For this year's Project PLAY production, Starkville Community Theatre is staging a collection of fairy tales with Mississippi twists called "Magnolia Grimm." One of the stories is called "Brother and Sister," and at one point, the title characters consult a literal babbling brook for advice.
That's where some of Project PLAY's youngest participants come in. They bring the long black cloth representing the brook to life, their arms undulating the cloth like a river's waves, their voices whispering lines like rushing water.
It's one of the many ways Project PLAY gives roles to everyone in a project open to children ages 4-18. These children from across the community will perform in "Magnolia Grimm" at the SCT Playhouse on Main on June 22-24 at 7 p.m., with a matinee on Saturday, June 25 at 2 p.m.
"Magnolia Grimm" runs through nine tales in each performance: "The Foundling Bird," "The Fisherman and His Wife," "Brother and Sister," "The Elves and the Shoemaker," "The 12 Dancing Princesses," "Dr. Know-All," "Clever People," "The Spinners" and "King Thrushbeard." All the scripts are written by Project PLAY producer M.J. Etua, and she said that allows her to make the play suit the performers and create roles for everyone.
"We've been doing this for 13 years, and for the past seven years, I've been writing the play," Etua said. "The reason I like doing the play is it gives the kids ownership, because all the characters are based on them."
Laura Daniels is the mother of two children in Project PLAY, 7-year-old Hannah Daniels and 5-year-old Evie Daniels, both of whom are among the children who make the brook babble in "Brother and Sister."
Laura said Etua was doing well at giving some 40 or so children chances to do whatever they can for the production.
"Hannah and Evie are a river in this one, but in another scene Hannah is a servant, and in another, Evie is a catfish," Laura said. "It gives them opportunities to do lots of different things."
Callie Hester, a 9th grader at Starkville Academy, said she is enjoying her two roles as an old hag, one in "The Foundling Bird" and another in "The Spinners." She said her favorite parts of Project PLAY include meeting new people and working with the younger children.
"[Younger children] are sometimes hard to work with," Hester said, "but it's worth it because they're a lot of fun."
Project PLAY began with a grant from the Mississippi Theatre Association that SCT wanted to use to introduce children to all aspects of theatre, Etua said. As such, all the children have the chance to act, make costumes or join the tech crew, Etua said, although older children have more input in the play and younger children have fewer speaking roles. She also said many children return to Project PLAY year after year and often become active members of SCT when they get older.
"That's what we want to encourage with them, is that they will always have a home here," Etua said. "Our oldest participant, who is about 16, has been here since age 7."
Etua said audience members are likely to enjoy seeing children they know exhibit acting talent they might not have been aware the children had. Discovering and developing new talent is one of her favorite parts of Project PLAY, she said.
"I always like to see the little light bulb go off when they realize, 'Oh, hey, I can do this,'" Etua said. "My favorite part is seeing a kid who might start out a little shy but then blossoms."
Alex Smith, an 8th grader at Armstrong Middle School, will join Hester in "The Spinners" as two of three crones, and she will also appear in "Clever People." Smith said much of her prior experience with theatre has been as a stage hand, and while she has acted before, this is her first community play.
"The reason I'm a stage hand is because I don't like to act in front of a lot of people, usually," Smith said. "I get stage fright, I guess."
Smith said Project PLAY is her latest step toward conquering that stage fright. She has taken a few smaller roles in other plays, she said, and she's also seeing progress at church, where she participates in "Youth Days" where youth conduct the service in lieu of the pastor.
"It used to be I would stumble and stutter through a lot of my parts in that," Smith said, but it's gotten better, so I'm going to try to do a play," Smith said. "Maybe I'm growing out of it."