Kayla Coughlin
September 10, 2018

It can be difficult to find the perfect book to inspire your next showstopper, especially when there are so many elements to look for: multiple characters with simple lines, a variety of activity levels, and – the most important element – a fun and entertaining plot! Instructors new to incorporating storybooks into their students’ performances may want to begin with the How-To Guide featured in the original From the Page to the Stage.

Below are five favorite tales that are sure to keep your students engaged, along with recommendations for adapting them to your unique group.

Owl Babies by Martin Waddell

This sweet but dramatic tale comes from the perspective of three adorable baby owls who await Mama’s return from her evening hunt. Sara, the eldest sibling, takes charge and comforts her brothers in their disquiet. Percy persistently worries about where Mama might be. Bill, the youngest owl, rounds out the group with his favorite phrase, “I want my mommy!” The owl babies are relieved to find, of course, that Mama always returns.

Although only three baby owls are presented in this story, a performance can showcase an entire group of baby owls, with lines pulled from the story or invented by students. The phrase “I want my mommy” can be said in unison by the performers, or even together with the audience. Performers can pretend to sit on a tree or in a nest, fly with owl wings, or hoot for sound effects.  

A Birthday for Cow by Janet Stevens

Lively groups with a strong sense of humor will enjoy this title by Janet Stevens! Known for her simple stories featuring the same silly cast of farm animals, Stevens is a consistent pick for adaptive theater. In this book, the animals prepare a birthday cake for their good friend Cow. Everything is going according to plan when Duck suggests they add…a turnip! For students that love predicting the end, there is a twist that will surprise and delight.

Although the farm animals in this book include a cow, duck, mouse, and pig, any number of farm animals can help add ingredients to the cake batter. A particularly outspoken student may want to play Duck, who is persistent in suggesting the addition of a turnip. The book itself ends abruptly, but a performance could conclude with the “Happy Birthday” song or a dance party. Instructors may need to interpret some of the illustrations into narration to clarify context.

Hooray for Hat by Brian Won

Who hasn’t woken up on the wrong side of the bed? Many performers will relate to Elephant’s grouchy mood when he finds a mysterious box on his doorstep, containing several very silly hats. When he places one on his head, it turns his frown upside down, and he shouts, “Hooray for hat!” Of course, Elephant can’t keep this joy all to himself, so he shares hats with all of his friends.

Students can choose their own favorite characters for the performance, including superheroes, royalty, or otherwise. Lines are essentially the same for each character (“I’m grumpy!”), but spoken individually to showcase unique personalities. Each time a student dons a hat of their choice, the group can join in with “Hooray for hat!” The joyful ending may conclude in a group dance party, a song, or high fives. This story can also inspire meaningful discussions on feelings, generosity, and friendship.

Grumpy Bird by Jeremy Tankard

In this story, Bird sullenly walks by his forest friends who ask to join him on his walk. He reluctantly agrees and the friends begin to copy his movements. This eventually becomes a game, and Bird begins to enjoy himself. Good times (and snacks!) are had by all. “Grumpy Bird” is another great tale for facilitating conversations about emotions and friendship.

This short story would work well for a single-day workshop due to the simplicity of the dialogue. Each character asks Bird what he is doing (“I’m walking!”) and then they ask to accompany him. Movements can be chosen to fit the abilities of the group and are a fun “follow the leader” game.

Rabbit’s Gift by George Shannon

Although this story takes place in the middle of a winter storm, the forest animals’ friendship will keep readers warm and snuggly all year long. When snow begins to fall, Rabbit plans to eat a turnip for dinner – only to realize that his friends might like some too! A quietly silly story unfolds as each character tries to bring the turnip to their neighbor, ending with a delightful dinner party.

To adapt this story to a live performance, each student can choose their own animal (the options are limitless!). Dialogue can be repeated for each character, said aloud as a group, or customized for each student. A turnip or other vegetable prop and winter clothes would make the performance even more exciting.

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As you can see from this list, there’s no shortage of wonderful storybooks that can inspire adaptive theater. Keep in mind that stories have evolved through oral tradition over hundreds of years, so changing elements such as characters, setting, or even plot to fit the needs of your group is helping to pass those stories on to new audiences. Happy reading and performing!

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