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'Playing It Forward': Community theater promotes literacy through a children’s book drive

Joined by "Book Buddy," Draco the dragon, local students, from left, Kylie Loso, Finn Jorgensen, Barbara Dolson, Braeden Dougherty and Benji Schoneck, read books that have been donated to Bemidji Community Theater's Children's Book Drive. The books will be distributed during the upcoming production of "The Elves and the Shoemaker" in April. (Jordan Shearer | Bemidji Pioneer)

BEMIDJI—For a handful of upcoming performances, the Bemidji Community Theater will incorporate a new way of sharing stories with children other than just entertaining them from the stage.

In conjunction with its upcoming production of "The Elves and the Shoemaker," BCT started a book drive with the hope of distributing 3,000 books to the children who come to the performances the theater hosts for area schools. "We want our people, who will be in costume, actually handing a book to each child in the audience," BCT Director Mary Knox-Johnson said. "We want them to connect the magic of what they saw on stage to the magic of the book."

The theater is accepting both actual books and monetary donations for the project. The books should be in either new or "gently used" condition. So far, the drive has collected approximately 800 books and about $1,500 in donations. Those donations have been trickling in since last spring. By the time the books are distributed, the project will have been about a year in the making.

Donations can be made up to the time of "The Elves and the Shoemaker" performances, which are planned for April 6-8 and April 13-15. Books can be dropped off at Gallery North in downtown Bemidji, 310 Fourth St. NW.

In addition to the performances that are open to the public, the theater will host six productions for area school groups, when the books will be distributed. Previous performances have attracted school groups from as far away as Kelliher and Park Rapids.

BCT used to only host four such performances but increased them to accommodate the various schools who were interested in the idea. One year, the theater held up to seven performances for the area schools.

"For 'Enchanted Sleeping Beauty,' I turned away a number of schools," Knox-Johnson said, explaining that they could only accommodate so many groups.

The monetary donations will be used to purchase additional books if there aren't enough donated, or if there are more books donated in one age category than others. The funds also may be used to help schools with transportation costs to and from the theater.

The books will vary in reading level, as well as the stories they include. However, the drive is focusing on books for students in kindergarten through eighth grade.

The book drive is only the theater's most recent philanthropic project. Dubbed "Playing It Forward," the local theater group has conducted a number of charitable projects in conjunction with recent productions.

During the production of "Dragonsong," the cast held a boutique and donated the profits to the local organization Evergreen Youth and Family Services. During "Oliver," the theater offered a discount on ticket prices for audience members who donated a non-perishable food item.

It's still unknown what next year's Playing It Forward project will include. Nonetheless, it's a value Bemidji Community Theater has come to embrace.

"We think the young people in the show need to hear and know about philanthropy, too, so that's another way to get them involved," Knox-Johnson said.

While some of the charitable projects have been tied to the storyline of the shows, the current book drive didn't necessarily fall into that same pattern.

But while the book drive may not pertain to "The Elves and the Shoemaker" storyline directly, Knox-Johnson hopes it will still communicate the idea that stories can be just as exciting on the page as they are on the stage.

"That's where all the stories come from that we put on the stage; they all come from books, so we're hoping the kids will get that connection."