Folk musician Bruce Hutton played frog sounds and train whistles on his banjo. Shadow puppeteer David Wisniewski dramatized Rudyard Kipling's tale of a brave mongoose and two sinister cobras. And storyteller Jon Spelman spun a yarn about the importance of pleasing a weasel.
These were three of more than 40 15-minute acts presented recently at Albert Einstein High School in Kensington for an annual cultural-arts "Showcase."
The audience hung on Spelman's soft-spoken words and clapped to the rhythm of Hutton's hammer dulcimer jigs, but this was not a typical school assembly. These artists, many of whom specialize in children's entertainment, were performing for about 200 educators in charge of the cultural-arts programs at Montgomery County's public schools.
For the arts chairmen, who direct the cultural enrichment programs of their schools, the "Showcase" is an opportunity to sample the professional acts available in the area. The screenings have been a joint project of the Montgomery County Council of PTAs and the schools.
Showcase performers are chosen in auditions before a superintendent's committee. Each act must supply supplementary educational materials, to be used either in preparing students for the performance or in follow-up activities.
Combining education with entertainment is important to Seda Gelenian, cultural arts chairwoman for the council of PTAs and a prime mover behind the Showcase. "We're looking for something that has sparkle, that will charm the kids," she said, adding that the committee also strives for ethnic variety.
This year's performers ranged from the Howard University Theatre for Young People to the Raquel Pena Spanish Dance Company, and from a Round House Theatre presentation of "The Canterbury Tales" to Barry Louis Polisar's satirical song, "I Don't Want to Go to School" (a mother-and-child dialogue with a surprise ending).
Each act has 15 minutes in which to win a school booking from these special talent scouts. Fees range from $85 to $500, and many performers offer a special rate for two "back-to-back" shows before school audiences.
The Montgomery school board allocates $180 per year to each elementary, middle, junior high and special school to pay for one or more Showcase performances. The remainder of each school's cultural-arts fund is allotted by its PTA, Gelenian explained. The PTA allotments range up to $2,000.
In addition, each of the county's 37 Title I schools receives an amount ranging from $100 to $350, depending on the number of its students from low-income families. These federal funds are used for shows that can help the children improve language and reading skills, according to Toole Monton, the county's Title I enrichment coordinator.
Many of the acts use audience-participation techniques. For example, Dance Invention, a modern dance group, asks children to call out their names, then interprets their names through dance. Puppeteer Kathleen Jacobs recruits a volunteer to play the thief in a folk tale about Humphrey and Hildegarde, who argue about who will close the window and later regret their stubbornness.
Echo Mime also recruits someone from the audience to come on stage and be brought to life in a mime sketch called "Human Sapiens Assembly Line."
Among the acts with a message are "Kids on the Block" handicapped puppets and "Through the Listening Horn," which combines mime, dance and puppetry to promote awareness of the problems of being deaf and teaches some simple sign language.
Another kind of message is conveyed by the Blue Sky Puppet Theatre's "Elementary My Dear Rufus," in which puppet-sleuth Rufus rescues a group of young pupils who have fallen under the spell of a giant with a TV-like head. The children have lost interest in learning and can say only one word, "dumb," until Rufus works his wonders.
"The Showcases are extremely valuable," says Linda Nelson, cultural arts chairman at Wyngate Elementary School in Bethesda, who has attended them for the past three years. "How else would you see these groups? You'd be picking sight unseen."