Roll out the Barrel
Monkeys raise the bar on kiddie entertainment.
Halena Kays isn’t being catty when she says, “I have disdain for a lot of children’s theater. A lot of actors do it to make money and hate it. A lot of theaters do it as a kind of crappy outreach to get grant money, and then the money goes to other things.”
Not that Kays couldn’t be catty about this topic if she wanted to be. Her popular children’s theater company Barrel of Monkeys, of which she is artistic director, has been deemed a choice night out by just as many Empty Bottle dwellers as Nickelodeon aficionados. Like a genre-bending band that rock critics are stumped to classify, the Monkeys straddle a fence between quality young people’s entertainment and late-night–style, ironic sketch show.
Kays and her Monkeys are the diametric opposite of catty. Hell, for underpaid storefront ironists, they’re the sunniest bunch you’re likely to find. And the success of That’s Weird, Grandma, their rotating series of miniplays written by third-graders, which is in the fifth year of its Monday-night open run at the Neo-Futurarium, derives largely from the fact that they never intended to become a performing theater company in the first place.
Started in 1997 by just-outta-Northwestern undergrads Kays and Erica Halverson, the Monkeys used the blueprint of that university’s popular Griffin’s Tale educational theater program, in which the plays are written by kids and performed by adults. After pursuing mostly “legit” theater, she and Halverson, who now boasts a Ph.D. in education and resides in Madison, Wisconsin, became interested not in performing for youngsters, but collaborating with them.
Working almost exclusively within Chicago’s inner-city schools, the Monkeys teach six-week writing courses in which students keep journals and pen personal essays, poems, short plays and more that then get acted out, gonzo-style, by the company’s teacher-actors. Ironically, Grandma, the revue that’s brought them their adult theater audiences, was sheer afterthought.
“We used to do a best-of showcase for a few weeks at the end of each school year,” Kays says. But by 2001 the audience response was favorable enough to facilitate an open run. (Each showcase used to have a different title—Stuff on My Head, for example—but That’s Weird, Grandma, a play in which a grandmother tells her grandson about losing her teeth, was the title that stuck.)
Of the 36 company members, everybody gets paid for teaching; nobody gets a dime for performing. “The public shows are strictly volunteer,” says Luke Hatton, one of Grandma’s directors, who’s also a company administrator. Kays adds, “You’re not gonna get famous from Barrel of Monkeys. We love doing the public show, but it’s a by-product.”
Deliberately resisting franchise (“People see us once and say we should be in every school in Chicago, but that’s not the goal,” Hatton says), the group’s attempt to keep things manageable helps Kays maintain classroom quality control, but also allows the other directors to keep a lid on the company’s distinct style. Even if Grandma is residual programming, it has a quality unique enough to stand on its own, most identifiable for the way it traffics in the ambiguity of the ten-year-old mind.
“I’m amazed we don’t get in trouble for not promoting clearer morals,” Kays says of Grandma’s plays, most of which are performed by rote. Hatton points to one darkly funny example that has caused controversy. In an ostensibly sweet story called “Two Friends,” Tyrannosaurus Rex befriends a lonely mouse, only to see him get randomly gang-jumped and killed in the final reel.
“We can’t do the plays about ‘The day my brother got shot at school,’ because that would be horrifying,” Kays says. “But the darker abstract plays are fair game, and we’ve learned to put them toward the end of the program, because by then the audience trusts us.”
You can also trust them to experiment with gender and race more than any other company in the city; color-blind casting becomes a giddy experiment when halfway through a play, a non-Caucasian name is unexpectedly dropped by a lily-white actor, or it becomes clear that a male actor is playing a girl.
“We’re constantly trying to expand the diversity of the company, because the more racially diverse we are, the more we can screw around with race.”
That’s Weird, Grandma screws around this week at Theater on the Lake.