The Big Picture

A group of MSU Denver students helped middle school students be smarter about water through an engaging original production.

By Tom Wilmes

Publish Date: June 23, 2015

The Big Picture
Photo: Dave Neligh

Nearly a dozen MSU Denver students received an education in communicating effectively when they performed an original play for perhaps the world’s toughest critics — an assembly of more than 150 sixth-graders.

It’s was part of “Water Wise Circa 2015,” a production developed, produced and performed by an ensemble of 11 students under the direction of Marilyn Hetzel, chair of MSU Denver’s Theatre Department. The purpose of the production was to educate local middle school students about Colorado’s water supply, and water conservation and stewardship. And to do it in a way that was both entertaining and informative.

“Children's theater is one of the hardest kinds of performances one can do,” Hetzel said. “It teaches lessons, but it also has to be engaging and an adventure for the kids.”

Over the course of the 18-minute performance, the actors hoisted one of their castmates above their heads and let her “flow” down a mountain of bodies to simulate snowmelt filling Colorado’s watersheds. They acted out a dishwasher and a carwash; rapped about the water cycle — evaporation, precipitation, condensation — and even mimicked a skateboarder jumping over a speed bump to demonstrate the rain shadow effect of Colorado’s mountains.

“Using only their words and actions, they were educational, interesting, funny and very perceptive of their audience,” said Tom Cech, director of MSU Denver’s One World One Water Center for Urban Water Education and Stewardship (OWOW) program.

Cech had read about an earlier production Hetzel and another group of students developed — “Hears to Ears” — that raised awareness about hearing loss and its prevention. He approached Hetzel earlier this year with the idea of collaborating with OWOW on a similar project. Denver Water, Aurora Water and the City of Boulder all signed on as sponsors, and the group performed the play at middle schools in each of those cities this past spring, as well as at three area water festivals.

Hetzel said the semester-long project is in the tradition of transformational theater or theater for social change. With no lights and no props, the actors used only their voices and their bodies to convey the message.

“We did a research study in conjunction with ‘Hears to Ears’ to determine whether students retain more information through the process of seeing it in a play than they might by studying it in a book, and the research came out very positive,” said Hetzel.

According to Amanda Fresquez, a theatre major and an actor in “Water Wise Circa 2015,” the process of developing the play was educational and transformative for the cast as well.

“It was both challenging and rewarding ... and it enhanced my educational experience immensely,” said Fresquez. “What surprised me most was how little I knew about water and how little water we have available for us. Out of all the water on the planet, only 1 percent is available to us as potable, drinking water.”

The students received credit hours for participating, as well as a small stipend to help with costs, but they enjoyed greater benefits that are likely to stick with them.

“The project helped transform their education in terms of collaboration, creative problem solving, commitment and self-discipline, in-depth knowledge about water and the confidence they've gained by performing for different ages,” said Hetzel. “We look at theater as equipment for living — everything one learns in theater can be applied to any profession in the world.”