The past ten months have been a devastating time for local theaters, but despite this interruption, interesting work has continued as theaters become more and more creative online. Jacqueline Russell, artistic director at Chicago Children’s Theatre (CCT), can attest to this fact.
“We were suddenly in another business,” Russell recalls. “We figured out how to do this type of virtual work and reach a much wider audience.”
When the pandemic shut down stages in March, CCT was about to go into tech for “a beautiful musical about Jane Goodall,” and shutting it down “was devastating,” Russell says. But it didn’t take long for the company to move in a new direction.
First there was a virtual puppet version of Leo Lionni’s mouse-centric children’s book “Frederick,” narrated by actor Michael Shannon (a brilliant choice going against type), followed by an adaptation of author Brian Selznick’s “Doll Face Has a Party,” directed by Selznick, and “My Magic Breath,” in which animated storybook illustrations were accompanied with music performed by Chicago Symphony Orchestra musicians.
Russell also felt it was a time to take some risks, to expand beyond the usual concept of theater for young audiences, which mostly revolves around adaptations of popular children’s books. She notes these books are “wonderful,” but adds, “they are maybe not the most edgy.”
Out of this idea grew the Springboard Project, an engaging initiative with a goal to commission new work that’s representative of children today, especially CCT’s young audience in Chicago.
“We basically let the artists come up with whatever ideas they wanted to pitch,” Russell says. “The results have been very different and very imaginative.”
Out of this bunch, “Diamond’s Dream,” created by Jerrell L. Henderson (writer-director) and Caitlin McLeod (puppets and set design), felt the most immediate and relevant.
“Jerrell has his finger on the pulse of what is happening today and amazingly weaves together racism, pandemics and history into a relatable story,” she says.
Debuting Jan. 18 on CCT’s YouTube channel, “Diamond’s Dream,” presented as a toy theater piece, tells the story of a young African American boy who falls asleep on the Red Line train while on the way to visit his grandmother who is dying of COVID-19. When he wakes, he finds himself in another reality and confronted by the spirit of a young African American girl who died of the Spanish Flu in 1918.
“We wanted to speak honestly to the reality of some of the things that you deal with while quarantining — isolation, alienation, death — in a way that would be palatable for a younger audience,” says Henderson, who teaches performance studies at Chicago State University. “I’m trying to imagine what it’s like to be a child and wonder why we’re in this mess.”
Henderson and McLeod agreed it was important to set the story in an urban environment. “The goal was to create a world of magic and mysticism within a world that our audience was already familiar with,” McLeod says. “To tell a story that would open their imagination to seeing magical, fantastical things happening in their world.”
Henderson and McLeod met in graduate school at Northwestern University where they bonded over their mutual love of puppetry. Their previous collaborations have included CCT’s staging of “The Very Hungry Caterpillar Show” and Griffin Theatre’s Jeff Award-nominated “Mlima’s Tale.”
Due to the physical and logistical constraints of creating theater during a pandemic, Henderson and McLeod quickly knew a toy theater/puppet staging was the way to go.
“It’s still a lot of work but you can create tight worlds of almost limitless magic in a space the size of a kitchen table,” says McLeod, who built the tabletop L train set out of cardboard and employed “crankies” (moving scrolls that create a backdrop) to create the city scenery moving past the train windows. Dozens of tiny paper puppets in a variety of poses and emotions were created to bring the play’s two characters to life.
“Diamond’s Dream” was filmed by Henderson and director of photography Jeff Paschal. “It never occurred to me that I would direct a short film,” Henderson admits with a laugh. “It was a wonderful opportunity to explore a new way to get the message out there.”
In addition to Henderson and McLeod, the other Springboard playwrights include Greg Allen, Micah Figueroa, Isaac Gómez, GQ, Terry Guest, Ike Holter, Nambi E. Kelley and Daniel Carlton, Sully Ratke, Lanise Shelley and Justin Ellington, and Elizabeth Wong.
Many of the playwrights wrote children’s plays early in their careers, others are new to the form. Works-in-progress include Shelley and Ellington’s look at interracial adoption from a child’s perspective, Gomez’s piece about a young boy coming out as queer and Kelley and Carlton’s story about a bunch of kids with disabilities who solve mysteries online.
Russell admits she wonders how the audience will react to “Diamond’s Dream.” She assures that CCT continues to work on adaptations of “some great children’s books,” but she also hopes audiences will be willing to try something new that’s not based on a familiar story.
“When I looked up the definition of springboard, it said ‘a mechanism to allow you to jump higher.’ I love that image. Springboard has become this opportunity to look forward in a new way, a time to think about the future and how to better serve children.”
Mary Houlihan is a local freelance writer.