During a time of rapid and unprecedented change in this country and around the world, I want to pause for a moment and reflect with you about why we do what we do.
When our teaching artists step into the classroom and engage young people, we are not just teaching creative writing - we are working to engender in a new generation of Chicagoans a love for creative self-expression and confidence that their ideas matter. In this way we work toward our vision of a radically kind Chicago that champions children’s ideas - a vision that guides our work and our relationships, both within the company and with you, our community.
One of the greatest things about working in live theater is getting to interact face-to-face with supporters. Almost every week, we come together and experience students’ stories brought to life on stage. It is these connections that engender empathy, as we share joy in the workings of the human imagination - even in times where both empathy and joy seem lacking in the world.
I am so grateful that each of you has made the choice to value arts education, support local theater, and be part of our community. With your help, Barrel of Monkeys will continue to work tirelessly to create safe spaces for Chicago’s youth to play, laugh, write, and act out their brilliant stories for many more years to come.
Thank you for joining us on this important journey and believing in Barrel of Monkeys!
Our students are young, but they are not naïve. They know exactly what took place at the ballot box this week, and inside each of their brilliant minds are opinions and questions and hopes and fears about the future.
At Barrel of Monkeys, we work to provide our students with the tools and the confidence to express their ideas and share their stories. Sometimes, they write funny stories about monsters and aliens and attacking vegetables. Other times, they write beautiful testaments to the world as they experience it and their aspirations and dreams for a better future. All of their stories are important, and worth celebrating.
Today in this uncharted era, we offer the strongest words of hope we can find. Unsurprisingly, they come from a student. Please enjoy.
Untitled [Peace Lives]
by Beth C.
Peace lives in my eyes
They allow me to see what
good and beautiful things
there are in the world
I see the leaves on the trees
I see the smiles on people’s faces
I see my friends laughing
My eyes allow me to see
the bad things in the world
I see people living on the streets
I see people fighting
I see people crying
Peace lives in my hands
My pencil hits the paper
I let out all my anger
I write how I feel
My hands allow me to feel
I can touch
I can create.
For the past year, Barrel of Monkeys Company Members Jen Johnson and Matt Miller have been working on an exciting project that takes some of our favorite student-written stories and adapts them to the medium of film. Both have been involved with Barrel of Monkeys for 15+ years, and this project was a way for them to put their production expertise to use and share our work with a broader audience. We sat down with Jen Johnson to learn more about this ambitious endeavor.
So, we’re seeing all of these Monkey Movies this week. Can you tell us about the project?
Matt Miller and I decided a year ago that we wanted to professionally produce some of the stories our students had written over the years. We took a long time to pick the first 5 stories we wanted to film. Some are older classics and some are newer and were adapted in the recent years. We spent an entire day filming and many months editing and now we’re presenting them to the world.
So you and Miller have been heading this project up. Who else has been involved?
Well, Monkey movies have been made before by several Company Members, particularly Mike Tutaj. We were inspired by what he had done and excited about how important social media and a significant online presence is right now. We’re planning to have an ongoing and steady production of Monkey Movies over the next few years. . Many Monkeys helped throughout this process. Our Company is very collaborative and you’ll see lots of familiar Monkey faces in the videos. Jonathan Mastro and Ricky Harris made some music that you’ll hear. The animation was done by Lizzie Bracken. Several staff members were involved in editing. It has been a very collaborative process.
What do you want viewers to take away from these videos?
When you hear the name Barrel of Monkeys and then you learn we teach children in Chicago Public Schools, I think it’s difficult to understand the quality of art that we produce as a Company. We walk a fine line of adult and child humor when we adapt stories, but it is always an adult adaptation of something a child wrote using sketch and improv. Our hope is these videos will appeal to a broad audience- both an audience we are not reaching in Chicago, locally, and a national audience. We hope that they’ll be an example of the work we do- as it is incredibly unique.
What Monkeys does is incredibly particular. In the classroom and in the adapting process, we operate under the agreement that every idea is a good idea. We don’t steer our students’ stories. We don’t correct their spelling or grammar. And it’s really our students’ imaginations that bring this work to life.
What has been most exciting for you in this process?
I’ve been an active Company Member with Barrel of Monkeys for 15 years.It is exciting to start a new journey, artistically, and to adapt for the screen with the guidance of Matt Miller, who has a lot of directing and Monkey experience It’s professionally exciting for me to experiment with this format in addition to the great work Barrel of Monkeys is already doing in schools and on stage.
You mentioned that we can expect more Monkey Movies after the release this week?
We are in the process of creating a timeline to film our next movies. We’re looking at stories right now and once we select those stories, we’ll start to plan the next steps!
With The Ten Diamonds and Sisters by Michelle A. from the Johnson School of Excellence slated to go into TWG on Monday, I sat down with Rawson Vint, the mastermind behind adapting this story into a song. We chatted about his process and special connection to the story. Read an excerpt from the interview below.
What first drew you to The Ten Diamonds and Sisters in the rehearsal room?
I think I gravitate to those types of stories because of the challenge, the originality of the work, and the chance to experiment. Diamonds in particular was a challenge because I set myself a task to do it word for word. There’s maybe two exceptions, but other than that—it’s verbatim what the author wrote.
Not only did you adapt this story into a song, you also originated the role of the mother. If this song were to be performed on Broadway, which celebrity would the producers hire to replace you? (Not that you’re replaceable but let’s face it, it’s a tough business)
I keep thinking “who’d be the most unlikely person to do this song” and it would have to be Alex Trebek from Jeopardy. Wouldn’t that be weird? And great? Can he even sing?
