Lee Overtree presides over one of the best improv talent incubators around — just ask any savvy kid under 12. “Our secret is that we don’t think of it as making comedy for kids; we think of it as making comedy for each other.”
Ismael Lara Jr. grew up in southeast Texas, in the small town of Palacios, halfway between Galveston and Corpus Christi. He fell in love with theater and the arts in high school, but telling stories was not just a hobby. It was a way to survive.
Lara grew up in a home with domestic violence.
“When my father would act out,” Lara says, “I would go to my baby sisters’ room, throw a sheet over our heads and tell a story. It was a means of escape and a way for me to provide bravery and safety for my sisters.”
Lara, a third-year student in Northwestern’s Master of Fine Arts in Directing program, continues to tell stories for young people, now just on a bigger stage.
He is part of a long line of Northwestern students and alumni who have discovered the world of theater for young audiences (TYA), an approach to family-friendly performance that has the potential to open minds and change lives — for audiences and artists alike.
This past winter Lara directed Tomás and the Library Lady, a play by José Cruz González based on Pat Mora’s picture book of the same name. “I am the only Latine-identifying director in the MFA program,” says Lara. “And I think it was important that someone of Latine and/or Chicano heritage and identity lead this show.” (Latine is a gender-neutral term for Latin Americans.)
The play tells the story of a young boy who travels between Texas and Iowa with his family of itinerant agricultural workers. At the urging of his grandfather, Papa Grande, Tomás visits a library in Iowa that transforms his life by introducing him to the power of books. The story was inspired by the life of scholar and author Tomás Rivera, who became chancellor of the University of California, Riverside.
“I thought about my grandparents, who worked as migrant workers in fields and who paved the way for me to be here at Northwestern doing this magical thing of telling stories,” Lara says. “[That reflection] was really profound for me, and so immediately I said, ‘I want to tell this story.’”
The University played an integral role in the origins of theater for young audiences and, through programs such as Imagine U, has been at the cutting edge of the approach ever since. The very idea of TYA as an art form unto itself grew out of pioneering work by Northwestern professor Winifred Ward (class of 1905), who founded the Children’s Theater of Evanston in 1925.
And today Northwestern students and alumni are doing everything from creating shows for the National Theatre in Washington, D.C., to running multimedia companies with hit podcasts to bring this sophisticated entertainment to audiences worldwide.
“I love the fact that theater for young people is done at a very high level at Northwestern,” says Rives Collins, professor of theater and head of the School of Communication’s theater for young audiences module. “This is a community that takes children and the arts for children very seriously.”
The way TYA is taught and executed at Northwestern creates theater experiences that move beyond the cliches associated with “children’s theater.”
“In the national scene, there is an awful lot of bad theater for young people,” says Collins. “People used to think this is where folks who aren’t really actors can go to be hams, less talented designers can work in primary colors and less gifted writers can offer emotional cliches to our children. I fight against those stereotypes with every fiber of my being.”
For many, the archetype of children’s theater might be a play in a school assembly where performers discuss the food groups and perhaps sing about the importance of eating fruits and vegetables. Collins and the theater department work in a less pedantic mode, aiming for a higher level of artistry without condescension, and with a more inclusive approach, accessible to more children and reflective of more diverse experiences and communities.
“People like Rives and [Imagine U creative director] Lynn Kelso have studied the form, have spent their lives dedicated to the form and are connected to professionals in the field,” says playwright and senior lecturer Laura Schellhardt ’97. “At Northwestern, we are leading from a place of generosity, kindness and curiosity. Those should be the bedrock of all theater, but they are certainly the bedrock of theater for young audiences.”
REPRESENTATION ON STAGE
From his apartment in January, Lara held virtual rehearsals with the cast and crew of Tomás and the Library Lady, the first show to be staged during the pandemic by Imagine U, the theater department’s series for young audiences. Using two laptops simultaneously, one aimed at himself and the second at a one-fourth model of the set, he led a blocking rehearsal, determining each actor’s positioning and movements. From this makeshift command center, Lara manipulated the scene like a dollhouse, with a figurine representing each actor.
