My son Charlie and I were lucky enough to attend Theatre LILA's first annual Whoopensocker performance at Overture Center on May 31st in Promemade Hall. For the students and peformers who created the evening of vignettes, it was a celebration-- the culmination of six-week creative arts residencies in third grade classrooms at Sandburg, Lincoln and Emerson Elementary Schools in Madison. For audience members, it was an unforgettable night of new voices expressing the silly, the serious, and everything in between from a decidedly nine year-old world view. (Full disclosure, I work for Theatre LILA doing publicity, but had nothing to do with the creation of this show.)
Whoopensocker, the innovative arts education program with the funny name, focuses on creativity, expression, writing, and collaboration. Developed by Theatre LILA education director Dr. Erica Halverson, this is the second year that a team of teaching artists has worked with students playing improvisation games, acting out stories, then exploring different aspects of dramatic structure and creative writing, and eventually writing their own scripts.
Once the Whoopensocker scenes were created, 13 Theatre LILA actors wove those stories into a 90 minute evening of sketch comedy, augmented with original music, choreography, and general hilarity.
In Volcano! a young man petitioned city hall for more active volcanoes in the area, reasoning that it would be a great way to keep monsters out. In The Happy Flower, a petunia rises up with righteous indignation after being bullied by a little boy. Dear French Fries was a literal lovesong to a girl's favorite food, and How Dodos Became Extinct was a cautionary tale about going along with the crowd, doing what everyone else is doing. All the scenes were staged with minimal props and costumes and complete commitment from the group of semi-professional adult actors, many of whom are seen regularly on Madison stages.
Much of the evening reveled in what my son calls "second grade humor." But some of the moments were also bittersweet, including a monologue about a young girl's adoption from South Korea, and how glad she was to live in Madison now with all her friends. I'm Not Scared of Anything begins with boastful hyperbole and ends on a chilling note that reflects the threat of violence inherent in children's lives in our community.
Predictably enough, Farty the Dinosaur had the wiggly audience in stitches. I, on the other hand, came home singing the chorus to I Love Harrison Ford and You Can't Tell Me No! proving the some themes are indeed universal.
During intermission I talked to one of the teachers who had participated in the program. She enjoyed the performance, but reserved her most glowing praise for the actor/educators' efforts during the residency to include and validate the voices of ALL the students in classroom, no matter what their writing and communication abilities.
For me, the greatest moment of the evening was when Dr. Halverson and Theatre LILA Artistic Director Jessica Lanius asked all the student authors to stand up and receive a round of applause. The pride in their creations and the awe at seeing their plays brought to life radiated through the auditorium.
As a fellow playwright, I can tell you that's a feeling that never gets old. I'm looking forward to seeing many more stories from these writers in the future.