Category: Company Members

Posts about specific BOM company members.

New Company Members!

Posted by Heidi on June 20, 2008

Company Members Celebration of Authors

Barrel of Monkeys, as you know, is “an ensemble of actor-educators”. We are lucky to have an incredibly talented and attractive (as the TWG robot likes to point out) group of performers, teachers, writers, and musicians in our company. Tai has already told you that after COA we give out awards to the whole company honoring the meaningful, delightful, amazing, and silly things that happen throughout the year. Another great thing that happens after COA each year is that we officially expand the roster of company members.

The new company members come from a typically diverse artistic background. A couple had worked as volunteer teachers for us in years past before being cast in the performing ensemble last October. One, Joe, even started out as monkey intern way back when he was still in college and another, Mike, has provided musical backup at Theater on the Lake and for other public shows. All of them spent much of the last eight months performing in our school shows. We like to make sure that our company members have spent time adapting and performing in CPS gyms, cafeterias and auditoria before inducting them—it takes a certain kind of performer to believe that some of the most important work is done with terrible acoustics, no tech beyond our keyboard, and in front of an audience of fourth graders. We are thrilled to have so many of these performers in our company.

In addition to the people who joined this year, we also celebrated two immensely talented performers who it feels like have been around forever, but who actually hadn’t been around quite long enough this time last year to get the proper ceremony. So while you’ve seen Donnell Williams and Kurt Chiang‘s names on the company roster and in TWG for a while, we still wanted to make sure they got their moment in the sun.

Without further ado, here are the newest members of the BOM company! Please note, they’re so new that most of them don’t have full profiles yet, though their photos are great. Well, for the ones that have photos.
Mikala Bierma
Brandon Cloyd
Erick Deshaun Dorris
Mary Winn Heider
Mike Pryzgoda
Joseph Schupbach
Tim Simeone
Tim Soszko
Bradford Stevens
Mari Stratton

The post Celebration celebration is also one of the three times a year that pretty much everyone in the company who still lives in Chicago gets together in the same room. We were so happy to have co-founders Halena and Erica there as we welcomed this newest class of monkeys into the family.

Jason Sperling: Monkey of the Year

Posted by Tai on June 18, 2008

Company Members Celebration of Authors

Most non-Monkeys don’t know about this, but after the Celebration of Authors show every year, the company, ensemble, volunteers, and assorted friends and cohorts gather for our own little celebration. We have a silly awards ceremony, as our way of looking back on the previous school year and acknowledging all the fun characters and amazing adaptations. Awards include Best Villain, Best Line Reading, Best Inanimate Object, Best Drag, and so forth (I’m still relishing my Best Deity award this year from my portrayal of the “Comcast Guru” from the winter Loyola Park show). All the award nominations are made by our peers in the company, and we each get one (either because we’re all talented or because our Artistic Director is nice…probably both).

There is one award we give out at the post-COA party every year that is a little less silly, and that is the Monkey of the Year award, also called the MVP Award, but officially known as The Tom Malinowki Award for Enthusiasm and Commitment to Monkey Greatness. It is named after Monkey legend Tom Malinowski, a Monkey whose enthusiasm and commitment to Monkey greatness is so powerful that we’d have to give him the award every year if we didn’t name it after him.

Last year the award went to this guy, and I’m proud to hand it off this year to Mr. Jason Sperling.


Jason has been in the company since its inception in 1997. That’s almost 11 years, people. He’s one of the most integral members of our company and he has kept BOM and its mission a priority for all of those 11 years. Not to mention, he’s a hilarious actor and talented songwriter. But don’t just take it from me. This is just a part of what his fellow company members had to say about him this year:

Jason keeps us honest! He makes sure we don’t forget anything, that we’ve thought through everything fully, that we’re thinking first of our mission, and that we have kept our sense of humor.

Jason spends countless hours outside of rehearsal and classrooms volunteering in other capacities…proofreading, helping Gretchen with merch, welcoming newbies into the company, and occasionally vacuuming the office. Possibly he’s cleaned Heidi’s desk more than she has.

From the menial to the grandiose, no BOM decision is too small for Jason’s heart ... any time we’re facing a major decision he is happy and anxious to offer his feedback and advice, and will step back when we’ve heard it, whether or not everyone agrees.

Jason Sperling was very helpful in showing me the ropes and throwing out encouraging words.

He brings a joyful sensibility to his work with the company, which is much to be admired and appreciated.

He’s always ready to jump into ANY role, whether it’s a kid, dad, mom, dog, alien, or caveman/hippie. He’s been writing more songs this year and they’ve been getting better and better. Also, Jason is the one who notices all the little details that the rest of us miss. He always remembers to turn off the dressing room lights before TWG starts. He makes sure props are put in the right place. And he knows every detail about every story we’ve ever done. Amazing.