Lara was sanguine about the difficulties of staging a production during a pandemic. “If Northwestern is a research institution, we’re doing research right now,” he declares. “We know how to do an old-fashioned rehearsal. We’re trying to figure this new thing out. This is a fascinating experiment.”
On top of Zoom rehearsals, COVID-19 tests and masked performances, the actors would also eventually be wielding intricate puppets onstage in the Ethel M. Barber Theater.
“I had never touched a puppet in my life,” says Alondra Rios, now a second-year theater major who played Josefa, Tomás’ hardworking mother. “But I definitely wish I had been able to see something like Tomás when I was younger.
“There’s not even a Hispanic Disney princess,” she adds. “Being able to see a story that is reflective of your own experience is important.”
On the Zoom call, Danny Mares vibrated with excitement. He played Papa Grande, Tomás’ wise grandfather. “He reminds me of my grandpa, Papa Trino, who worked in Mexico his whole life picking apples,” says Mares. “My dad told me Papa Trino loved to tell stories and to teach — exactly like Papa Grande!
“I’m excited not only to tell the stories in the play but also to tell a story of embracing your identity,” says Mares, now a third-year theater major. “My mother is Caucasian, and my dad is Hispanic. Growing up, I felt like I was a part of both groups but I also wasn’t a part of both groups. I almost wanted to reject my identity. Now I’m trying to get more involved with my Hispanic side. That’s why I’m passionate about playing Papa Grande. I hope I can inspire kids to be proud of their identity.”
In March, Mares and his six masked castmates performed in an empty theater with the same energy as if it were a packed house, singing with gusto in both Spanish and English. The performance was available to stream online.
Helping kids see and experience other perspectives and points of view is one of the fundamental goals of TYA. “We think a lot about representation on our stage,” says Collins. “Our shows are diverse in ways you can see and sometimes diverse in ways you can’t see. But all kids have a chance to see themselves in our productions.
IMAGINE U BREAKS THE FOURTH WALL
In 2010 Lynn Kelso ’97 MFA created Imagine U as a series of official theater department productions specifically for young people, providing not only entertainment and education for young audiences but also performance and experiential learning opportunities for Northwestern students.
“I didn’t want Imagine U to be a birthday party drop-off destination,” Kelso says, “because the experience is to be shared. The best moments are when I see parents and children talking about the play as they leave the theater.”
When young people walk into a Wirtz Center for the Performing Arts venue for an Imagine U show, the lobby is bustling with creative energy. Before the theater doors even open, kids are handed an activity booklet and encouraged to add their art to the colorful displays along the walls.
“The engagement and educational efforts supplement the in-person show experience,” says Hannah McGrath ’21, who was co-director of education and engagement for Imagine U this past spring. “For Tomás, I filmed a tour of the Robert Crown branch of the Evanston Public Library in Spanish and in English. It nicely supplements the plot of the show, which is all about libraries and the power of books.”
“The production itself,” says Collins, “is at the epicenter of a larger learning experience.” E. Patrick Johnson, dean of the School of Communication, says early exposure to theater and performance work unequivocally changed his life. He knows the art forms’ power.
“In seeing our students’ brilliance on display, feeling that sense of belonging we engender, and understanding they too can and should share their creative voice, children get a crash course in the power of collective wonder,” Johnson says. “Those moments are pivotal in fostering joy, compassion and curiosity in young minds and hearts.”
OPENING THE DOORS WIDER
There are a number of TYA-focused student groups at Northwestern (see “The Kids Are All Right”). Seesaw Theatre specifically focuses on creating multisensory experiences for neurodiverse children, both in its own productions and in collaborations with Imagine U. Seesaw Theatre productions differ somewhat from traditional narrative shows in that kids can participate in any way they want with the characters, music, activities and props.
“Imagine U was one of the first groups to engage the Seesaw artists to do a ‘relaxed’ performance,” Kelso says, “and that has made our shows available to children who otherwise wouldn’t have an opportunity to experience plays.”
One Seesaw Theatre fan is 12-year-old Max Fortmann. He has 1p36 deletion syndrome, which results in cognitive and developmental disabilities, including difficulty with verbalization, according to his mother, Anna Guillemin. When Seesaw Theatre came to the Park School in Evanston, which works with children who have significant disabilities, Fortmann was thrilled. “He’s very social and driven by sounds and sensory information,” says Guillemin. “So watching the Northwestern students and all their instruments was utterly fascinating to him.”
