When online drama is good for kids | Theater Preview | Chicago Reader

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When online drama is good for kids

Virtual classes and activities keep the theater bug alive for young artists.

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With schools in Illinois closed for the remainder of the current school year, families may be scrambling to find enrichment activities for the quarantine to take the place of their usual extracurricular outings. Several theater companies have either created new family-oriented material or stepped up their existing online roster of classes to address the need. 

Chicago Children's Theatre

"This is really kind of a new world for us," says Chicago Children's Theatre cofounder and artistic director Jacqueline Russell. CCT didn't have any online programming until the shutdown in March. But they quickly ramped up those offerings. "I don't think we will ever again NOT have online content. I think we're going to be forever changed by this. And I think that could be a good thing," says Russell. "We've certainly learned a lot from creating and sharing this content. And it is absolutely increasing our reach, I think."

The initial impulse to take classes and activities online came from pure necessity. Notes Russell, "We already had class sessions that were suddenly cut short. So the first thing we wanted to do was fulfill our obligations to those families. We immediately got our education team trying to figure out how we can put these offerings online and make sure that we're finishing what we're starting with these kids, knowing it was going to look a little different. Every family took us up on participating. I think people were happy to have their kids continue to do something that was, quote unquote 'normal' and still getting to be with their friends from the theater class." As it has for most of us, Zoom has become a go-to for keeping the kids and CCT instructors together for classes.

But another goal was to find ways to involve the entire family. CCT quickly unveiled the "Play at Home" video contest, which encourages kids and families to create a short (five minutes or less) play involving "a mythical creature of your choice, an evil villain, AND one of your family members." The contest is open through May 31, with submissions regularly uploaded to the CCT YouTube channel. "A lot of the kids are creating and directing their parents, which is really fun to watch," says Russell. "And I think it's empowering for the children to be creative leaders in their family." 

The YouTube channel also includes content created by CCT artists, including a version of Leo Lionni's children's classic Frederick, presented with puppets and a hand-turned "cranky" moving background. (Will Bishop and Grace Needlman designed, built, and performed the show, with music by Nick Davio.) CCT called in a heavy hitter for the narration: Michael Shannon, cofounder of A Red Orchid Theatre and two-time Oscar nominee.

The tale of a field mouse whose imaginative contributions to his family yield surprising results is an appropriate choice for celebrating the importance of storytelling in quarantine, though CCT also produced a full-fledged musical version of Lionni's story several years ago. Rather than just toss an archival video of that show on their website, CCT decided to reimagine it as an entirely online production.

By taking classes and activities into the virtual realm, Russell points out that there is an opportunity now for CCT and other companies to "level the playing field for so many people in a setting like this. If you have a working parent and you can't have somebody take you and pick you up after a class somewhere, that's a barrier. With something like this available to you in your home, you can participate in something that you couldn't have before." 

For Kilby Inabinet, 7, switching to an online class with CCT has pluses and minuses. Interviewed via e-mail, Inabinet, with the assistance of mother Anna, noted, "We don't get to play the fun games they have at the CCT. We don't get to go into classrooms. I miss doing our shows on stage in front of an audience." However, like many adults, Kilby sees the upside of working remotely. "It was fun to have the class online because we could wear our pajamas and get snacks whenever we want!"

CCT is also continuing its Red Kite program of classes for children with autism online. "That has been kind of blossoming, and we're just amazed at every session how many kids keep joining us," says Russell. "A lot of those kids are not necessarily right here in Chicago. So we have this geographic barrier that is broken down." She also notes that one advantage of the Zoom classes for the Red Kite students is that they can see everyone's faces at the same time, which is important for students who sometimes have difficulty reading visual cues.

Russell notes that CCT's recent virtual spring camp sessions included participants as far away as California. "It's kind of funny. We keep talking about how our mission is to serve the children of Chicago, because we're Chicago Children's Theatre. But we're serving children all over the country now. That is kind of amazing to me and it's such a positive outcome of this." 

Mudlark Theater Company

Founded in 2005, Evanston-based Mudlark focuses not just on creating work geared for young audiences, but on putting young artists onstage. Executive director Maureen Powers notes that they stage about 12 productions a year. They also offer after-school classes that normally take place at over 20 schools as well as at their headquarters, and provide about 60 summer camps annually. The majority of these programs take place in Evanston and the North Shore, though there are some north-side Chicago schools that participate as well.

Says Powers, "A lot of youth theaters give kids an opportunity to be onstage, and they cram a lot of kids on and everybody gets one line, and there are pretty low production values. That's kind of what we've come to expect from children's theater. But at Mudlark we raise expectations pretty high for the kids. We have small casts, which is why we do so many shows."

