Sunday, November 22, 2015

Dark Stairs, Mice, a Monster, and Music

Book:  The Dark at the Top of the Stairs  by Sam McBratney,    Illustrated by Ivan Bates
Puppets:  None
Props:  None
Technology:  Projector and Scans; Music and Sound Effects in PowerPoint
Presenters:   Two or more
Audience:  Family Storytime

For our annual "Slightly Spooky Storyime" we decided to try The Dark at the Top of the Stairs  (the Sam McBratney picture book, not the William Inge play), .  It's been one my favorites suspenseful/funny read alouds for a long time, but we thought it could make a good Act-Out with Scans.  It would have been okay, but then Brad added some just right music bits and it really came together.  We did it with six(!) people on our big Halloween event, and the rest of the week Terri and I were joined by the newest member of our team, Deborah Gitlitz (our new bilingual outreach librarian, and also an excellent storyteller).  It can also work fine with two people, though.

 In the book, an old Mouse takes three eager/scared Little Mice slowly up the dark stairs in the cellar, where a monster supposedly awaits.  We edited and ad-libbed a bit, but tried to keep a lot of McBratney's excellent storyteller's voice in there.   For example, I always love the line where the Old Mouse agrees to bring the mice up the stairs, speaking "as if he knew that sooner or later all young mice will try to see the dark at the top of the stairs."  I'm not big on messages in storytime, but it's a nice little nudge to the grown-ups to let their kids do scary things once in a while.

Before they go, the Old Mouse tries to talk them into going to the meadow or swinging on the grass.  The music Brad chose for this opening was "Morning Song" from Rossini's William Tell Orchestra, which gives it a nice, light, carefree mood.  

When the story moves into the cellar, the music switches to "In the Hall of the Mountain King" by Grieg, which is just the right amount quiet and mysterious.  We only used the kind of tiptoe-y part at the beginning, not the big ending.  It's always neat to see how much of an impact a well chosen piece of music can make.

I was the Old Mouse, and also narrated.  Deborah and Terri were Cobb and Berry-Berry....we axed Hazel in the three-person version.  We scanned illustrations of the stairs, and tiptoed around in front of it to kind of simulate going up the stairs.   Each new page-turn / scanned image brings the mice further up the stairs.  And with each section there's a new bit of dialogue as they get more scared:

We didn't do any costumes or anything to make us look like mice...we counted on the story and the images to convey that.  And as the story progressed, we didn't really try to act out ascending stairs.  We wanted to stay facing the audience, or sideways at least.  So we just sort of crept in place, making sure to stay on the sides of the screen, without blocking it.

The pace of the story works really well with a mostly preschool age audience.  The scariness the mice show is kind of real, but also kind of self-generated, so the audience is tense, but not really really scared.   When they get close to the stop of the stairs, with the mice bickering and getting excited, the Narrator can build up to the climax with a louder, more ominous voice:   "And then....Something Happened."   At the same time, the music abruptly stops.  The door opens and the monster is finally revealed.

For the "monster," which of course is a cat, we put a black box over the image in the PowerPoint slide, then animated it so it slowly rose to reveal the Cat.  Another click added a "Meow" word balloon, plus a sound effect of a real cat's meow.

At which point all of us mice kind of ran around in a tizzy for a while and then finally flopped onto the floor "in a jumble and a heap."  

The tale has a very satisfying ending, as the Old Mouse asks the Small Mice where they would like to go the next day and "none of them mentioned the Dark at the Top of the Stairs."

With our "Slightly Spooky Stories," we usually like to get the kids just a little bit scared, but then have them able to say after the story is over:  "I wasn't really scared....even though they probably were."  This story seemed to hit that pretty well....  

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