Category: 20 Years of BOM

“Scaffolding the Risk” and 20 Years of BOM with Our Co-Founder, Erica Halverson

Posted by hpalmer on July 26, 2017

20 Years of BOM

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!

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

“Pear and Apple” with Board member, Kim Dunlap Nagy

Posted by hpalmer on July 24, 2017

20 Years of BOM

I really can’t remember how I heard about That’s Weird Grandma, but “Pear and Apple” made my first experience as an audience member unforgettable.

The actors moved quickly in the dark. The epistolary story was introduced. A spotlight focused on solitary Apple, supported by a pedestal. With warm familiarity, Apple sweetly beseeched Pear. “Dear Pear, You are lucky because you have a good view of the city. I would like it if you consider changing places with me. Sincerely, Apple.”

The spotlight darkened and, an instant later, bathed a solitary Pear, on its own pedestal, in light. “Dear Apple,” Pear began, lulling both Apple and the audience into the illusion of safe and delicate
correspondence. “You are weird and no I do not want to change with you. I like it here. We can’t switch anyway we are attached to the branch.”

Pear’s boldness! Its coldly practical response to Apple! It was hilarious. But then the thing that made me unable to stop laughing the rest of the evening happened. Pear signed the letter with a
brilliant, final stroke against Apple. “I hate you. Pear.”

This story is radiantly funny. Even beyond his brilliant comedic flair, Nick, author of “Pear and Apple,” perfectly conveys the characters of both of his subjects in no more than five sentences and two smartly-chosen letter closing. The audience sees both characters so clearly through the language of their short correspondence. Apple is optimistic and idealistic with hints of being an operator. Pear, on the other hand, is pragmatic, analytical, and direct. Probably an introvert, Pear’s colleagues and friends praise its creative genius and criticize its blunt leadership style. Apple could have been Pete Campbell and Pear, Don Draper.

Pear and Apple took me by surprise that night. It remains one of the most efficient character studies as well as one of the most bitingly funny pieces I’ve ever encountered. There are many stories from our students that have struck me. Stories that have made me laugh and cry. Stories that have stuck with me throughout the next day or week or month. Or longer. Stories that I return to. Stories, in all of their forms, are so important to conveying our own human experience – whether it’s through comedy, drama, or something in between. I’m delighted to be a part of an organization that prizes individual voice and storytelling and works to actively engage artists of all ages in this important work. I hope you can join Barrel of Monkeys as we celebrate 20 years of intergenerational storytelling on July 27th . Maybe you’ll get to meet Pear and Apple too.

Kim is on the Barrel of Monkeys Board and serves as Vice-President.

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.