When the COVID-19 lockdown first hit in March, a lot of companies whose mission focused on theater for young audiences found their digital shelves mostly bare. But they quickly ramped up their offerings with short films, workshops, and other activities designed to give kids and their families a break from the monotony of screen time routines.
Now with the shutdown heading toward its one-year anniversary (and the increasing prospect of the Chicago Teachers Union going on strike in protest of what they view as unsafe working conditions for reopening classrooms), creating an online alternative has become a central part of the mission for many TYA companies. And it’s a part of the mission that they’ll keep fulfilling, even after they can go back to live performances.
Northwestern University’s Imagine U series has long offered young audiences live shows, with opportunities to meet the casts afterward and programs with take-home activities. But when the shutdown first hit, Imagine U founder Lynn Kelso knew that they had to pivot quickly.
“We created something called Imagine U Storytime,” Kelso says. “And the objective of that was to bring stories into the homes of the families that used to come to the theater—virtual stories, with the goal of having fun but having meaningful themes. And then we added the additional activity section to the story, so when you finished listening or seeing the storyteller, you then had an activity like making a puppet, or learning a dance, or learning a song.”
New stories, averaging 12 to 15 minutes in length, are added weekly every Sunday at 6 PM CST, and they can all be found on the YouTube channel for Northwestern’s Wirtz Center. But Kelso knew that there was more to be done. And now, thanks to a commission from the National Theatre in Washington D.C., Imagine U is part of the National’s Saturday Morning Live! programming for young audiences, creating three original episodes on the theme of Life Now.
The first one, which premiered on the National’s YouTube channel on January 16, is called Life Now: The Book of How, and focuses on themes such as accepting change and being a better listener. On January 30, Fun with Feelings drops, and on February 13, What’s Your Story? takes the spotlight. The Imagine U team includes creative director Amanda Tanguay (an adjunct lecturer at Northwestern and director-choreographer-performer whose resume includes work with young audience programming at Marriott Theatre), cast members and 2020 Northwestern grads Ryan Foreman, Hannah Hakim, Pablo David Laucerica, and Mia Nevarez, and host Alvin Chan, who is a current MFA candidate in directing.
Says Kelso, “Everything that we commit to has to have a sense of value and a sense of focus to it beyond simply entertaining. So all three of the episodes tackle, in very creative ways, issues. The first episode, one of the elements we play with is how to be an active listener, and we create a little game show where they decide if Hannah is being an active listener, and you either get it right or wrong. The same way, the second episode we’re dealing with feelings, letting them know it’s all right to have strong feelings, and what do you do with them. The little Leo the Lion puppet we have visits a therapist and talks about his feelings. So all of the episodes for the National Theatre are really directed at not being didactic at all, but being creative and being purposeful.”
Foreman, who worked with Imagine U and Kelso at Northwestern on live shows, notes that putting the episodes together “just took more conversations with each other. Each one of us has our own individual experiences with Imagine U and working with kids.” Tanguay, Foreman notes, has a toddler of her own, which proved useful. “She would run ideas by him. She would show him little bits of songs or scenes or dances or crafts, and they would work together and we would get that feedback. So it was actually really really sweet to have a little test subject for some of the material to let us know if [segments] were too long. Or if there were things he would repeat all the time, we knew we were on the right track, because he was receptive to it.”
Each episode is about a half hour, and is geared for ages 4-10. Foreman points out that each one incorporates two songs (created with current Northwestern students Ezri Claire Killeen, Cameron Miya, and Libby Hatton), plus a crafts project and physical activities like dance, yoga, and even pilates. Foreman also notes that one advantage of doing the pieces online is that families can go back and revisit the material any time.
Another aspect of creating balance in the pieces, says Foreman, is deciding how directly to confront current issues. “One of the things we were discussing a while ago was, ‘Do we stray away from talking specifically about COVID in some way?’ And we realized we kind of can’t do that, this is something that is everyone’s experience right now in some way, and while that differs from person to person—and we emphasize that in some of the themes and episodes—everyone has had potentially some kind of experience with a COVID birthday, whether it be their own or a family member’s or something like that. So we touch on birthdays and we touch on how to celebrate while being so apart.”