She adds: "All of our theater is from the youth perspective. It is not necessarily children's theater. We don't recommend kids under eight coming to our shows." 

Like CCT, Mudlark pivoted quickly to create online classes. From one of those grew The Mudlark News Network, a half-hour youth version of The Daily Show featuring correspondents reporting "live from various houses and backyards," with segments featuring sports, science (an interview with the coronavirus, in which it sounds like a certain chief executive as it touts its ratings and all its "fans"), and celebrity interviews. The show utilized a previous Mudlark offering, notes Powers. "We have a class called Costumes and Characters that used to be in person and kids would source from our costume collection, but now it's online and the kids run around their house and find costume pieces."

Sisters Alexis and Phoebe Rogers participated in MNN, with Alexis reporting on a kid (Phoebe) who deals with social distancing by refusing to leave her backyard trampoline. They also played a pair of Girl Scouts hoarding cookies. Alexis notes that though the class met through Zoom and received various writing prompts, "we got to improvise and make our own material. And then they turned it into a script which we eventually got to perform." She adds, "It was an interesting experience to be able to try a new form of media for acting."

Phoebe notes that one advantage of the online course is that "it's fast and it's fun, and then you can move on to a different one," which is advantageous for those who find their attention spans challenged by the limitations imposed by the quarantine. 

And though these online theater activities can be a bonding experience for families, Alexis and Phoebe's mother, Michelle Rogers, says, "I was really hands-off from a parenting perspective, which was fantastic. I'm a teacher and it can be really difficult to manage your children's activities and their studies and my own work." She also noted that the class took the kids away from the current overabundance of screen time required in remote classes by sending them in search of costumes, props, and locations—within the mandates of social distancing, of course.

Filament Theatre

"Everybody's in a scramble to figure out how to exist and still be relevant," says Julie Ritchey, artistic director and founder of Portage Park's Filament Theatre. The company never had an online educational component. "I feel like all of our initial panic was kind of internally driven, staff conversations and artist conversations, and nothing felt right. We were in rehearsals for a show already so we were trying to figure out, how can we pivot that to be something brand new? When we finally took a breath to say 'What do people need right now?,' then the panic subsided a little bit and everything became a little bit more clear."

Filament's staff consulted with their audiences and their youth advisory council to find out what they thought was needed. "There were three pretty clear categories that came out of that, which were continued interaction in real time, as opposed to just prerecorded video content—some kind of ability to react in real time; materials that can be done at any time in the home, especially for parents who are suddenly homeschooling their kids to find some creative opportunities in the home as well; and then just a way to kind of process feelings around all of this. We got one e-mail in particular from a fourth-grade teacher saying that her students were just really all anxious and uncertain and overwhelmed and needed some space to work through some of that."

Filament quickly developed online real-time classes, along with a printable tool kit. "Even though it's a digital resource, hopefully it takes families away from the screen," says Ritchey.  She also notes that the youth advisory council stressed that they missed the structure of the regular classes, as well as seeing their friends.

The activities include the "Lightbulb Lab," which encourages kids to imagine a post-quarantine future and to connect with older family members who may not be able to visit with them right now in order to gather family histories. "One of our advisory council members said 'This is a really historic time. What does it feel like to be living during a historic event?' And then some of the students were like 'I'm enjoying this. I want to enjoy time with my pets, I want to enjoy the time with my parents'—sort of focusing on the joy and what was just strange but nice about having to break from the regular routine."

Regardless of when the shutdown lifts, these companies find it hard to imagine that the online components developed in response to it will go away. Ritchey says "Frankly, this is just me personally and artistically, but I have no interest in innovating in the digital space at all. It's just not where my heart is or where my strengths are." But she adds, "We've kind of been joking internally that we've been preparing our audiences for this for 13 years, because the way we've always structured our programming and cultivated our audience and the way that we interact with them is that anything is a play, and anything is a theater event. Maybe there are no actors and maybe it's outside. Maybe it's for a small group of people at a time. Now it's just exploring 'How does a play happen in your home?'"

OTHER THEATER FOR YOUNG AUDIENCES ONLINE

Actors Gymnasium

The Evanston-based circus arts academy offers virtual classes for kids and adults that don't require a trapeze kit, focused on building physical flexibility and theater games. actorsgymnasium.org

Collaboraction

The company offers "The Prodigy's Workshop" online each Tuesday at 4 PM, hosted by teaching artists Luis Crespo and J. Nicole Brooks. The aim is to help youth "create content that amplifies their voice and seeks to incite social change." collaboraction.org

The Second City Training Center

The programs for kids and teens range from one-to-five-day online camps to drop-in classes on improv, sketch writing, and film. Secondcity.com  v

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