Kyle Whalen is a Chicago writer and theatremaker. He has written for PerformInk and Chicago Stage Standard. He is a company member of Commission Theatre Co. Follow him on Instagram/Twitter @whalenschmalen.
Emerald City Theatre’s production of THE SNOWY DAY AND OTHER STORIES by Ezra Jack Keats. Photo by Austin Oie.
By Kyle Whalen
I’m sitting in Emerald City Theatre’s Little Theatre, where the company is rehearsing THE SNOWY DAY AND OTHER STORIES, currently running at the Apollo. Jerome Hairston adapted the play from four children’s books by Ezra Jack Keats: The Snowy Day, Goggles! (both won the Caldecott Medal), Whistle for Willie, and A Letter to Amy.
Across the table from me sits Jacqueline Stone (director, and artistic director of ECT), Aileen McGroddy (associate and movement director), Letitia Guillaud (props designer), Joe Court (sound designer), and Martin Andrew (scenic designer). Costume designer Branimira Ivanova and lighting designer Rachel Levy are working elsewhere.
Andrew is recalling his initial design conversation with Stone:
“I remember really early on, Jackie was interested in exploring all these pieces through the eyes of Peter, and how, if Peter and his friends were putting on this production, how they would make it,” he says. “We needed to create an environment, and a system, and a set, and a bunch of toys in a sense, in order for us to find that along the way. Much like a kid would. And, so, I feel like we took a very childlike psychology towards the approach to the show, which is: ‘what if we just had a bunch of stuff we could play with?’”
Andrew condenses that into the phrase “a world of opportunity.” The production team set out to create a simple, but “almost infinitely flexible” world for the actors. In this freeform space, the actors and directors could seriously explore and have fun, like kids do, and therefore construct a play that, in its structure, transports the audience to a childlike place thick with wonder and memories—like traipsing through your first snowfall, or facing your first crush.
“The idea that kept rising to the front,” Stone says, “was a modern children’s playground, and how many possibilities you have as a kid in a playground—how a simple structure of, like, ropes, can turn into forty or fifty things and you play on that for hours. How can we create enough opportunity in the choice of the shapes you see behind you?” Stone gestures to four abstract blocks on the floor behind our table. Each is unique. All can adjust and combine to make a ramp, a window, a porthole, steps—“[they] make innumerable formations,” Martin says. “Early on we proposed them in a bunch of different ways, in a way that might represent a stoop in a city, or stacked them up to gain some height and maybe create a slide…Aileen and Jackie have played with them quite a bit.”
“They’re fun,” McGroddy quips.
Andrew continues: “I came in the first day they arrived from our fabricator, and I got to see the actors play with them for the first time. They played with them in ways that we hadn’t thought of, which again, was that great pay off of that idea, that if we just build an opportunity, it will pay off. And it did, to see them explore them and play with them in ways that we hadn’t initially conceived.”
Painted children’s blocks inspired the four set pieces. Rounding out the scenic elements are several large sheets of fabric, to facilitate the shadow puppetry. The design team held a “shadow puppet lighting workshop” without the actors, in which they maneuvered light sources around to test for desirable, legible silhouettes on different kinds of fabric. They settled on a special printed kind.
“We’re printing those pieces [of fabric],” Andrew says. “They’re not painted, they’re a printed good. There’s no ink on the actual fiber; the ink is absorbed. [So], unlike what you see in a lot of shadow puppetry, [this material] hides the source. It both diffuses the light very well and showcases the profile of the puppetry, but you can’t really see the light back there.” This allows for larger scale puppetry: more actors and puppets can fit into each silhouette. It also
McGroddy says their shadow puppetry draws on a Southeast Asian style. “It’s back projected. The shadow puppet is touching the projection surface—which is different from what, say, Manual Cinema does, which is overhead shadow puppetry. So, we’ve designed our puppets to work with this specific setup.”
From behind one of the hanging sheets, McGroddy brings out a rehearsal puppet, one of the versions of Willie, Peter’s dog. “There’s a mix of shadows of real things—items and real people—and actual puppets that have been created. Aileen has been a good resource for that,” Guillaud says, flipping through her notebook for a roster of the puppets (there’s a parrot, a second dog, and more). “With the actors,” she says, “they’re not necessarily trained puppeteers—so trying to keep the puppets simple in how they operate has been kind of a thing we focused on: maybe they have one essential movement in that per puppet. The dog is really fun.”
The Willie puppet hangs on two strings, each attached to a stick in McGroddy’s hands, which she extends parallel, like marching snare drummer. She crosses her arms in an X shape, and the puppet flips direction. With each move, its tail and head wiggle. “What [McGroddy] did with his tail is a great example of” the simple effectiveness of the puppets, Guillaud says. “No one needs to operate his tail. It just bounces. I think that gives it more life.”
