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May 1, 2012 > 'Oskar and The Last Straw!' - Helping kids cope

'Oskar and The Last Straw!' - Helping kids cope

By Miriam G. Mazliach, photo by Miriam G. Mazliach

Kids these days have a lot of stressors; learning to deal with them effectively is the main focus of Oskar and The Last Straw!, the latest production by TheatreWorks, geared for school-aged kids.

The script, the third in a series written by playwright Prince Gomolvilas, was co-commissioned by Palo Alto Unified School District and TheatreWorks of Silicon Valley, with input from Project Cornerstone (YMCA Silicon Valley), Steps to Success, and Project Safety Net.

Locally, many elementary schools in Fremont and Milpitas recently had the opportunity to see the theatrical presentation, touring the Bay Area from February through April 27. By utilizing humor and engaging their audience, performers hope to spread the show's message of resiliency while demonstrating useful and relatable coping mechanisms for K-5th grade students.

These days, even young students are feeling overwhelmed with the pressures, of school: homework, family issues and over-scheduling. Oskar and the Last Straw! attempts to encourage them to think about taking on one challenge at a time, trusting their own personal power to persevere.

TheatreWorks Director of Education Mary Sutton explains, "The goal of Oskar and the Last Straw! is to help students understand that when they feel that their 'backpack' is too full, there are healthy choices they can make. They can remember that all of us feel overwhelmed, and we can support each other, as we learn to support others."

During the April 16 performance at Vallejo Mill Elementary School in Fremont, students sat engrossed watching the antics of the energetic TheatreWorks actors: Jon Deline ("Oskar"), Casi Maggio ("Beth") and Norm Munoz ("Frank").

"The theatre actors and staff are remarkable," says Sutton. "They've been working almost non-stop the past nine weeks, with 13 shows per week, sometimes twice a day."

As the play begins, the character of Oskar is experiencing one of his few pleasures, that of dancing and prancing about, to the delight of the youngsters in the audience. But that enjoyment is quickly cut short. Oskar's backpack grows to massive proportions, literally and figuratively, enlarged by textbooks, homework assignments, extracurricular activities, music lessons and chores. Oskar, unable to dance or even move, feels like a "beast of burden," and is distraught. "You'll never guess what I have to deal with this week... I'm suffering," he says.

At first Oskar attempts to manage the situation by himself, trying to use a magic kit to make his backpack disappear. But when this proves unsuccessful, Oskar's friends Beth and Frank step up to help alleviate his stress, but initially to no avail. As a further hindrance, Oskar's coping strategies of crying, sulking and being angry only compound his problems. "My life is horrible -an endless series of unsolvable problems like a ball of dirt dipped in batter, deep fried and shoved down my throat, force fed," cries Oskar.

Eventually, after accepting suggestions from his friends, some adults and two imaginary creatures, "No More Choices Bear" and "Coping Cat," Oskar finds inner strength to deal with his burdensome problems by remembering to prioritize and handle one thing at a time.

And with that realization, Oskar can determine how to coordinate essential tasks and which others to let go. Suddenly, his backpack lightens and becomes normal in size. His burden has lifted!

A Question & Answer session follows the performance allowing students to interact with the performers.

"Laughter is one the most important things in dealing with stress," states Deline (Oskar). "It helps us talk about things we wouldn't otherwise."

And, from the reaction of the students and teachers, it is evident that many of the situations revolving around stress and pressure resonate with them.

Vallejo Mill Principal Mary Lou Ulloa hopes students have learned more coping skills from the performance. "There's always a solution to everything. Seek help from teachers, parents and friends. Learn to juggle and prioritize," says Ulloa.

According to Sutton, "Using the iconic symbol of the backpack, and one student's journey in handling his overwhelming amount of work, is the perfect metaphor to help students learn fundamental and healthy skills. We need to plant the seeds, to have them think about the pressures now and instill in them how to manage these and their time," adds Sutton.

In case your son or daughter's school did not schedule a performance this year, "Oskar and the Last Straw!" will return next spring, to tour Bay Area schools February 25 - April 26, 2013.

Additionally, the previous production of "Oskar and the Big Bully Battle!" will return to visit schools this fall, October 13 - November 16, 2012, making its fourth tour around the Bay Area.

If you would like to support the efforts of TheatreWorks, a non-profit organization, and enable more schools to see future performances, please visit: www.theatreworks.org/learn.

Other Resources:
Project Cornerstone: http://www.projectcornerstone.org/html/aroundsiliconvalley.html
Project Safety Net: http://www.psnpaloalto.com/

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