Reflecting on 20 Years of BOM with Our Co-Founder, Halena Kays

Posted by hpalmer on July 18, 2017

20 Years of BOM

Erica and I started BOM 20 years ago. We were naïve and ambitious and passionate. We started it for a bunch of reasons.  Important, socially conscious, political, radical and smart reasons.  I’m sure Erica had all and only selfless reasons- make the community you live in better, be the change…that kind of thing.  I felt that way too, of course, because I am not a monster.  BUT- I was also young and hungry for community.  I wanted to gather the best people I knew and make things with them.  I wanted to do this in an environment that focused on both the larger community we served and the smaller community we were building.  I wanted to make a place that felt like creative home.  I was ostensibly the leader of this community for 10 years, but the truth is- I didn’t do anything except make a space for smart, passionate people to try things.  Then I selfishly paid attention and learned things. I use these ideas literally every day, whether in raising my kid, navigating a boring meeting or directing a fancy play.  Thank you BOM performers and teachers- I am lucky to know you.

10 Things I learned from watching the Barrel of Monkeys ensemble make things for 20 years: 

1. Laughing makes you better. The very best BOM performers I worked with over the years were also the ones who seemed to laugh the most when watching what others came up with.  That can’t be a coincidence.  They never took a break when we were creating, they’d hang around the edges and laugh and clap and have this childish, amazed look on their faces.  I started to relax and try this idea- it made me better at my job.  It also makes me better at being a person.

2. Try anything once.  In rehearsals, just try everything, especially things you think you are bad at.

3. Joy in the thing, makes the thing fun and good to watch.  When you are bubbling because the thing you are performing makes you so happy and you can’t wait for people to watch it- it will be fun for us to watch it.  Make it honest, find your joy.  This also will make you a better performer, so that’s neat.

4. Don’t let the tiny editor get you.  You know that little jerk in your head that tries to murder your weird impulses? Say hello to that voice, its fine, and then run fast toward the absurd delights of wild play.

5. Give the world what you have and the world will give you what you need.  I didn’t have much (money, talent, experience, etc.), but the people in BOM seemed like something that might make the world a little bit better for a few people. That’s what I had to offer, in return I got everything- community, smarts, joy, work ethic, inspiration….the list is forever and I am grateful.

6. Be inspired, learn something new, and share the thing you learned with people who inspire you.  Repeat.  People went away, they learned new things, they came back and taught us all the things they learned.  We all got better. We all went away and got inspired and returned and taught each other.  And everything got better.  And everything continues to get better. 

7. Make everything a game, especially hard things.  Mary Poppins also knew this thing, but I learned it in the BOM classrooms and then remembered to apply it to the rehearsal room and now I remember to apply it to laundry and taxes, also making art.

8. Be the person you always hope is in your group. There’s that person in the cast that you love to make things with- figure out what makes that person so great to collaborate with, then do that stuff more.

9. Let people surprise you, let people change.  I get ideas in my head about people and then sometimes limit what I believe they are capable of doing.  I learned to stop doing that as much.  Life is better when you challenge, see the best, see what is possible and relish change.

10. The good idea is just the baby that all the bad ideas had.  As those awful, brave, strange and wrong choices tap dance around the rehearsal room, as we laugh and celebrate the seeds of good ideas inside the terrible monsters of first efforts and bizarre instincts- the good thing inevitably emerges. Sometimes sliding out like a beautiful shimmering dolphin, more often through grunts and pain and manhandling- regardless, finding the treasure in all the dirt is the process of making. So never shy away from throwing dirt. 

Thank you creators of all thing BOM.  You have made my adventures in the world better.  You have made me better. 

Halena Kays and Erica Halverson founded Barrel of Monkeys in 1997.


Joseph Schupbach To End Tenure as Barrel of Monkeys’ Artistic Director

Posted by hpalmer on April 20, 2017

We announce today that Joseph Schupbach will end his tenure as our Artistic Director later this summer. Joe began his career with Barrel of Monkeys in 2005 and was cast as an ensemble member in 2007. Before his appointment as Artistic Director in 2014, he also served as the company’s After-School Program Coordinator and Education Coordinator. Schupbach is leaving to pursue an MFA in Dramatic Arts. He will continue his involvement with the company as an Emeritus Company Member, returning periodically to guest direct and perform in shows. Barrel of Monkeys will be launching a search for Schupbach’s successor shortly.

“Barrel of Monkeys is grateful for the many years of exemplary service and leadership Joe has shared with us, as well as his heartfelt dedication to our artists, audiences and students,” comments Executive Director Corinne Neal. “Joe’s commitment to cultivating new leadership within the organization and providing opportunities for young artists to develop professionally has left Barrel of Monkeys in a position of strength as we embark on the search for a successor. We wish Joe all the very best in his graduate studies, and look forward to entering a new era of artistic leadership built upon the rock-solid foundation he has laid.”

Adds Schupbach, “I cherish all of the relationships, connections and experiences I have shared with this organization and artistic community. Barrel of Monkeys has been an artistic home to me for more than a decade, and I look forward to watching it continue to grow and thrive under the new leadership. While I am excited for this incredible opportunity at UC Davis, Barrel of Monkeys will never be far from my heart.”

A Note from Our Executive Director

Posted by Corinne on January 31, 2017

Dear friends of Barrel of Monkeys,

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!

Corinne Neal
Executive Director

Young People Get It.

Posted by Corinne on November 11, 2016

Education Support BOM That's Weird Grandma

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.


Monkey Movies: An Interview with Jen Johnson

Posted by hpalmer on September 14, 2016

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!

Check out the Monkey Movies!