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The joy of helping Chicago children express themselves

Artistic Director Molly Brennan (far left) with Barrel Monkeys’ team actor-educators.

Artistic Director Molly Brennan (far left) with the Barrel of Monkeys’ team of actor-educators.

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Updated: October 18, 2013 2:25PM

I’m proud to be the artistic director at Barrel of Monkeys, an ensemble of actor-educators who teach creative writing residencies in Chicago Public Schools. After six weeks of writing, we adapt the students’ stories into an hourlong variety show that’s presented at their school.

When we enter classrooms for creative writing workshops, besides teaching writing skills, our goal is to instill a sense of self-worth and self-esteem in the students. By encouraging them to write about anything they want to, we aim to build a safe and joyful environment in which our authors feel confident to share what is on their minds.

While many stories are fun and playful, some students write about the pressures they face growing up — everything from poverty to gang influence to just fitting in. Like all children, they’re barraged by images of violence, unattainable “beauty” and glorification of wealth and material things.

Following a residency at Avondale-Logandale Elementary School last year, our actors gathered to read the students’ stories and choose which ones to adapt for the stage. One particularly memorable story came from fifth-grader Kia F.:

“Once there was a lady with really huge hips and there was no clothes that would fit her and she had to have a special designer make her clothes. Finally the day came that the clothes were ready. When she went, the clothes cost a lot of money because all the material was used on her dress so the price was $100,000,000 dollars just for one dress. She asked a friend the friend said ‘Are you kidding me? It’s not my fault you have big hips!’ So Martha felt bad and she never found any money and she thought to herself that’s how I’m going to live. She started crying and finally found the money in her bank and could only afford that dress so she lived her life with only one dress. The End.”

After the story was read aloud to the cast, the Barrel of Monkeys team was quiet. Fellow fifth-graders had written about things like George Washington and Abraham Lincoln fighting zombies. But “Martha” was one of those stories that needed to be handled with extra sensitivity. How could we put this story — which dealt with body image, bullying and financial worries — onstage in a way that celebrated the author and stayed true to her ideas?

Laura McKenzie, one of our musicians, reached for the story immediately, taking it home and adapting it into a song. McKenzie’s adaptation begins with a chorus of “Big Hipped Martha, Oooh, she gotta lotta hi-ip.” The rest of the song follows Martha’s journey through body image dilemmas, peer cruelty and financial challenge.

But Martha triumphs. The song concludes with the entire cast of 14 clapping and singing: “You can live your life with just one dress. Don’t let big hips get in the way of happiness.” Lindsey Dorcus, a tall, strong, striking aerialist with a killer vocal range, plays Martha, bumping her glorious gigantic false hips, celebrated in a dress of black, purple and silver satin.

When it was performed, the kids clapped along with Martha and her chorus. And the author beamed with pride.

Barrel of Monkeys’ “That’s Weird, Grandma” plays Mondays at 8 p.m. from Sept. 9 to Oct. 7 at the Neo-Futurist Theater (5153 N. Ashland). For tickets and info, visit

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