Kean Students Take the Show on the Road
If she didn’t already, Professor Rachel Evans probably now believes in serendipity. Last year, Evans was approached by a student in her senior seminar, Clara Labelle, who wondered how she might pursue a career in theatre education with an attention to students with special needs. Not long after Labelle sought her professor’s advice, Evans received an invitation to attend a workshop with Tim Webb, Founder and Artistic Director of the trailblazing British theatre company, Oily Cart. Sponsored by the NYC Arts in Education Roundtable in partnership with the New Victory Theater, New York’s premier performing arts venue for children, the workshop was specifically designed for the New Victory’s own acclaimed teaching artists. Oily Cart, recently named “one of the great British theatre companies of the last 25 years” (Lyn Gardner, Guardian Unlimited), is widely considered a pioneer in the burgeoning Theatre for the Very Young movement, having focused exclusively on theatre for very young children (as well as those with complex disabilities) since 1981.
Though Evans herself was unavailable to attend the workshop that particular afternoon, she contacted staff at the New Victory and received permission to send Labelle in her place. Labelle (pictured below with Oily Cart's Tim Webb) returned to class invigorated, and Evans embarked on what was to become a yearlong odyssey ultimately leading to her - and Kean’s – first production of Theatre for the Very Young.
“We’ve never tried to reach this market before,” said Evans, who teaches Theatre for Young Audiences at Kean, and directs the course’s spring touring production. This year’s show, Ring a Ding Ding - based on the original Oily Cart production by Tim Webb – marks the first time Evans and her students have toured a show specifically geared for children under the age of 6. Kean’s production - which is currently touring schools and community organizations throughout Union County – is the culmination of seven years of research by Evans, who is a passionate advocate for Theatre for the Very Young and estimates she’s seen at least thirty different productions targeting this age group and aesthetic.
When Evans first approached Oily Cart about the possibility of staging a touring production of their groundbreaking work Ring a Ding Ding at Kean, she had no idea how the company – who rarely publishes their plays – would respond. But Evans, who had seen the production and couldn’t stop thinking about it, couldn’t resist. What was the worst thing they could tell her – no?
In fact, “They were so responsive,” said Evans, not only granting her permission to use the original script and music, but offering her their tailor-made set for free – provided, of course, she could get all 800 pounds of it across the Atlantic. “They essentially said, ‘If you can get the set, you can have it,’” Evans laughed.
Students kicked their current tour off with four public performances of Ring a Ding Ding at Kean in early April, one of which was attended by children from the Kean University Child Care Center (pictured above). In preparation for what was, in many cases, the children’s first experience with live theatre, Kean students visited the children in their classroom prior to the performance to familiarize the students with the story of the play they would be attending. “[They] worked in pairs to create picture books of the story,” said Evans, adding that – on the day of the performance - her actors were delighted when many of the children recognized specific characters they had introduced through the storybook exercise.
The tour itself can be grueling. Because, as Evans explained, the tour is “solely responsible for everything needed,” she and her students were accountable for all aspects of production. This meant that in addition to rehearsing and performing the show, Kean students also shared technical duties, like creating props (“they all made at least one puppet,” according to Evans). Students were also responsible for putting together (and taking apart) Ring a Ding Ding’s massive set before and after every performance. “We meet here at 6:45 a.m. [on a performance day],” Evans said, cheerfully. “I have to drive the truck.”
Evans estimates that her students will ultimately perform the show “two dozen times” over the course of the tour, traveling to schools and community organizations throughout Newark, North Plainfield, Bloomfield, Elizabeth, Cranford and Linden. Their last scheduled performance will take place Wednesday, May 8th at the Shoresh Preschool in Bloomfield. It is Evans’ hope that the tour (and her Theatre for Young Audiences class) will provide students with the invaluable experiences of collaboration and working within an ensemble, as well as the opportunity to wear many different hats. “I assign a [different] stage manager for each day; someone [else] leads the warm-up,” Evans said, citing just two examples of the many positions students will rotate through over the course of her class, which seeks to introduce students to - and train them for - a variety of different jobs in the theatre.
Evans, who was recently awarded Kean’s prestigious Students Partnering with Faculty Grant, looks forward to further collaborating with three of her students over the summer, when they will create their very own piece of Theatre for the Very Young. Evans hopes this new work, while designed for very young children, will appeal to all ages in the way Ring a Ding Ding has resonated with children as well as parents, caretakers, and teachers. Evans expressed a desire to “get to the point where the simplicity [of the piece] is appealing to both adults and young people.”
While Theatre for the Very Young enjoys increasing visibility, awareness and appreciation worldwide, the movement in the United States is still considered in its infancy, and remains limited to the dedicated efforts of Evans and a handful of like-minded art educators, graduate students, and professional theatres (such as the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta, Children’s Theatre in Minneapolis, and Imagination Stage in Bethesda, MD). Evans attributes this discrepancy to “America’s view on who the child is, and what our responsibility is to them.” Happily, however, there are signs – like Evans’ grant – the tide is turning.
In September, Chicago’s Emerald City Theatre will present The Teddy Bears’ Picnic in their newly remodeled Little Theatre, the nation’s first facility tailored specifically for presentations of Theatre for the Very Young. According to their website, Emerald City is currently in the process of completing renovations on the former Lakeview storefront, which will ultimately house “a 1,500 square foot theatre with intimate performance space and [an] interactive lobby.” When completed, the Little Theatre will offer theatre geared exclusively for children 0-4.