Chicago’s Barrel of Monkeys Theater Company is Serious About Literacy

Elizabeth Levy and Joseph Schupbach lead Barrel of Monkeys from a spaceship

Elizabeth Levy and Joseph Schupbach lead Barrel of Monkeys from a spaceship

By Lela Nargi

Silly hats can save the world!

That’s not actually the motto of Chicago’s Barrel of Monkeys Productions (BOM). But for the 18-year-old arts education non-profit, a compelling combination of stories work-shopped and written by school-age kids, performed by professional actors, supplemented by wacky props, might just be the balm that soothes some of what’s ailing American education.

Especially in the 12 or so underserved schools the company partners with across the city—but also in the afterschool program it runs in Rogers Park in north Chicago—there’s a strong need for building literacy, as well as social-emotional skills, according to Elizabeth Levy, BOM’s program director. “One reason theater is so effective in teaching these things is because it brings in a lot of principles of collaboration,” she says. “We ask students to support each other’s ideas, and work together to figure out how to build on them. That self-expression, and celebrating other people’s abilities, is exciting and validating.”

Every week, BOM sends out sixty actor-educators, in teams of five, to all its various locations. They lead students through different writing styles: basic character and setting, for example, and personal narrative; as well as theater games and warm-ups.  Says Levy, “The kids do a lot of writing and thinking on their feet, with their peers and us, with a lot of one-on-one attention. By the time they’re ready to write their own story, brainstorming has been modeled for them many times over.” It is, she maintains, a powerful confidence-booster.

Actor-educator Matt Miller is  mobbed during a creative writing workshop with students at Lorca Elementary. Credit: Michelle Alba.

Actor-educator Matt Miller is  mobbed during a creative writing workshop with students at Lorca Elementary. Credit: Michelle Alba.

At the end of a 6-week session, the students’ writing journals are collected and brought to the company’s at-large pool of actors. They read through as many as they can—they number in the hundreds—then begin adapting selections into original performances they’ll stage at individual schools, as well as an end-of-year show, “Celebration of Authors,” at the University of Chicago; and weekly public shows held at the Neo-Futurists theater in Andersonville. Says the company’s artistic director, Joseph Schupbach, “The actors follow their impulses in transforming these stories into short pieces. We’ve done everything from large musical numbers, to short comedy sketches, to silent pieces with puppets, to dance pieces set to popular music.” They often involve—you guessed it—funny hats (meatball, lettuce, French fry), giant pies, grass-covered cars, sourced from a prop-stuffed garage near BOM’s offices.

The performances themselves are a huge source of pride for kids. “Even if it’s not your story being performed,” says Levy. “We still read out the students’ names, and the classroom, and their teachers’ names. There’s a real feeling of celebration and community. Everyone’s a part of this.”

Levy, Schupbach, and other BOM members workshopping student plays

Levy, Schupbach, and other BOM members workshopping student plays

Barrel of Monkeys has its origins in the children’s repertory theater company Griffin’s Tale, which began at Northwestern University in 1987. “They’d get stories submitted by kids, and they’d adapt those into a show they’d tour Chicago schools with,” says Schupbach. “The founders wanted to continue to do that artistic work, but they also wanted a connection with the authors.” They got that in spades with Barrel of Monkeys, but also succeeded in creating a deep community of Chicago area actors—an already committed bunch in a city known for its extensive roots in theater.

Tryouts are held every other year (ish) and pull in a wide variety of people—with vastly different interests and skills. “The matches we get are funny: people who just want to do sketch comedy, or people who didn’t come as actors but as writers or visual artists who are now powerhouses on stage, or pure actors who have never taught anything in their lives,” says Schupbach. “We also have people who are accountants by day, or work in real estate, or as hair stylists. It’s interesting for kids to hear that—that there are jobs in the arts besides auditioning on Broadway, and that you don’t have to stop doing anything, ever.”

What ties all these divergent types together is that “they can see the value of BOM’s school program, and that listening to children can be a radical act, because there are so many adults who don’t,” Schupbach continues. “They’re definitely not here for the money or the fame—although we get our fare share of press. People are here because they want to do something that lifts up the voices of kids.”

It’s a program that school administrators find easy to justify in their budgets—year after year (BOM aims to work continuously with the same schools, because “students and teachers know what to expect, and that helps us succeed,” says Levy). In addition to bringing in the arts and performance to a school at large, much-coveted reading and writing assistance are at the core of BOM’s curriculum. And the influx of five teachers, even for the short term, can have enormous, sometimes unexpected, benefits. “We’ve had situations where a teacher has left and there’s an interim substitute, and the principal will put us into that class on purpose: ‘BOM will figure this out!’” says Levy. “By showing them how adults can talk to each other, we literally help classes get along.”

And the benefits persist, even after kids age out of BOM programs at 14. Says Schupbach, “We’ve have graduates, now 18 years old and in college, come to our public shows at the Neo-Futurists theater, and reach out to us. We also have opportunities for our graduates to volunteer in the afterschool program with the youngest classes—it’s super, and lovely; I get all misty!”

Funny hats. Credit: Evan Hanover.

Funny hats. Credit: Evan Hanover.

One connection eludes BOM, however. “The day one of our graduates auditions for the company, that’ll be the day we all cry,” says Schupbach.

“It’ll be the weirdest audition ever,” adds Levy. “Thirty adults crying.” 

Photographs by Thomas Kubik, TK Photography.