“How large is the cast, again?” I ask.
“They do the work of forty-five people,” Stone laughs, “but there’s only four of them.” Terry Bell plays Peter throughout the show. Sydney Charles, Kirra Silver, and Felix Mayes each portray multiple characters from Peter’s neighborhood—his parents, his best friend, some bullies, etc.
When I interviewed Jacqueline Stone last autumn, she explained that, under her direction, a play for young audiences ideally includes moments where the characters perform a task that children in the audience are currently learning, or will be learning soon—say, tying a shoe or brushing teeth. Then, when the protagonist ages years from minute one to minute sixty, how are audience members of different ages to engage with milestones years in their past or years in their future?
“It’s still within their understanding. For younger kids, they’ll probably relate very personally to like, maybe the first two stories [Snowy Day and Whistle for Willie], and be excited about the older ones cause its where they’re headed,” Stone says. “And for slightly older grades coming, they’ll relate more to Goggles! and Letter to Amy and have more nostalgia and remembrance for these experiences they’ve already had. And hopefully for the adults, there will be fun in reliving these first memories they’ve already had. It’s all about which story will resonate the most with their present age.”
Stone isn’t wrong to credit much of the older audience’s appreciation to the ability to reminisce. However, I think anticipation—that is to say, imagination—deserves the lion’s share of the credit—even if the audience member is an adult.
Hayao Miyazaki—Studio Ghibli co-founder and creator of animated classics such as My Neighbor Totoro and Princess Mononoke—suspects that memory is not the mother of nostalgia. In an essay about the Edo-Tokyo Open-Air Architectural Museum, he writes: “Before I was even capable of forming firm memories…when I was in first grade, I recall feeling powerfully, almost painfully, nostalgic at the sight of an illustration in a book—an illustration of a boy walking through an ordinary street scene. It has made me indulge in the wild speculation that a sense of nostalgia is not simply something we acquire as adults, that it indeed may be a fundamental part of our existence from the very beginning.”
If we are born with a nostalgia muscle, so to speak, how does a play engage it? How will SNOWY DAY?
February 4. 10:30am.
Opening morning for THE SNOWY DAY AND OTHER STORIES. Dozens and dozens of youngsters and their parents, relatives, and babysitters boisterously nestle into the Apollo Theatre auditorium. The lights dim. From the vom, one by one, the three player-narrators emerge, generously sweeping their eyes over the audience. They’re genial, they’re ready.
The team had described this moment a month before. “One of the things that I love about this production is the intersection of inclusion and abstraction,” McGroddy explained. “So, the first gesture of the show is [the actors] welcoming the audience. Looking out into the audience, and really acknowledging that it’s important they came today. It’s a silent moment, you know? They’re not handing out prizes.”
“And it’s not a moment in the script,” Stone added. “It’s a choice in how we want them to enter and engage.”
“And I think that all of the storytelling gestures that we’ve chosen, and because these stories are so simple, I think that was a pretty poignant decision, all of them ask the audience to participate in some way. So, some of them are direct questions,” McGroddy said. “And some of them are more about, ‘let’s imagine that this big gesture that we’re making onstage is creating a snowstorm.’ ‘Let’s play, let’s understand together that, like, when scary bullies show up, maybe it feels like they’re ten feet tall.’ And all of these images and gestures that we’re playing with in the show reach out into that child imagination space, of ‘what does this thing feel like?’ as opposed to what, perhaps, it literally looks like.”
This idea—how does a thing exist in the imagination, what does it feel like—applied to music and sound, as well. Joe Court’s design expands the world of pretend well beyond the boundaries of the Apollo stage. “We’re not going to hear a thunderstorm. It’s music that speaks to that—tracks that play. We’re not creating anything live onstage, like foley. It’ll be tracks of music,” Court said.
Foregoing foley is prudent. Having a foley artist, or distributing the task among the actors, may be theatrical and may delight a child. But can a young child watch a foley artist and make the connection that they, too, could repeat it? How would Peter and his friends make this play? High-skilled foley work in the background of a scene—a la American Blues Theatre’s IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE live radio show—is hard to decipher, and might distract a child from what recorded music fosters: imagination.
Court spoke to this production question: “It’s challenging but it’s an interesting challenge for the kids. We all know what a thunderstorm sounds like out there. But how can we musically suggest thunderstorm and spark an idea—like we were talking about a playground. How could they create their own playground—how could they create their own thunderstorm, as well?”
“What is the instrumental equivalent of a thunderstorm or rainstorm?” Stone said. “Just going from what would be considered as a traditional sound cue, like a doorbell—or like, Peter walks down the street in the show. Should this actually be street sounds? Or instrumentation that puts us in the same emotional space as when we’re walking down a city street? Which I think leaves an opening for different kids to have different interpretations.”
