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.
If you were to ask Jacqueline Stone, the new artistic director of Emerald City Theatre, why she makes theatre for young audiences, she would likely tell you about a deep-set sense of civic and artistic responsibility. “For a large number of kids coming to our shows—since we start so young—it’s their first theatre experience,” she says. Often actors will ask kids to raise their hands after the show if it’s their first time seeing a play. Three quarters of the hands go up.”
Offering three quarters of an audience their first theatre experience is a great responsibility, especially when you consider the size of Emerald City’s audience.
“We serve about 80,000 families a year,” Stone continues. “So that is a massive number of kids who are seeing theatre for the first time. And it’s your responsibility to make sure that it is an exciting, engaging, hopefully inspiring experience for them…I want every kid to go off, ten years from now, and say, ‘Yeah! I remember this show I saw when I was three. It was really exciting. A mouse was trying to learn to brush his teeth.’”
The mouse part might read jokingly, but Stone is serious. It’s important three- to nine-year-olds see life events they consider milestones onstage—brushing your teeth by yourself, dressing yourself for school, or tying your shoes—the way adults seek scenes about a great first date or landing a dream job. This idea blew my mind; Stone is rich in those kinds of insights.
Stone became the artistic director of Emerald City in February, having served as their education director since 2005. Since Stone began her new role, a partial list of the company’s projects include: their summer camp; a co-production of Schoolhouse Rock Live! with Broadway in Chicago at Water Tower Place; just last weekend, they closed Three Little Kittens, an interactive detective play for ages zero to five, in their Little Theatre.
On top of that schedule, Stone is sketching the company’s future. Now entering their twentieth season, she’s invested in increasing Emerald City’s visibility in the Chicago theatre community. “We’re not a best keep secret with families. You ask any family, they’re like, ‘Emerald City! We love Emerald City!’ Yet, it’s not uncommon when I’m at an opening, or an event for League of Chicago Theatres, and people say ‘It’s how big? I had no idea. I’d heard of it, but…how many people work there?’ People don’t have a conception of that. I’m looking to change that.”
Stone believes Emerald City’s past focus on “building its family audience” affords her the opportunity to expand the company’s citywide profile. She is adding wings to an already solid house, with a distinct set of tools she possesses.
Foremost, she is a founding member and the artistic director of TUTA, a company known for its Eastern European theatre style: emphasis on language, movement, ensemble. In 2013, she directed The Silent Language, a darkly comedic, musical adaptation of a Balkan fairy tale. It was produced for children ages seven and up. Yet reviewers and audiences, Stone explains, reacted to it like any other TUTA production. Now, she wants to use that knack for blending the “adult” and the “childlike” at Emerald City.
Further, Stone stresses how Emerald City must “present a season that offers theatrical diversity…culturally diverse stories that are reflective of the students coming to us.” Their twentieth season is indeed diverse. Diary of a Worm, a Spider, & a Fly uses “rap, hip-hop, and Broadway standards” to “[humanize] the life cycles of insects.” Junie B. Jones in Jingle Bells, Batman Smells (which Stone will direct), is a remount, about a “fan-favorite” children’s book character learning how to give. There is a holiday show and a summer co-produced with Broadway in Chicago. And the main season wraps up with The Wiz.
Stone particularly highlighted The Snowy Day and Other Stories, set to open in February, as an example of theatrical diversity. “Snowy Day will really be the first show since coming on board…where I’ll be infusing that Eastern European type of approach and process. A lot of designers and people I work with at TUTA will be on my team for that show. It’ll be more like approaching a devised work. We’re going to see how [Emerald City’s] audience reacts.” (The show will have shadow puppetry!)
A craftsman’s attention to season selection is only one facet of Stone’s razor-sharp sense of stewardship. It influences all of her ideas for Emerald City Theatre—specifically, producing plays that represent the communities coming to see them, and collaborating with playwrights and other artistic institutions on future projects. “Those are the two biggest things I look forward to,” she says. “Doing those things thoughtfully takes time.”
Toward the end of our meeting, we briefly tour their Little Theatre, on Southport Avenue. The place is magical. Vibrant, but not overwhelming. Black-and-white painted images of a fantastical city ring the room. “Our previous artistic director, Ernie Nolan, [had] been observing baby theatre outside the U.S…he was inspired to have us go down a road to not only produce shows like that, but also creating a space with that sole intention, from the way it’s designed, to the height of the toilets, to where the sockets are, making sure the design was developmentally stimulating for this age group. It took a village.” They received funding to convert the storefront. They partnered with a Chicago children’s furniture store, The Land of Nod, that designed the space. “We worked with early educators on consulting us in the color, shape, size—what kind of setup or environment would be most inviting for the kids?”
The end result is a performance space with no fixed seating, and a lobby space where actors meet the youngsters before the show begins, to help them comfortably transition into the action. Stone describes baby theatre as a “artists and educators working together to make truly a theatre piece, but a great amount of care goes into developing pieces you might see in a ‘creative play theatre class.’ It’s a marriage of those two things.”
A marriage of education and art. She’s summarizing Emerald City’s entire mission: making sure theatre is a fun, accessible, enriching art form for the next generation. “It really is a magical experience getting to watch a 24 month old inside a space with props and characters and interacting…Could you imagine if all the world had seen amazing programming in theatre at about 24 months? I have to believe that there would be so many lifelong invested theatergoers in the city—or at least the arts in general.” With Emerald City Theatre and Jacqueline Stone hard at work, we’ll all soon find out.