Guess what? You can see this MVP in action right now (and for the next 5 weeks, at least) in That’s Weird, Grandma. Come to the show on Monday and congratulate him!

Rocking it new school

Posted by Rachel on June 11, 2008

Company Members Celebration of Authors

Barrel of Monkeys is tired. We had way too much fun celebrating authors, stayed up way past our bedtimes, and today we’re honestly a little cranky. Cranky in the sense that people keep saying nice things about last night, and hearing them makes us cry. We had so much fun performing amazing stories in a beautiful space for the authors, friends, and families! Our best count comes to around 436 people in the audience including many of our superstar authors.

Monkey friend James Eric took these pics of Molly Brennan’s terrifying performance as scientist who creates a pill that turns her into a monster—eight superheroes can’t keep her from destruction.



After a week of intense rehearsals, the actual show zoomed by without a hitch. At one point, I had the experience of standing backstage looking forward to performing a particular story and then remembering we’d already done it. You would understand my confusion if you’d run these stories backwards and forwards for days. In reality, the show was almost over, but I didn’t want it to end.

The consolation is that now these stories will be eligible for performance in That’s Weird, Grandma!

And you know what else is eligible for performance in Grandma? Our new company members . . .

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Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone

Posted by Rachel on May 16, 2008

Company Members School Shows

Blog: So, Rachel, as the official Chalmers blogger, why have you been neglecting me?
Rachel: Well, because Lacy and Dixie pretty much covered it. They told you all about the Bollywood number, and the power outage, and the uniform debacle.
Blog: They didn’t tell me about one thing.
Rachel: What one thing?
Blog: Don’t pretend you don’t know.
Rachel: Oh, but that’s the dark side of the Chalmers show. Do we have to go there? 
Blog: It would be wrong not to.
Rachel: Fine, we’ll go . . .

The Chalmers show was the last*** school show performance for Jonathan Mastro and Eric Silverberg, and I cannot deal.


These guys have always been a bit ahead of me on the road—seniors when I was a freshman at Northwestern. Eric starred in the first show I saw at college. We all had the same acting teacher. I remember sitting in on their acting class and watching Jonathan rehearse a Pinter scene. Little did I know, within four years time I’d be watching Jonathan perform fourth grader David E.‘s story “Ordering Cars” in the same style.

These two witnessed my horribly awkward audition for the company. They were around for the Sorry Tournaments, and rehearsing at the dog kennel, and Thursday night karaoke at Carol’s. They remember when the Monkeys’ first collection of props got stolen because the company kept all its worldly possessions in a van—I wasn’t around for that, but they were. They did nearly every school show my first couple of years. Eric signed me up for my first Monkey teaching gig. Now he’s a full-time public school teacher. Jonathan’s been teaching at Chalmers for so long, and so well, that kids in the 8th grade swarmed him the second we walked on campus.

If Halena Kays is the Monkey Mama, these guys are the Daddies. They’ve stuck around, shaping the company since the very beginning. Now, they’re real daddies, which is at least part of the reason they’ve got to call it a day.

*** Instead of last, let’s say, “last for now,” because you never know where life’s going to take you, and because I’m certain we’ll all be doing Monkey shows together in our senile delusions when we’re 110, and because, as I said before, I can’t deal.

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Profile of a Monkey: Michael Mahler

Posted by Heidi on March 26, 2008

Company Members

Ever wonder what ensemble members look for when choosing a story to turn into a song? Or what they are doing when not working with BOM? Executive Director Heidi Thompson Saunders recently talked to Michael Mahler, who has been a monkey since soon after graduating from Northwestern in 2005.

Mike’s last bio in a BOM program was “Michael Mahler thinks his life would make a great ‘House’ episode”, which doesn’t quite cover everything there is to know about him. Here’s a more complete theatrical biography:

Michael Mahler hails from Minnetonka, Minnesota. At 17 he became the youngest composer ever published by GIA Publications, the nation’s largest Catholic liturgical publishing company. He has since released five recordings of liturgical songs. Michael earned his BS in Theatre at Northwestern University, where he wrote about 50 songs for the annual Waa-Mu Show. Since then he has contributed music, lyrics, and/or book to: The American Dream Songbook (Next Theatre Company); The Adams Conglomerate High School Presents…Tales of the 8th Grade (NY Fringe Festival); Will and Bill (Lakeshore Theatre, Chicago Center for the Performing Arts); A Christmas Carol (Provision Theater Company); Barenaked Lads (Bailiwick Theatre); Cinder Edna (Stages Theatre Company); and others. His musical reviews, “5 to 9” and “Moving Forward, Looking Back” (both co-conceived with Jessica Redish) have been performed at Northwestern, St. Olaf College, and The Beechman Theater in NYC. Michael’s songs have been sung in various songwriter showcases in both New York and Chicago, including the National Alliance for Musical Theatre New Works Summit and the MAC/ASCAP Songwriter Showcase. In 2006, his song “That’s When I Miss You” won 1st prize in the Great Lakes songwriting contest. Michael teamed up with Alan Schmuckler (also a member of Barrel of Monkeys) to write How Can You Run with a Shell on Your Back?, a critically acclaimed original family musical that premiered at Chicago Shakespeare Theater. With Alan, Michael is the co-music director/arranger of the Chicago Sound Connection, a contemporary a cappella group touring with Brenner productions. Michael is currently working with David H. Bell and Buddy Farmer on Knute Rockne - All American,, a musical based on the life of the famed Notre Dame football coach, which will premiere at Indiana’s Theatre at the Center in April 2008.

