Thunderbird Theatre is storytelling at its best

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LAWRENCE, Kan. - Founded as a means of training American Indian theater students, the Thunderbird Theatre Group at Haskell Indian Nations University has made a name for itself with performances throughout the United States.

Founded in 1975, as a part of Haskell Indian Junior College, the group has helped Native and non-Indian students explore professional production and acting for 26 years.

Alumni direct and perform with Native American and Alaskan Native and even mainstream theatre companies. They have gone on to write for the theatre, motion picture and television and work in all facets of the media.

The group tours during the academic year and its final performance this year was for a group of special needs American Indian children in Oklahoma.

"We were asked to perform for the special needs children and I told them no, not during finals week," said Pat Melody, who has directed the group since it was started in 1975. "But when the students found out, they said, 'Special needs kids? Native Americans? We'll go. We can study on Saturday.' So we went!"

This attitude is typical of the attitude of the theatre company. Students are willing to make sacrifices and work harder in order to perform. They appeared as a part of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts Millennium Stage series and at the National Education Association's 1998 International Board of Directors Conference on Earth Day at the center in Washington, D.C., as well as at other prestigious venues throughout the United States.

Melody explained that once a play has been done by a particular company, it isn't repeated. It is too difficult to put new players into a production with seasoned performers, so each academic year there is a search for a new play.

This year the group performed N. Scott Momaday's "Children of the Sun," based on an ancient Kiowa epic. The performance was widely acclaimed. The performance of "An Evening at the War Bonnet" in April, left audiences in awe, say those who attended.

When it performs for school children, the group provides a guide for teachers to help the children understand the story and its meaning.

Such performances draw students into the company. Carlos Cariaga, Santee, remembered how he became interested in the company. "I saw a production ... and I wanted to be an actor."

Students who don't feel comfortable on stage can set up the props and work on costumes for each production. Many members of the company say they don't care what they do as long as they can be a part of the Thunderbird Theatre.

Dianne Yeahquo Reyner was one of the original members. She left to raise a family, but returned Haskell to finish her education and rejoined the group.

"I was in the second production group when Pat Melody first came in 1975. When I came back to Haskell and I was in a public speaking class with Pat, she began inviting me to come and see a performance. When I finally did, Pat made me the assistant director and that sort of thrust me back into Thunderbird Theatre. It has been an extremely rewarding experience for me ever since."

The beautiful costume design, props and fantastic acting and stories make Thunderbird one of the premiere Native American theatre companies in the nation. It is possible to book the company during the academic year, but Pat Melody suggests contacting the group as early as possible. Information is available at (785) 749-8433.

As the school year ended for current members of the company, hugs and tears took the spotlight. Each member is going in a different direction over the summer, but all leave with something special - friendship and the knowledge they have been a part of something rare and beautiful, the gift of storytelling and making the story come alive - if only for a few hours.