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Confer brings theater to Bay Area schools

Sally Confer calms a class of squirming 5- and 6-year-olds by raising her hands and growling, "I am extremely important."

Two dozen kindergartners from Addison Elementary School in Palo Alto follow suit, stretching their arms up in the air and repeating in high-pitched giggles, "I am extremely important."

This isn't an early pep class for would-be power brokers. As assistant to the director of Stanford Events and the person responsible for community outreach, Confer is preparing children for a campus performance of Mummenschanz, a popular masked mime company from Switzerland.

"I think that children deserve to see first-class performances early on so they start off right," Confer says. "They just soak it up."

Although Mummenschanz's silent performances are accessible to a broad range of ages, Confer says it helps children to know in advance that they will see actors pretending to be giant noodle-shaped objects and characters with electric plugs and suitcases for heads.

"Like any audience, if you know what you're going to see, you're going to have a better time," Confer says. "I try to give an overview of [the performance] and relate it to their lives."

In Mummenschanz's show adapted for children, the actors perform a series of entertaining vignettes ­ when two plugs finally connect after blindly wandering around on stage, a light goes on. Another scene portrays two characters with squishy cotton batting for heads. Unlike more sedate adult audiences, children have few qualms about helping actors when they're in trouble. Sometimes they helpfully pipe up, "It's on the floor!" when a character loses his cotton batting head and stumbles around looking for it.

Student matinees have been performed on campus for seven years, but Confer started doing community outreach to schools in the Bay Area only this academic year. Previously, the university hired actors on a show-by-show basis. Last fall, Confer prepared students for a performance of Maria Benitez and her performing group, Teatro Flamenco, and in January she introduced Alvin Ailey's Repertory Ensemble. For the Mummenschanz show, a $4 entry ticket includes Confer's workshop and a booklet about the performers specially written for children. No students are turned away if they can't pay. When Confer is not holding workshops, she does marketing for the Lively Arts.

Back in the classroom, Confer uses her own stage skills to explain mime to the kindergartners. A professional dancer for 15 years with the Aman Folk Ensemble in Los Angeles, she elegantly demonstrates the power of body language. Moving across the room with a bouncy gait and smiling face, Confer tells the class that she's sad. No one believes her. "Did you believe my words or my body," she asks. "Body!" the children shout back.

Classroom teacher Joan Hobstetter says Confer knows how to combine fun with learning. "She's set the stage for us," the teacher says. "Just having that little bit of prior knowledge helps."

Next, Confer explains that "Mummenschanz" is a German word for mummery and masquerade. After talking about masks and saying that people wear them to look different, she says mime is a special way to perform using no words.

"It's pretty hard to talk about mime ­ it's all in your body," the dancer says. "Kids don't understand it until they do it."

So, with the help of video clips starring Charlie Chaplin, Confer turns the class into an impromptu mime session. In one scene, Chaplin is caught napping on the lap of a big statue that has just been unveiled in front of a large crowd. As Chaplin tries to flee, his pants get caught on the statue's sword and he is left dangling in the air, politely bowing to the people and the statue.

As the kindergartners laugh raucously, Confer points out that Chaplin was extremely polite. "Now we're all going to be polite and say, 'How do you do?'" she says. The children follow suit, bowing enthusiastically to one another.

Now the class is ready for mime. Confer picks eight children and, in a huddle, she whispers an emotion they're instructed to act out silently. The undoubted star is Amanda, who plops her hands on her hips and swivels them with a big grin after being told to act "cool."

After class, Confer says this early hands-on introduction to theater will pay off in the years to come. "When I look back at my childhood the most defining moments were [experiencing the] performing arts," she says. "You can see a whole world through its culture."


By Lisa Trei