Forts! Build Your Own Adventure Credit: Christian Libonati

It could have been Lord of the Flies. Filament Theatre was giving over complete control of its space to a young audience for Forts! Build Your Own Adventure, an hour-long experiment in professionally designed creative play. Arming kids with boxes piled high to the ceiling, pillows, sheets, clothespins and flashlights—what could go wrong? Absolutely nothing. Hundreds of performances, and perhaps thousands of forts later, Filament has proven the value of trusting its young people with agency and influence in the world of its performances.

As a theater critic and an aunt, I’ve experienced the magic of Filament’s immersive productions. I’ve daydreamed at The Van Gogh Café, moved from place to place with Soledad’s migrant family in Luna and been held hostage in a washer-dryer box by an enterprising nephew during Forts! The common thread throughout the past 14 years of Filament’s dramatically different, site-specific theater is a healthy respect for and admiration of young people’s ability to engage with complex and often introspective material. Like a Pixar movie, Filament operates on multiple frequencies for everyone from toddlers enjoying sensory overload to tweens and adults meditating on challenging themes.

“Every audience is a multigenerational audience and every audience is a neurodiverse audience,” says Julie Ritchey, Filament’s artistic director. In The Adventures of Robin Hood, violence was pantomimed to avoid shocking the youngest children. The Uncorker of Ocean Bottles offered a portrayal of loneliness for some; for others, delightful tactile elements like sand between your toes and unexpected sprays of water. Always the final design element, the audience’s job was to become the ocean and make waves.

“I think theater for young audiences can be so much more avant-garde in many ways than theater for adults, because young people crave new stories and new experiences,” Ritchey says. “Theater for young audiences” (TYA) is Ritchey’s preferred term to “children’s theater” and an effort to legitimize the work as an art form.

“Criticism of theater for young audiences focuses on educational value and attention span—was it good for you, were you bored,” Ritchey says. “I find it upsetting and condescending, and that kind of thing is a huge part of the reason why we didn’t expressly say that we were TYA for so many years.”

But families weren’t coming. It took a three-year infrastructure-building process, supported by the Chicago Community Trust and in partnership with the Arts & Business Council of Chicago, for Filament to lean, loudly, into its mission of creating theater for young people and their communities. Young people, families, schools, period. Engagement took a dip as some supporters who’d hoped Filament would grow up one day and do A Streetcar Named Desire exited, but the following season, their audience grew exponentially.

“A driving motto that we have, that we talk about at every first rehearsal, is there’s no wrong way to be here,” Ritchey says. That means Filament is rethinking what it means for kids to be good audience members. At one sensory-friendly performance of Robin Hood, a two-woman show full of direct audience address, one audience member spoke the whole time and took a closing bow along with the actors. In addition to being a gratifying moment for the actors, this full-hearted engagement modeled a more inclusive definition of “acceptable behavior” to those in attendance, Ritchey says.

The most unique way Filament is building bridges and healthy feedback loops with its audience is through its growing Youth Advisory Council (YAC), a large, loosely connected group of kids that advises on and will eventually help select Filament material before it hits the stage. “We are all theater professionals, but I grew up in Kansas in the 80s. I don’t know what it is to be a kid in Chicago in 2020,” Ritchey says.

Early surveys spurred the creation of pre-show art activities in the lobby and post-show family play inside the theater. In 2018, young people were brought into the rehearsal process as true collaborators. Last year, Filament summer camps morphed into youth dramaturgy workshops, which influenced productions in the coming season. The kids help the Filament team understand the world in a different way, and their acting, direction, and set design evolve accordingly.

In conversation with five of Filament’s youth advisors, Drake and Luke Groszek, ages 11 and 7, recalled their involvement in The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane rehearsals last year. In addition to acting out different parts, the kids were tasked with bringing specific scenes to life, like the china rabbit Edward Tulane being tossed overboard. “The only material we had was people,” Drake says, which led to figurative representations of the undulating waves and sea creatures. In a camp designed around Luna, Emma Sennett, age 8, built golden benches for their play’s set, a “fancy park,” and journaled daily about new learnings and overcoming past challenges.

Filament’s shorthand for its immersive techniques includes “agency” and “influence,” moments when the audience can move around, respond, build, or transform a scene before their eyes. That could be flexible seating with short legs in mind, like pillows one boy used to build a fort during Pinocchio, or having the audience wave their napkin “seagulls” during Van Gogh Café. “There’s no better teacher of how you can pick up a spatula and say ‘this is a magic wand’ than our target audience,” Ritchey says.

It shouldn’t be a surprise that Filament’s work is grounded in academia. Strongly influenced by Northwestern’s theater department head and TYA expert Rives Collins, Ritchey also follows the Montessori philosophies of “follow the child” and “freedom within limits.” It’s spurred child development workshops to help actors anticipate audience responses, as well as the thoughtfully crafted rules and tools that make Forts so successful.

A doctoral student of the learning sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago, Lisa Siciliano came to a Forts! adult night last year through her friend Andrew Marikis, the show’s experience designer. She immediately saw the opportunity for research and will be running a study this Friday on how adults interact with one another and the tools provided, and how those interactions change over time.

“I think of it as a maker space, I think of it as improvisation, I think of it as play,” Siciliano says. “These are experiences and items that you already know how to use, that tap into something already existing in your memory bank and emotions.”

For Forts‘ young audience, it was an opportunity to work their imaginations overtime and build connections. Drake waged war, Emma ran covert ops as a secret agent, and Leah Walsh, age 9, built a palace. Maddie Walsh, age 11, appreciated an invitation from some new friends to army-crawl through their “super cool fort.” All agree the hour run time was too short, though Maddie concedes it was probably because they were having too much fun.

Siciliano’s seen limited research on theater, her disciplinary specialization, and hopes her footage and interviews with both audience members and designers will expand the conversation around informal learning environments. It’s necessary for researchers to be allowed into the “sacred space” of theater to further support arts and arts education advocacy, she says. And Filament needs it. Just adding the label of TYA to their consistent slate of young audiences material has decreased critical acclaim and press coverage.

“It speaks more to the way that our society thinks about children in ways that are troubling, and that we, through the work that we do, are specifically hoping to subvert and address,” Ritchey says. Kids are hungry for theater, and their sensitivity and maturity will impress you.

“What makes a good play is when the audience feels emotions,” Maddie says, recalling the YAC camp last summer. The kids were tasked with creating an original piece on a major global issue in one week. They chose climate change, and their vignettes were thoughtfully designed and instructive. A skit with someone in Chicago unable to enjoy their burrito due to inclement weather and a farmer in India unable to grow crops illustrated a keen understanding of scale and relative suffering. Another, where the “green family” convinces the “meat family” to eat more veggies, was a take-home tip for reducing your carbon footprint.

Leah has choice words for adult underestimators. “I think they know we want to help do whatever we can to save the world, but they just think we’re not responsible enough, which is kind of annoying because they don’t know what they’re doing either.”  v