Dressed in a billowy, rust-colored cotton shift to make him appear fat, the actor stormed onstage and began to make the motions of eating, as 70 anxious faces watched his every move.
When he finished, he searched the room with a hungry look in his eyes. His eyes rested on some of the 70 faces. He smacked his lips. Suddenly, he began gobbling the little bodies into his huge costume, amid cries and screams from his victims.
With that, books came to life for the 70 preschool children at Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library on Tuesday.
A cast of four enthusiastic actors performed five popular stories -- including "The Greedy Old Fat Man" -- trying to relay an important message to the children: Reading can be fun.
The hoped-for result of the Library Theater's Summer Storybuilders show is to spark the children's interest in reading, a pastime that television has replaced for many youngsters today. Teachers whose students have seen previous shows say the program works.
"We've taken (books) off the shelves through the performing arts," said Cherry Adler, executive director of Library Theater. "Now we want them to go to the shelves and read the books, and I feel the performing arts and music is a good way to get them to read."
Library Theater has been operating in the Washington metropolitan area for 10 years. It sponsors two school-year programs: "Books Alive," which introduces literature to children through the performing arts, and "Nutrition Folk Tales," which tries to encourage children to eat right.
The two programs are popular and have received much praise from teachers, who say students do check out library books after seeing the shows.
This is the first time the storybuilders have performed in the summer. The group will perform 12 different stories for libraries throughout the District this summer. Five of those 12 stories were performed at the opening show Tuesday, including such tales as "The Boy Who Cried Wolf."
"It fills a real gap for libraries because they suffer from budget cuts and can't sponsor as many educational programs," said Jo Hodgin, associate director of Library Theater.
The program is funded by the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities, the National Endowment for the Arts, The Arts Expansion Program, The Cafritz Foundation, the C & P Telphone Co. and the Queene Ferry Coonley Foundation.
The program gives young children something to do, and will motivate them to read "instead of just doing nothing or watching TV," Adler said.
"Basically, we want kids to read because it's fun and not because they have to read," she said. "I felt a real need for the program. There is more leisure time in the summer for kids than ever. It is a chance for kids to take advantage of the arts, something that hasn't been done on TV."
The children really become involved in the shows, Adler said. And they challenge the actors quite often. One year they attacked the witch in the company's production of "Hansel and Gretel," she recalled.
"We had a witch one year who was scary, but funny, really funny," Adler said."She was going down the aisle looking for Hansel and Gretel. The kids got so mad at her they ripped off and her clothes. And there she was standing there in her underwear. She didn't know what to do so she just whipped out the door as fast as she could screaming, 'Hansel, Gretel, wait till I get you!'
"The kids, weren't being mean or difficult. They were really involved."
The actors have to be able to relate to the children; they have to be special and they have to be concerned, Adler said. "Kids are good critics," she said. "Kids will not be polite like adults. If they don't like it they will let you know they don't like it. If they are bored you will know they're bored."
The four "Storybuilder" actors said they not only love their work, but see it as a service to the community.
"It's like a teaching medium to me -- showing them how to be creative and build stories," said Mike Howell, 26, of 1203 Clifton St. NW, lead actor for the show. "It's a time where I can do something for kids instead of them hanging on the streets. They will get an idea what they want to do later on. It gives them something to think about."
Because of the children's involvement in the shows, each one is different, Howell said, and provides a challenge for the actors. In "The Boy Who Cried Wolf," some of the children acted the part of sheep. In other stories, the preschoolers were asked to recite lines, clap and sing.
"Working for kids is a testing ground," he said "You'll really know if you've got it. Adults will be more lenient, but kids will say, 'Get off the stage. Bring out the hooks.'"
"The exciting thing about kids is you never know what will happen," said Naomi Hirsch, 19, of Montgomery County. "They will come on stage and you have to improvise. I like that. It means the actor has to be on his toes."
Because the actors are trying to teach the children good habits, they have to watch what they do in each scene, Hirch added. "I think the thing that is important is remembering to say 'excuse me,' or 'please' because kids will go home imitating what they saw us do."
"It's just plain fun," said Shawn Smith, 15, who lives in Columbia, Md. "I love to act, I love attention, I love response from the kids."
George Dick, 17, who lives at 3208 Walnut St. NE. and attends Duke Ellington High School, said he finds acting for children a challenge. "It's surprising sometimes what they do and say."
After the actors finished their performances, they walked into the audience and talked to the children, who eagerly asked them questions. "Some of the children have asked the actors to go home with them," Adler said.
Howell ended the show by tellilng the children to read, always read. "Maybe one day you can build you own stories."
Tom Nagle, producer-director, sits out in the audience and observes the actors and the children's reactions during the show. "I am very sensitive to the audience's needs," Nagle said. "If I'm going to get them to want to pick up those books, I have to make sure that what's onstage is entertaining."
The summer storybuilders will appear at the following libraries.
July 8, Chevy Chase Regional Branch Library; July 9, Garnet C. Wilkinson Branch Library; July 10, Takoma Park Branch Library; July 15, Georgetown Regional Branch Library; July 16, Petworth Branch Library; July 17, Northeast Branch Library; July 18, Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library; July 21, Cleveland Park Branch Library; July 22, Palisades Branch Library; July 23, Tenley Friendship Branch Library; July 24, Fort Davis Regional Branch Library; July 29, Mount Pleasant Branch Library; July 30, Watha T. Daniel Branch Library; July 31, Anacostia Branch Library.
Other appearances are: Aug. 1, Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library; Aug. 4, Langston Community Library; Aug. 5, Woodridge Regional Library; Aug. 6, West End Branch Library; Aug. 7, R. L. Christian Community Library; Aug. 12, Southeast Branch Library; Aug. 13, Capital View Branch Library; Aug. 14, Washington Highlands Branch Library; Aug. 15, Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library; Aug. 18, Trinidad Community Library; Aug. 19, Benning Branch Library; Aug. 20, Sursum Carda Community Library; and Aug. 21, Southwest Branch Library.
For more information, call Library Theater at 244-6794.