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The Kids Are All Right

Northwestern student groups inspire young audiences — and vice versa.

Kids are alright hero
Kandace Mack and Valen-Marie Santos ’21, two of the past and present student leaders of Griffin’s Tale.Image: SHANE COLLINS

By Martin Wilson
Fall 2021
Features

It’s not every day that a playwright gets to see their words brought to life by talented performers onstage. It’s even more unusual when that playwright turns out to be an ordinary 7-year-old.

When a lucky second- or third-grader submits a story to the Northwestern student group Griffin’s Tale, that narrative — no matter how simple or how zany — gets transformed into an epic drama, song, dance, rap, comedic sketch … or other. “Whatever best fits and honors the story,” says Valen-Marie Santos ’21, who served as one of the directors of Griffin’s Tale during her senior year.

“The kids have zero sense of limits or rules,” says Santos. “We’ll read a story that’s just, ‘I couldn’t find my shoe. Oh, it was in the trash all along.’ And we’re like, ‘That’s awesome. Let’s make it a song!’ Kids just write the story that comes to them without any second-guessing, and that’s so inspiring.”

GRIFFIN’S TALE

Griffin’s Tale has created this collaborative style of theater for young audiences (TYA) for more than 30 years. While most theater groups have to sift through catalogs of plays or find a playwright to work with, Griffin’s Tale relies on the most renewable source of creativity in existence: kids themselves.

The group adapts a selection of stories written by kids in Chicagoland elementary schools, then performs those stories for that school. “We’re [performing] beautiful theater for young audiences that’s written by the audience,” says senior Kandace Mack, another Griffin’s Tale director. “It gives youth so much agency, and it brings them so much joy.” 

Griffin’s Tale is just one of the many Northwestern student-run organizations that focuses on theater for young audiences; other groups include Purple Crayon Players and Seesaw. TYA may be seriously fun, but it’s also taken very seriously at Northwestern. Official theater department productions and student-led endeavors alike treat young audiences with sophistication and respect.

Halena Kays ’96, assistant professor of theater, was a member of Griffin’s Tale in her days as a Northwestern undergraduate. She was so inspired by the group that she started the theater company PlayMakers Laboratory (formerly Barrel of Monkeys) after graduation. The company, like Griffin’s Tale, adapted and performed children’s stories. PlayMakers Laboratory toured Chicagoland schools for many years under Kays’ direction, creating unique performances for each school based on stories written by the students there. The best material from those school-based shows appears in PlayMakers Laboratory’s long-running show That’s Weird, Grandma. The show, which recently celebrated its 20th anniversary, was staged weekly up until the pandemic and is now directed by Brandon Cloyd ’07.

Assistant professor of theater Halena Kays. Credit: Joe Mazza

“The great thing about Griffin’s Tale and PlayMakers Laboratory is that the plot and the words are coming from the children,” says Kays, “so there is not a question of whether a child can understand or whether this is appropriate. There’s great freedom in that.”

(Griffin’s Tale also gave rise to Story Pirates, now a successful media company with a hit podcast in addition to other creative projects.)

After leading PlayMakers Laboratory for a decade, Kays left the organization to earn her master of fine arts from the University of Texas at Austin and returned to Northwestern as an assistant professor of theater in 2018. “Northwestern instilled in me a respect for children,” says Kays, “and an understanding that their feelings and thoughts are important and valuable, that their stories should be treated with respect and love, and that children should be treated as collaborators, as equals.”

Respect for the young authors extends beyond their stories to include their cultures and languages as well. “We do Spanish stories for bilingual students,” says Santos of Griffin’s Tale. “Anyone in the ensemble who can speak Spanish will be involved in those stories.”

Beyond writing the original stories, sometimes kids will contribute to the performance in less structured ways. “One time we had an ensemble member [Ben Shapiro ’19] playing a princess,” says Santos. “And one of the boys in the audience shouted, ‘You’re a boy!’ And Ben just improvised this inspirational response: ‘Anyone can be a princess!’

“That’s an example of the beauty of Griffin. Kids react, and you just have to go with it.”

Griffin’s Tale performing in 2019. Credit: courtesy of Griffin's Tale

“I like performing for kids because they’re the most honest audiences. They don’t have any filter,” says Mack. “It makes for a really exciting experience. You never know what the show is going to be. You’re thinking on your feet the whole time and learning.”

The entire creative experience can also be healing and helpful for the ensemble members. “[Griffin’s Tale] has made me less scared to just be,” says Santos. “When you’re onstage and something wacky happens, like a part of your costume falls off in the middle of the performance, you have to go with it and lean into the wackiness. It’s something I’d love to carry more into my day-to-day life — taking things as they come and thinking, ‘How can I best react to this situation right now in this moment?’”

PURPLE CRAYON PLAYERS 

While Griffin’s Tale taps directly into the wild minds of kids, the take a slightly more traditional path, connecting regularly with working professionals in the field. Founded in 2005, PCP produces a season of plays, often focusing on new and less mainstream work. The season includes two mainstage productions and a production that tours local schools. PCP also produces an annual Playground Festival that attracts professional TYA playwrights to workshop new material, which typically results in readings of three new works from the festival.

“We choose two or three plays written by professional playwrights,” explains Jessica Nekritz  ’21, who served as executive director of Purple Crayon Players during her senior year. “We had 72 submissions [in 2020-21], nearly double last year. Then a student director gets to work with a professional playwright on the process of creating a new work. These plays go on to be published and performed all around the country and the world.”

The pandemic forced the last two Playground Festivals to switch to a virtual format, creating challenges and opportunities alike. “We were able to extend the festival, increase our viewership and increase our collaboration with TYA artists from around the country,” says Nekritz. “We also [had] a student-written play directed by a professional playwright, which is a cool switch.”

In collaboration with Purple Crayon Players, Laura Schellhardt ’97, a playwright and senior lecturer in the School of Communication, invited Northwestern students to submit new plays written for young audiences. She got more than 50 submissions during the 2020-21 school year and ultimately selected Without Wings by senior Ilana Abusch, the story of a tooth fairy who’s about to embark on her first mission when she meets a young girl who wants to keep her tooth. “It’s an adventure, but it’s also about growing up,” Schellhardt says. “It’s grounded but infused with joy and magic.”

When it comes to selecting the particular plays PCP wants to produce or workshop, there are no hard and fast rules, but there are some important considerations. “One of the things we discuss is ‘radical hope,’” says Nekritz, “the idea that there are a lot of scary, hard things happening right now, but young people are full of hope. That’s what our art should offer them.”

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