices to encourage children to keep reading.
STARS is a Duluth Playhouse outreach program. Amy Patras, interim educational director at the Playhouse, said the idea of STARS came from an employee at the Rainbow Senior Center and has "caught on like wildfire."
Start-up grants supplied by the Northland Foundation and the Mardag Foundation got the program up and running. Rehearsals began in August, and toward the end of October STARS volunteers were touring elementary schools and reading to second- and fifth-graders in Duluth, Superior, Cloquet and Hermantown.
"We just basically wanted to see if there was any interest in the beginning," Patras said. "We hadn't expected the overwhelming response." She said STARS is booked through January.
Last Thursday, six STARS volunteers went to Lincoln Park Elementary School for an hour to read to second-graders. They read "The Swallow's Gift" and "Ruby the Copy Cat."
The second-graders had read those stories before, but the idea is to read stories corresponding to the class's current curriculum.
Patras takes the books students are reading and rewrites them into a script.
Volunteers rehearse for an hour before each performance. Initially, STARS performed only on Thursdays, but it had to add Fridays as it became more in demand. This meant more STARS were needed, and another group had to be formed. STARS now has around 17 senior volunteers.
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Patras said STARS volunteers must possess two qualities: "They have to love reading and be passionate about kids," she said.
Mary Melander, a STARS performer and retired professional artist, said she used to write and perform stories herself. But now that she's with STARS, all she has to do is read and have fun rather than contend with all the organizational details of setting up a performance.
"It's fun," Melander said. "Well, for me, children are easy because they don't have that adult criticalness. They're just happy to do something different. They're not sitting there trying to be sophisticated."
Melander said being involved in STARS offers a way of connecting with kids in a subtle way that's meaningful, because it encourages them to read.
STARS volunteer Pat Lowe, a retired office manager, has had plenty of practice with theatrical reading. Whenever she reads to her five grandchildren she acts out different roles. She said reading is the first thing her grandchildren want to do whenever they visit.
Lowe said she has noticed how each school has a different personality, and how the kids are responsive and eager to ask questions after each performance.
"It's just been a lot of fun, and the kids are a lot of fun," Lowe said about STARS. "I find that the children are very, very bright."
Lowe said STARS works as team but at the same time have to be flexible and spontaneous. One time the STARS thought they were going to read to second-graders, but it turned out to be fifth- and sixth-graders. Patras handed the volunteers an impromptu script with no time to rehearse.
"Sometimes you have to wing it, and it works out fine," Lowe said.
Lowe said STARS volunteers are all beginning actors who come from diverse backgrounds.
"We're all novices, we're not actors," Lowe said. "We're getting better and better. Everyone's putting a lot of oomph into their role."
STARS currently focuses on second and fifth grades, but plans to expand to first, third, fourth and sixth grades as well as homeschooled children.
"The bottom line is that everybody wants to instill the love of reading," Lowe said.

Sandi Dahl is a news reporter for the Budgeteer News. To reach her, call 723-1207 or send e-mail to sandi.dahl@duluth.com .

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