By Justin Hayford

“Once upon a time there was an old singing explosive big red cheeseburger with poison sauce and a cane. One day the big red cheeseburger went to the blue haunted house to visit a friend. It was his girlfriend the French fry.”

As Halena Kays reads these words aloud, her face lights up in delight and admiration. It’s the beginning of a story written by a group of third graders from Gladstone School, where Kays and her theater company, Barrel of Monkeys, recently completed a six-week creative writing workshop.

“When he got to the house she was not there,” Kays continues. “The French fry had gone to her mother’s house to visit her mother and father. The big red cheeseburger felt sad and started to sing a love song–‘Wild Wild West’–to her with Will Smith. Will Smith was mad at the big red cheeseburger because he stole his song.” Kays dissolves into laughter. Ultimately Will Smith gets so angry that he takes a bite out of the big red cheeseburger–and is quickly done in by the poison sauce.

For the past three years, Kays and company have taken up residence in elementary schools across the city, inspiring third and fourth graders to forget the rules of “proper” writing and let their imaginations spill forth. “We’re in Chicago public schools where they’re so freaked out about testing,” Kays explains. “But with us, if they don’t know how to spell something, it doesn’t matter.” As a kind of reward for the children’s efforts, the Monkeys then perform the stories for the entire student body.

Since the company works primarily in some of the city’s poorer neighborhoods, they rarely end up on an actual stage. “We perform in the gymnasium sometimes,” Kays says, “or just in the hallways.

“Usually the whole school comes out to see it. For a lot of the kids, it’s the only theater they’ve ever seen. So it’s this unbelievable experience: every time you introduce a story and the kid who wrote it, you have to give five minutes to the kid and his friends to go nuts. And after we do the story, suddenly that kid is a star.”

Kays, with her spiky red hair and biker-chick bravura, admits she is “a very unlikely suspect to be involved in children’s theater. I’m sort of a cynic. I smoke 100 cigarettes a day. I have the mouth of a sailor. But I like kids–I think they’re cool.”

She knows firsthand the trauma that prescriptive writing programs can inflict on young minds. “When I was a kid, I couldn’t spell at all. I still can’t. So I had to go get tested. Was I dyslexic, was I something else? So I just stopped writing because it was so humiliating. I didn’t write until senior year in high school, when I had one of those amazing teachers who told me that spelling ability is not a sign of intelligence. And I just know there are lots of kids out there like me.”

She also knows many of the students she teaches live in worlds she can’t imagine. She gets an occasional glimpse, as in one story written by a fourth grader in the Byrd School near Cabrini-Green. It begins, “Once upon a time there lived a lonely man named Dirty. He lived in the suburbs under the subway in the sewers with the rats.” When it came time to perform the story, the company turned it into a blues song.

Kays fell into children’s theater in 1993 as a sophomore at Northwestern University. She joined a student group called Griffin’s Tale, which solicited stories from youngsters around the city and performed them in their schools. “It was one of the most popular groups for acting students to be involved with,” she says, “because you get to do all this crazy stuff and act like an idiot.”

After graduation she spent a year in Ireland. Returning to Chicago, she reunited with former Griffin’s Tale colleague Erica Rosenfeld, who was pursuing a graduate degree in education. The two hit upon the idea for Barrel of Monkeys but didn’t know how to get into the public schools. Instead they volunteered with the Albany Park Homework Project, tutoring Cambodian students. “While we were helping them with their homework, we would try to get them to write stories,” Kays says. During that year they hooked up with the Hibbard School to test run their program. The following year they had more schools requesting their services than they could handle.

“These days, some schools ask us to leave our curriculum,” Kays says. “And we’re like, ‘Who are we that you want our curriculum?'”

The group treats the stories like classic literature to be adapted for the stage. They don’t introduce extraneous characters or plot elements, and they often find themselves embroiled in long, heated discussion about whether an improvised moment stretches beyond the intent of the author. “Our goal is always to tell the story as written,” she says.

“Only once did we have to change a story. This one kid was the troublemaker, the ‘bad kid,’ and he didn’t trust us, didn’t warm up to us. So on the last day we were working on a group story which he didn’t like, so finally we said, ‘Look, if you want the story to go another way, go over there and write it.’ So he did, and he came back with this beautiful story about the worst kid in school who does something good and wins a prize. It was gorgeous, but the last sentence was, ‘Sure enough, I pulled out a .45 and capped his ass.’ So we turned the .45 into a ruler, which he hit the other guy with. In a school, we can’t pull out a gun and shoot someone.”

Last year the Monkeys mounted their first public performance at Live Bait Theater. Starting Monday they’ll be back with a second installment, Stuff on My Head: The Best of Barrel of Monkeys, featuring soon-to-be classics like “I Can Lick My Own Face Off,” “Jerry Got Hit by a Parked Car,” and “Underwear Visits Mo the Hunter.”

“One of the best parts is seeing the kids whose stories you’re doing,” Kays says. “Their behavior, their whole body language changes when they realize that someone has taken all this time to do something that they wrote. It’s the coolest thing I’ve ever seen in my life.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.