–by Arshia Simkin
“I want you to close your eyes and think of as many historical figures, from any walk of life that you can. What is the make up of your list? Is it mostly men?” So begins a promotional video for the Curious Theatre Collective—an all-women theater group dedicated to getting stories of remarkable women to young audiences. Founded in 2016 by Jeri Lynn Schulke, the collective has produced two original plays—“Sally’s Ride: To Space and Beyond!” and “Creekside: The Journey of a Young Environmentalist”— and, in order make the plays accessible during the pandemic, has produced two audio plays. Before Covid restricted in person gatherings, Curious Theatre had given thirty-four live performances, primarily in schools and libraries in Orange, Durham, Wake, Person, and Johnston counties.
According to the Curious Theatre website, “Sally’s Ride” uses “audience participation, and narrative” to introduce children to the titular inaugural female astronomer, Sally Ride, as well as encouraging “curiosity” and “the power of imagination.”
Both “Sally’s Ride” and Creekside” are intended for children from kindergarten to fifth grade and include musical components. A key feature of both plays is the interactive elements that help keep young viewers engaged with the material. Jessica Flemming, a writer and actor for Curious Theatre, noted that it is sometimes a challenge for kids to sit still and these interactive elements provide “opportunities for kids to be silly.” Flemming provided an example of an interactive element: in “Creekside”—a play that focuses on environmental themes and introduces children to environmentalists Rachel Carson, Winona LaDuke, and Julia Butterfly Hill—audience members create a vocal “soundscape” to learn about the importance of biodiversity. The audience is divided into different groups that make sounds found in nature—such as those of birds, insects, or the wind—and they experiment with various volume levels all “in service of this idea that there is so much happening in nature, and there’s so much sound, and so much life, and as we pull away, seeing how quiet it is as we lose things like the insects and birds.”
Flemming finds working with children to educate them about feminist icons to be immensely fulfilling: “Something that’s so special and something that I feel really grateful for is, a lot times when we’re kind of like tearing down after shows is how many times kids will just run up and be like ‘can I give you a hug?’…[where] clearly we have made a connection and…that is such a wonderful, magical thing to get to offer to kids.” Emma Nadeau, another writer and actor for Curious Theatre, added, “Jessica and I both have had profound experiences watching theater as kids and so to be on the other side of that feels really special.”
Like many organizations, Curious Theatre has had to pivot during the pandemic and as a result, produced two audio plays, one of which is “Creekside With Winona,” inspired by their stage play, “Creekside.” According to the Curious Theatre website, the audio play follows “Mia, a young girl who notices that something is wrong with the creek in her backyard. She is visited in her imagination by Winona LaDuke, Native American environmentalist and activist. Together they think about our environment and how we can work to protect it.”
The other audio play, called “Chinese Girl Wants Vote: Trailblazer Mabel Lee” was written by North Carolina playwright Jinna Kim and presents the story of Chinese-American suffragette and activist Dr. Mabel Ping-Hua Lee. Nadeau noted that a unique feature of this play, which is geared for students from grades four through seven, is that it “uses a lot of primary source material—her own words,” which are crucial for honoring and disseminating the message of equal rights.
The members of the Curious Theatre are looking forward to exploring new opportunities for audio plays and, when it is safe to do so again, performing live. They are also eager to explore new opportunities to connect with young audiences, such as offering a workshop component, which would be for smaller groups—say a single third grade class rather than an all-school assembly—and could, for example, allow students to act out scenes based on prompts from the actors. “Theater can be this really amazing opportunity for kids to play,” Nadeau said. And it’s through play that the Curious Theatre hopes to get kids excited about learning about the remarkable women that have shaped our history.
You can find more information about the Curious Theatre Collective, it’s stage plays, including booking information, ways to donate, and stream the audio play for free at http://curioustheatrecollective.com/. You can also follow the Curious Theatre on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/curioustheatrecollective/.