Does Diamonds tell a larger story? What metaphor or real life connections do you hope audience members take away?
There’s definitely some attachment anxiety going on in this family, not to mention they eat dinner at 10pm. But I think the take away is “take care of yourself and your family….and your diaaaaaaamonds”.
The That’s Weird, Grandma 15th Anniversary Show is just around the corner! Here is a wishlist list from company member Tom Malinowski!
That’s Weird Grandma: 15 for 15
Hey! It’s me Tom! And here are my 15 favorite TWG memories! So many great ones, but here you go!
15 Toothless Beaver & Broom - Probably one of the fastest adaptations for a school story I was in
14 Croc & Eggnog - Halena gave us the easy direction of “Do this exactly like Toothless Beaver & Broom.”
13 Funny Bunny - Kristie is my main antagonist who finally gives in to the silliness of the story
12 Superheroes - Only two awesome women have played ?, Lacy and Laura who each bring a similar hilarious yet deliver it differently
11 Magical Place - The only story where I’ve used an annoying high voice over and over and not gotten tired of it
10 The Lobster Factory - The only story when we did it at TWG (5th year anniversary I believe?!) where Beau supplied me a blood packet to burst when the lobster first claws me. I haven’t used a blood packet since. Fake blood.
9 The Meat one (with puppets) - I usually held one end of the curtain the puppets hid behind and I continually, genuinely laughed at the ridiculousness of the reasons why meat is good for you
8 The Raven - The only adaptation of a story into a song about a roller coaster by Geoff Rice which is all full of amazingness
7 The one where I’m in a movie theatre and when it was at TWG Jeff did the voiceover - Whenever he mimicked Carol Channing I lost it
6 The Boat War - This might’ve been the first piece I was in where a non-musician did the music on Garageband (Anthony!)
5 We grouped three stories under the umbrella “A Very Scary Scary Story Minute” We spread this throughout the school show and eventually TWG Green Glob, The Ugly Girl, and one more….. probably one of the first adaptations where we did something like that. We came out singing the jingle, said the title of the story, and then the very short story started
4 The Opening - When we first did the opening for TWG, we would change up the choreography constantly as the schtick
3 Closing Speech - Remember when we did the closing speech and we also did the dance while we did it? That was a first!
2 The basketball one that Jeff and I were in.. - Jeff was the main driving force, and he picked “On to the Next One” song which I hadn’t heard before until he brought the song for rehearsal
1 Old old story I can’t remember the title - But Charlie and I would start on opposite sides, stomp to each other at the center, growl, then I put him over my shoulder and walked off stage. I haven’t put someone over my shoulder ever since.
More information about THAT’S WEIRD, GRANDMA: 15th ANNIVERSARY SHOW directed by Joseph Schupbach and Halena Kays
Company members old and new will reunite as Barrel of Monkeys celebrates 15 years of its hit revue THAT’S WEIRD, GRANDMA with two special anniversary performances on Sunday April 17 at 2 pm and Monday, April 18 at 8 pm at its long-time home, the Neo-Futurist Theater, 5153 N. Ashland Ave. in Chicago. Tickets are available here!
The special 90-minute production will feature 30 sketches and songs, two from each of the 15 years THAT’S WEIRD, GRANDMA has been performed at Neo-Futurist theater, including plenty of audience favorites. Directed by current Artistic Director Joseph Schupbach and Founding Artistic Director Halena Kays, the 15TH ANNIVERSARY SHOWS will feature long-time company members, as well as out-of-town artists returning to the show they performed in years ago. Back in the booth is Maggie Fullilove-Nugent, who served as the company’s stage manager for ten years. All of the stories are written by Chicago Public School students and adapted for the stage by Barrel of Monkeys Company Members. The 15TH ANNIVERSARY SHOW cast includes active members Ashley Bland, Kassi Bleifuss, Brandon Cloyd, Anthony Courser, Lindsey Dorcus, Linsey Falls, Michael Govier, Nick Hart, Mary Winn Heider, Jennifer Johnson, Elizabeth Levy, Laura McKenzie, Spencer Meeks, Matt Miller, Meredith Milliron, Shá Norman, Tai Palmgren, Zoe Schwartz, Jason Sperling, Kate Staiger, Brad Stevens, Rawson Vint, Curtis Williams and Rachel Wilson.
Emeritus and out-of-town members include Brenda Arellano, Lisa Barker, Brennan Buhl, Sarah Garner, Luke Hatton (former Artistic Director), Mike Lubin, Tom Malinowski, Philip Markle, Jonathan Mastro, Lauren Sharpe, Eric Silverberg, Mike Spatafora, Kristie Vuocolo (former Executive Director), Ryan Walters and Donnell Williams.
“I am absolutely thrilled about this celebration! I have the incredible opportunity to co-direct with Founding Artistic Halena Kays, who led the company for ten years – and welcome back alumni into the cast. My relationship with ‘Grandma’ now spans eleven years, so I’m delighted to put some of my favorite stories back on stage. Long-time audience members will enjoy some ‘oldies’ and brand new audience will be delighted to see this mega-sized cast perform the written work of Chicago Public Schools students. There will be song, dance, puppets, short films, surprises, blasts from the past and much more. It will undoubtedly be a magical place to spend 90 minutes.” -Artistic Director Joseph Schupbach