The Monkey Minute!

Posted by Amanda Farrar on March 4, 2015

That's Weird Grandma Company Members

Do you ever wonder how we put together the stories that are performed in That’s Weird, Grandma? How do we pick just a couple dozen stories from 17 years of incredible student-written stories? How do we showcase a range of schools, types of curriculum, and each ensemble member? Founding member, Jason Sperling, answers all your burning questions!

And, see the delicate balancing act of That’s Weird, Grandma that is currently being directed by Joseph Schupbach at the Neo-Futurist Theater every Sunday at 2pm and Monday at 8pm through March 30! It is an ALL MUSICAL spectacular!

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A Day in the Life: Creating the That’s Weird,Grandma Runlist

By Jason Sperling

Putting together the run list for That’s Weird, Grandma is a delicate balancing act.  We are simultaneously serving multiple constituencies: the public audience, the performers, and the children whose voices we are sharing.  Having had the opportunity to direct several rounds of That’s Weird, Grandma, here’s a look at some things we consider when assembling the crackerjack lineup each week.

That's Weird, Grandma
Types of stories: In all of our classroom residencies, each week focuses on a different type of writing, ranging from dialogue to persuasive arguments to true stories.  Having a mixture of all of these represented in That’s Weird, Grandma keeps the show interesting, and lets the audience check out different styles that the students create.  Of course, within each style, there are differing types of adaptation.  A puppet piece, a rap, film noir, straight-forward narrative – one of the strengths of Barrel of Monkeys’ ensemble is that everyone brings a unique set of performing abilities to the table, meaning that any given writing type might have any genre of performance.  It’s also important to check the tone of the stories – I call this “quirk vs. heart.” Those two qualities are not mutually exclusive, but to me it’s very important to have an equal balance in any given That’s Weird, Grandma show.  We want to balance the over-the-top oddities with the heartfelt moments, which ultimately make both resonate more strongly.  One of the goals of performing That’s Weird, Grandma is to raise the profile of Barrel of Monkeys in Chicago while simultaneously championing the vision of the students we work with.  We want to give the audience insight into the heart of what we do, which is working with students in our school (and after-school) programs.

As for the performers, it’s important to try to give everyone a chance to shine.  Everything you see on stage at That’s Weird, Grandma was originally adapted and performed at one of our school residencies, for which we usually have a cast of 12-14 Monkeys.  Each Barrel of Monkeys member signs up for however many school shows their schedules allow, meaning on average everyone in Barrel of Monkeys does 4-6 school shows per year, appearing as 10 or more characters in each show!  They may play the hero of the story in one piece and jump directly into being a carnivorous garbage can in the next.  When we choose stories for That’s Weird, Grandma, we ask the cast for suggestions of stories they were in or saw that they’d like to resurrect.  We want the cast to be having a blast on stage – when that happens, it clearly spreads to the audience too! 

Sometimes we have a disproportionate number of performers who were all in the same school shows, meaning most suggestions come from a limited number of schools.  To offset this, it’s also important to represent a wide variety of schools in the story choices.  We have 17 years of story archives in the Monkey office: audio tapes (!), photocopies, scripts of the earliest work, and DVDs of more recent years.  The staff and interns have also catalogued everything in computer files, letting us search for stories that way too.  Depending on who’s in the show or directing, the stories will be from a wide range of years.

Once the stories have been chosen, we need to choose a running order.  Somehow there’s just a flow that feels right – is a story loud or quiet? An all-play involving the whole cast or just a few people?  Are the song/dance/movement pieces spread throughout the run or bunched together?  Is one performer the featured character in several stories in a row?  Even things such as giving actors time to change costumes, set chairs, or clean up messy props factor in.  Frequently we’ll start with a story that “teaches” the audience how to watch a Barrel of Monkeys show; something with a strong point-of-view, clean beats, and clear Monkey style.  Hopefully this helps any audience members who are new to seeing That’s Weird, Grandma dive right in and journey on with us.  Lastly, we try to let stories that have been put into the order more recently have a little time to find their legs, and when new pieces join each week the whole balancing process starts again!

Creating just the right run list each week is a challenge, but a rewarding and fun one which allows directors to see our work through multiple sets of eyes.

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