For 25 years, local actors Maureen Rooney and Paul Punyi have mounted a literacy and performance show at St. Albert Public Library.
The numbers attending are staggering – 30,000 elementary school children tallied to date and that amount continues climbing.
In celebration of the Rooney and Punyi Reading Show’s landmark year, library organizers are presenting the husband and wife duo with a special literacy plaque on Friday, Nov. 15.
Speaking for the couple, Rooney was delightfully surprised to receive the award, but added the shows are not a one-way street.
“We’re actors and we love educational theatre. We are energized by this. After a show, we come home completely wiped, but we can’t not do this kind of thing. We are performers. We are built for this. We left mainstream theatre years ago because we find this more fulfilling,” says Rooney.
The one-hour shows include reading a story and putting on a theatrical performance accompanied by music.
“They generally do a twisted fairy tale. They take a classic story and add surprise elements and twists to make it funny. They use a play-on-words and they mix it up with other fairy tales. It surprises the kids and helps them see the importance of reading,” said Ashley King, public library children’s services coordinator.
The literacy program was initially launched after Rooney and Punyi received a national reading grant to stimulate appreciation for books in young children.
“In the beginning we did it between bookshelves by the apple tree,” chuckles Rooney.
But after a couple of years, the national grant disappeared and the St. Albert Optimist Club came on board in 1996.
“It fit their mandate perfectly – to eradicate child illiteracy. And it was a perfect fit for what we do.”
Initially, a few dozen children from grades 1 to 4 attended the shows. Today, anywhere from 70 to 100 children attend each of the 20 performances held annually in Forsythe Hall.
Throughout the decades, Rooney and Punyi have written eight twisted fairy tales packed with audience participation, guitar music and a few costume pieces.
“We would read a story with the script in hand so the children could see us reading and we’d make it a sing-along. Costumes were simple enough that any child could make them at home."
In one show, three fairies were given scarves to manipulate instead of storebought wings. In Peter Pan, Nana the dog was a sock puppet.
“Some kids think parents need to spend gobs of money to be creative. All you need to do is read a story and act it out.”
Rooney is passionate about the program in large part due to growing up as a little girl who dreaded reading.
“I didn’t see it as fun. I saw it as a punishment. When children stop thinking of it as fun, they shut down. They need positive memories. If they have positive memories, they will grow up reading.”
However, Rooney is quick to point out the three-way partnership is what makes the program successful.
“The library created a positive environment. The Optimist Club made it possible and both Paul and I are hooked on it.”
The celebration takes place from 4:30 p.m. to 6 p.m. Cake and punch will be served.