Every Seesaw Theatre production is flexible and open-ended enough that, by design, no two children necessarily have the exact same experience. “We like to keep a 1-to-1 ratio of Seesaw adventure guides to kids,” says Michael-Ellen Walden ’21, who was Seesaw Theatre’s artistic director in the spring, “so that every audience member has their needs specifically attended to.” Adventure guides are trained students who accompany audience members through a Seesaw Theatre performance.
“We’ve had kids run around the space for 45 minutes and not engage with our characters at all,” explains Susie McCollum ’21, who was executive director of Seesaw Theatre in the spring. “That’s great. And we’ve also had kids really respond to the story. There are experiences available for both of those realities, and in many instances both are happening within the same space.
“The way to be an audience member is something that is so socialized for — and by — neurotypical individuals,” she adds. “Breaking down the othering of the disability community is always a priority for me.”
A PIRATE’S LIFE FOR ME
Collins is proud of the many Northwestern alumni who have gone on to make careers out of their work with young audiences. “We have people who are bringing classrooms to life through drama,” he says. “We have people who are directing and making plays happen. And we have people who are telling stories in extraordinary ways.”
One of those people is Benjamin “Jamie” Salka ’99. He takes children and their ideas very seriously. That’s partly because being taken seriously as a child made a huge difference in his own life.
“My dad died when I was little,” says Salka, “but the story of my childhood is not a tragedy because of the way that the adults in my life supported me. I could have easily been written off, because my childhood trauma left me outwardly very quiet. But there was so much going on inside me — I was answering questions about what is life, what is death, what does it mean to be here.”
When Salka was in sixth grade, his drama teacher asked if he would like to write the school play. “It was the perfect thing for me,” Salka says. “I had been processing the world for years, and I just put everything into this play.”
He wrote and starred in a musical adaptation of Oedipus Rex but can’t remember much about it. “What I do remember was the 30 seconds after the play ended, when the entire school was applauding for my work — for something I’d created,” says Salka. “It was a real turning point. Theater is where I found meaning and connection, and it brought me out of myself, to share who I am with the world.”
In 2004 Salka and Lee Overtree ’02 co-founded Story Pirates, which produces a live show where professional comedians, actors and musicians perform playful versions of material submitted by kids.
The idea for Story Pirates and its philosophy took root when Overtree discovered the Northwestern student group Griffin’s Tale, which adapts stories written by Chicago-area students into scenes, songs and sketches. “When I first saw these kids’ stories being brought to life onstage, it jumped out at me that these were not ‘just kids,’ ” says Overtree, Story Pirates’ creative director. “These were individuals with a really unique, filterless way of looking at the world.”
Now Overtree and Salka are taking the philosophy of TYA from Northwestern and bringing it to a global audience.
The Story Pirates show started in New York City (in the same basement theater where Lin-Manuel Miranda and Thomas Kail were working on In the Heights). It has since added dozens of Northwestern alumni to the cast and expanded to Los Angeles. The arts education and media company now produces the chart-topping Story Pirates Podcast and a slate of virtual programming. (Read more about Story Pirates.)
“Story Pirates is an overabundance of instant gratification,” says Salka, now CEO of the media company. “There’s almost not a day of the year when I don’t get a note from a parent or a teacher or a principal that says, ‘I’ve seen Story Pirates change my kid’s life.’
“The experience I had of being celebrated for my creative work is happening to thousands and thousands of kids every year because of Story Pirates.”
Theater for young audiences at Northwestern has transformed lives — not just for Benjamin Salka and Max Fortmann and Ismael Lara Jr. and the countless kids who can see themselves represented, but also for the creators who find meaning and purpose in the work.
“People in this field want to be artists, certainly,” says Collins. “But they also want to make a difference in the world. What I’ve seen is a hunger, not only for the art form but for service. And that’s part of what has made this work so vibrant.”
Martin Wilson ’10 MS is director of creative production in Northwestern’s Office of Global Marketing and Communications.