I am significantly older than a child, but all the music wafted me in many different directions. So much was suggested. There was ample space for the audience to enter the sequence of each story. There were the proposals in SNOWY DAY: the player would say “and the snow went ‘crunch, crunch, crunch.” And Peter would walk across the bright white parachute, saying “crunch, crunch, crunch.” Children giggled and gasped, watching theater come to life in increments before them.
When Peter had to choose a flavor of birthday cake, the actors asked the kids, who exclaimed their preference. When Archie and Peter played hide and seek, they tried to help the seeker navigate the abstract blocks. Even when some children recoiled from direct participation (one girl seemed adorably put off when Peter invited her to his birthday), the actors kept moving, always generous, always widely smiling, in awe of their imagined world.
The Snowy Day opens the play. It’s the longest piece, with several nearly wordless sequences in which Peter dresses into his enormous red snowsuit and galoshes through the snowfall, climbing up and sliding down the block formation. Narration, taken or adapted from Keats’s text, guides this story most.
The team rearranges the blocks, and we’re in Whistle for Willie: after seeing a boy summon his dog by whistling, Peter struggles to learn so he can call his dog, Willie. His mother teaches him, and he tries over and over again until he gets it.
Another arrangement for Goggles! Peter and his friend Archie are playing in an abandoned lot. (Felix Mayes and Terry Bell scamper around the blocks, ducking into crannies, pretending to be astronauts.) When the pair discovers a cool pair of goggles, bullies demand they give them over. Peter stands up to the bullies, and then he and Archie must escape them.
The final piece isA Letter to Amy. Peter decides to invite Amy to his birthday party—the only girl at a party full of boys. Peter agonizes over how to write the invitation letter, making sure the letter makes it to her mailbox despite a thunderstorm, and frets when she seems like she isn’t going to come when the day arrives. The moment of pregnant silence they share on his stoop, clumsily looking at each other, gave me butterflies. I remember the first time I sat with a crush like that.
Tonika Todorova, reviewing THE SNOWY DAY AND OTHER STORIES for PerformInk, wrote “the story itself isn’t incredibly conflict driven.” She wonders if its “hard to find the lessons if there are no challenges…it would be grand to help kids overcome [life’s] challenges creatively—even if the world they are facing reflects harsher realities than snowy days and birthday parties.”
I look at it differently. To me, The SNOWY DAY prepares children for a world without conflict, not by walking them through a moment of substantive conflict. Rather, the play offers what McGroddy and Stone describe as “proposals.” The SNOWY DAY proposes a world without intense conflict. Instead of guiding children through a conflict resolution scenario, it invites them to bypass creating conflict at all, by seeing an open, more innocent world. This isn’t a comprehensive plan—it does seem a little naïve—but it might prepare a child for life better than intuition suggests.
Here’s an example relating to this. My favorite part of Joe Court’s soundtrack grooved during Whistle for Willie. Peter’s walking through the city. It’s a loping chant with a few percussive hits—I have difficulty describing it from memory—but it just felt like an urban street. As I reflected in my seat, I couldn’t pinpoint “why” it felt like that. Then the Miyazaki quotation came to me: I wasn’t remembering a city sound. I was building it in my head, invited by something ineffable in the music. We were all building cities in our heads, using the common tools provided by the play. Maybe that is a sophisticated way of facing future challenges—not tomorrow’s, but in twenty years.
Stone seemed to agree in January. “I think it’s important to leave a lot of space for [the audience] to fill in the answer,” she said, “versus a style of theatre where maybe we have to explain, each answer, each piece for them. I prefer, you know, space in between those questions: letting the audience be an active part of what their experience is. So that, hopefully, when they leave, when they’re on the bus or with their families, each person can have a slightly different interpretation of what they experienced, and they’re all good. You know?” She nodded slightly. “We’re not looking for four hundred people to walk out and all have the same reaction.”
For the whole morning, watching Peter grow up, being constantly invited to build a young man’s life, I was also being invited to approach the rest of my day (my life?) with serious optimism, with hope and creativity. That’s the energy I got interviewing the SNOWY DAY team back in January.
“Kids play so easily,” McGroddy said. “What are we able, as adult professional artists, to add to that experience? We can do it bigger, louder, and with more virtuosity. We have a lot more tools. And I think that there’s something really exciting about seeing a block set that [a child] would play with, but actually it’s huge and you can climb on it. Seeing a shadow puppetry thing where [a child] could hang a bed sheet and do it with [their] hands, but we do it in surprising ways because we have theatrical lighting and puppeteers. We can take the play impulse and run it to the tenth degree.”
It’s a sentiment articulated by Emerald City’s new mission statement, which Stone unveiled at the end of the performance. “Emerald City Theatre celebrates all of Chicago’s children through playful, professional, and culturally relevant artistic programs that motivate young people to creatively face the world.” Not only the young: the young at heart, too.