In March, Imagine U will premiere a new on-demand show, Tomás and the Library Lady, directed by Ismael Lara Jr. and adapted by José Cruz Gonzáles from the book by Pat Mora, about a nine-year-old son of Mexican migrant workers in 1945 who discovers a love of reading. That show, unlike the free Life Now episodes and Imagine U Storytime, requires purchasing tickets. But for Kelso, moving Imagine U content online has not only helped them continue to reach families and children during the shutdown. It’s also continued the education process for the Northwestern students—even those who aren’t enrolled in theater classes. She notes that there have been pieces in the Storytime series featuring performances by a football player and a journalism major as well as theater faculty and students.
“I think we are definitely going to continue this component of Imagine U because it’s a wonderful platform for our students to have a chance to share stories and perform,” says Kelso.
Chicago Children’s Theatre at home
On January 18, Chicago Children’s Theatre premiered a new online piece, Diamond’s Dream, written and directed by Jerrell L. Henderson and designed by Caitlin McLeod. The 18-minute play tells the story of Diamond, a contemporary Chicago boy riding the el on his way to his dying grandmother’s bedside who encounters the spirit of a young girl who died in the flu pandemic of 1918-19.
It’s a moving piece, rendered even more poignant by the simplicity of the paper cut-outs utilized to tell the story. It’s also the first piece in CCT’s new Springboard project, designed to foster work for theater for young audiences by diverse local writers.
But it’s far from the only piece from CCT available free to families online. Through the company’s “CCTv” YouTube channel, you can find tutorials on stage makeup, finger puppets, and “painting with food,” among many other options. There are also short performance videos, including one based on Shakespeare’s The Tempest, created by CCT’s Red Kite Ensemble program for young artists on the autism spectrum.
CCT artistic director and founder Jacqueline Russell notes that the company’s expansion into the digital realm has involved an ongoing learning curve. “One of the things that we’ve really worked on with these virtual pieces is trying to keep them as short and sweet as possible. You know, you find that the attention span is quite short for this material.”
She adds, “I think that a lot of it is about ‘how do you create engagement?’ And so we certainly of course have been continuing all of our online education programs. And the work has been getting more and more sophisticated that the kids are creating with us. I think in some ways, it’s a little bit more exciting for kids because they like to see themselves. So any opportunity where they can be recorded performing and get to watch together is a wonderful experience. While we can’t be together, going to the theater and experiencing things live in the same space, there is some type of collective experience of watching together.”
For CCT teaching artist Emily Daigle, being watched has taken on a whole new level. Daigle’s engaging CCTv video teaching dance moves from the 1980s, like the Running Man and the Cabbage, was recorded six months ago. But it’s become a viral sensation in the Philippines, and has even found its way into classrooms there.
Pre-pandemic, Daigle notes that she was teaching a devised theater class with CCT at Richardson Middle School on the south side, helping the students create new stories out of folklore. Online, she’s taught costume design, working out for actors (she is also a cycling instructor), and an action adventure class for younger students, where they devised their own story and created their own costumes.
“A big focus for us was making sure they were still getting that element of theater where you can move around and be engaged and interactive,” says Daigle of the online teaching philosophy at CCT.
That engagement also involves the whole family. “That was the idea behind the dance videos,” says Daigle. “When we were discussing it, we were like, ‘OK, what are some ways for these kids to express themselves, but also be able to do something fun with their siblings and their parents and to connect with one another?” adding, “Parents get a blast from their past.”
With Springboard, Russell hopes that children and families will also find a way to actively engage with stories that reflect the times. “We are really saying to these artists, ‘If you could talk to children right now today, what would you tell them?’ And, you know, Jerrell was really coming off of all of these protests happening [the 1919 race riot in Chicago figures into Diamond’s Dream] and all the feelings about responding to that and thinking about a child’s perspective, thinking about the pandemic and death and grief. He’s really addressing a lot of very intense topics.”
For now, even as it remains uncertain when they can engage live and in person with their young audiences, what’s crystal clear is that CCT, Imagine U, and other companies focused on TYA (the list locally includes Filament, Mudlark, and Lifeline Theatre, all of whom teach online workshops and provide other content) offer entertainment, engagement, and a chance for creative expression for families who are stuck at home.
It’s also about keeping the love of theater alive. “We don’t want to lose a generation,” says Russell. v