As an actor, Michael was most recently seen in Forbidden Broadway: SVU! at the Royal George Theatre. Before that, he created the title role in Joe! The Musical at Chicago Dramatists. Michael won the Jeff Citation for Best Actor in a Musical for his portrayal of Benjy Stone in the Bailiwick Theater’s production of My Favorite Year. He was also nominated for his turn as Sydney Falco in Sweet Smell of Success at Circle Theater. Other favorite roles include The Balladeer in Assassins (Porchlight), and Hero in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (Noble Fool). Chicago credits include Shenandoah, You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown, Treasure Island (Marriott Lincolnshire); Urinetown (Mercury); Plaid Tidings (Drury Lane Watertower); The Nervous Set (Stages Festival); A Christmas Carol and Cotton Patch Gospel (Provision). Michael is a proud member of Actor’s Equity, ASCAP, and (of course) Barrel of Monkeys Productions.

HTS: You joined BOM soon after you graduated from Northwestern. Why were you interested in BOM?

MM: I was a 4-year Griffin’s Tale* member at Northwestern, so I came to see Barrel of Monkeys perform while I was an undergrad. I loved the music, the energy, the way everybody was so supportive of everybody else, the way the keyboard players were jumping up and taking part in the stories. What I loved most was how true they were to what the children wrote; how they honored the original vision and intention of the young authors. When I moved to Chicago after graduating, I knew I wanted to be a part of such an amazing company with such an important mission.

*Editors note: Griffin’s Tale is a Northwestern University theater company that adapts and performs stories mailed to them by elementary school students. BOM’s co-founders were members and founded BOM in part to extend the GT model to underserved Chicago communities. Many current BOM ensemble members are also Northwestern and Griffin’s Tale alumni.

HTS: What do you look for when choosing a story to adapt into a song? What do you think is the most important thing to remember during the adaptation/development process?

MM: When looking to adapt a story into a song, I’m usually drawn to the stories with the most sincerity. I think for a song to work, even a satirical song, it needs to be grounded in some sort of real honest feeling. So stories that are either really emphatic or sincere usually appeal to me. I also love, whenever possible, to use the stories word-for-word as lyrics, because try as I might, I can never find a better or more interesting way to state things than the way the kids wrote them at first.

HTS: What is something that surprises you about Barrel of Monkeys?

MM: How versatile and brave the ensemble is! It seems like everybody, even if they’ve never written a song before, has no qualms about diving in and trying their hand at songwriting. Or playing instruments — in the poetry show this year I got to write flute and clarinet parts for a song, along with piano and guitar. How awesome is that?! It’s such an incredible group of people to get to play with, and we’ve got the best source material in the world (the kids’ stories) to work on together.

HTS: What is the hardest thing to explain about being part of Barrel of Monkeys?

MM: It’s sometimes hard to explain to my girlfriend why I’m always so sweaty after rehearsals and shows :) It’s a huge blast trying to reflect the joy and exuberance the children put in their stories, but it’s also a lot of work!

HTS: How does your work with other performance companies inform your work with Barrel of Monkeys and vice/versa?

MM: I think as an artist, you’re constantly finding new influences and bringing those influences to whatever you’re working on. When I was doing Forbidden Broadway, I was amazed at how much the Barrel of Monkeys school of throw-yourself-out-there-and-try-something helped me. And vice-versa; working on Forbidden gave me some new confidence and new ideas to try out when adapting stories.

HTS: What do the kids say to you after the school shows? Do they generally approve of the adaptations?

MM: Absolutely. I have two favorite vignettes so far. One was after the poetry show this year. I found out that this really sweet poem I’d adapted into a song by an anonymous poet was written by a boy who was kind of a “tough guy.” He had written “Anonymous” instead of his name on the poem because he didn’t want the other kids to know he’d written it. And the poem was so beautiful.
Another was from last year. I adapted this story called “My Happy Remember” into a song. It was a simple story about a girl and her grandpa and how he always told her how special she was. Afterwards, the author said she was so happy her “heart exploded.” How cool is that?

Many thanks to Mike for answering our questions! If you’ve been dying to learn more about a specific performer, or would like us to include your question, .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) and she’ll try to include your feedback next time.