Posted by hpalmer on July 26, 2017
This past Sunday I dropped my 11 year old daughter off at Northwestern for a 3-week summer program. There’s a lot about that sentence that I don’t really know how to process (especially that I have an 11 year old…what the?!). As we were walking onto campus we passed a little hill where Halena and I were sitting the day we said to each other – “well, we graduated from college, what do we do now?” The germ idea for Barrel of Monkeys was born as we talked about how much we had enjoyed creating and performing stories written by kids but that we were really hungry for more interaction with young people and to work with kids who maybe didn’t have a lot of creative writing or performance in their lives.
We were so lucky to have our early days of experimentation with a small but dedicated group of similarly untrained actor-educators. We got to do things like help run an after-school homework help club for the kids of refugee families in Albany Park and store all of our props in a windowless van because we didn’t have an office space. We made a lot of mistakes, but everyone was generous and kind from the beginning; we gave ourselves permission to screw up and the schools and teachers we worked with let our energy, enthusiasm, and talent as artists be enough until we could figure out the rest. A special shout out to company member Jason Sperling who has been with us literally this entire time.
I think all the time about how some of the early decisions we made have influenced my life in really significant ways. (Halena mentioned her selfish reasons for starting BOM, I’m going to talk selfishly now in a way that she never does!). When we were building out the idea for the program, she and I had to divide up roles. Neither of us really knew anything about education, but she was already a better director than I was, so we decided early on that she would take the artistic leadership and I would take the education leadership. Good for me, because I got to continue to be in the shows (hooray!) and good for all of us because Halena is now a brilliant director and audiences get to see her work all over the country.
Flash forward 20 years – I am a Professor of Education at the University of Wisconsin; I am known as someone who studies the arts and learning and I got tenure for my studies of how people learn in and through artistic production. I can draw a direct line from our early organizational decision to my career path all the way to this past Sunday when I dropped my kid off at Northwestern.
I have so many stories of hilarious or heartbreaking or victorious moments we had during the emergent phase of our work. Like the time I broke my foot during the first season of That’s Weird Grandma acting like a cheerleader, vomited in a trash can and finished the show because, what else would you do? Or how we used to rehearse in a doggy day care center and we all had dog hair on all of our clothes and in our hair for months straight. Or how we would get into arguments about whether a robot who was “half man, half sports” could simultaneously make a phone call and bounce a ball at the same time (looking at you Jonathan Mastro!) and whether the kids would buy that.
But I don’t want to be one of those old people who reminisces about the good old days and doesn’t acknowledge the amazing work of the recent and current crop of Monkeys who have taken the program in directions I never could have imagined. Watching the artistic leadership of first Luke Hatton and then Molly Brennan and now Joe Schupbach and the education leadership of Dixie Uffleman, Elizabeth Levy, David Pintor, and Brandon Cloyd is my single favorite thing about being a Monkey. They have taken the best of what we built and done their own “yes and” to all of it.
One quick story to end (I know, I can’t help myself): For the past five years, each fall I bring a class of pre-service teachers down to Chicago to spend a day with BOM as part of their arts integration class. They have a workshop with the education team, they observe the afterschool program, and then we see That’s Weird Grandma. It’s an amazing day. Whenever I ask the students what they’ve taken away from the experience, in addition to how hard they laugh during the show, they almost always say, “scaffolding the risk”. It’s a phrase I’ve heard Joe and Elizabeth say, and now one I’ve heard Brandon and David use. And it’s one that represents the core of what BOM is about – creating supports for students to take risks with their ideas and their writing and for adult performers to do the same. It’s what we’re best at. And selfishly, I love it because I’m pretty sure I came up with that phrase, but now it belongs to everyone. And my students associate it with BOM and with the work that we collectively put into the world.
Thanks team and here’s to 20 more!