Spotlight - April 2006 When she was in fifth grade, Vivian Rivera of Logan Square would run to her room and hide if her brothers brought friends over. Painfully shy, Vivian found meeting new people was more than she could bear.
Fast forward to eighth grade, and Vivian isn’t hiding in her room any more. More often than not, she can be found performing onstage with the Dramagirls. This is one of the children’s programs run by Redmoon Theater, the Chicago company best known for its innovative performances featuring puppets and actors on stilts.
Dramagirls targets 8- to 14-year-old girls from the Logan Square neighborhood. Each girl is paired with a DramaMama mentor. These dedicated DramaMamas include women actors, stand-up comics, musicians and artists. Together the pairs find a theme from the girls’ lives and do activities such as dance, stilt-walking, puppetry and animation. The work culminates in a public performance.
Redmoon Theater began the Dramagirls program about 10 years ago. It grew out of a Saturday morning co-ed art class. Boys had started to dominate the group, so Redmoon created the girls-only Dramagirls, with the motto: Powerful actions create powerful girls.
"Through Dramagirls I became a strong individual," says Vivian, who joined the program in the summer after fifth grade at the urging of a friend who had joined a year earlier.
The power of spectacles
Dramagirls hopes to bring out the girls’ inner creativity with theatrical spectacles—something not that common in American theaters. But it is a historic form of theater where the performance doesn’t just stay on one stage, rather it is a moving celebration that takes place indoors and out.
Redmoon’s spectacles have ranged from a shadow-puppet screen placed on the Museum of Contemporary Art’s windows to a performance on water at the Jackson Park Lagoon.
Learning creativity is the first step for the girls.
During a meeting in late winter, Dramagirls director Joannie Friedman tells the girls: "I am going to put an object in the middle of the room and someone is going to run out and use it for anything other than what it is."
And they do. The girls transform the wooden stick into dozens of objects, ranging from deodorant to a telescope.
"When I first entered the program, I thought what I was going to do was going to make people laugh and I would embarrass myself," says 14-year-old Sonia Mayol.
That didn’t happen.
Sonia is now a member of the Teen Touring Ensemble run by another respected Chicago group, Lookingglass Theatre Company. She credits Dramagirls with teaching her to speak up and not be afraid to make mistakes.
That’s the goal, says Jim Lasko, Redmoon’s artistic director.
"The desire is that by awakening the possibilities of human imagination and creative problem solving with girls—and anyone we come in contact with—that dissipates fear. And by dissipating fear, we create the possibility for action," Lasko says. "That’s the goal of all our work, to empower people."
Redmoon’s desire to empower children began in a roundabout way. In the early days, Redmoon was housed in a small storefront at Point Street and Armitage Avenue in Logan Square.
"We made our puppets with the door open whenever possible, and soon kids were standing, playing and sitting outside the door for extended periods, watching what we were doing," Lasko says.
"We let them come in. They were a great audience. But after a while we had to get some work done, so, in exchange for not letting them in we offered them an art class on Saturdays."
That was the co-ed art class that evolved into Dramagirls. Two years ago, Redmoon added the School Partnership Program at the Audubon Elementary School, 3500 N. Hoyne Ave. in Chicago. There art is integrated into teaching, according to Lasko.
"Through acting, writing and art making, students at the North Side school reinforce concepts in subjects like science and history, and they participate in an annual production," Lasko says.
While Redmoon has been expanding its outreach to kids, the theater itself has been expanding as well. In 2003, it moved from Logan Square to a larger home in West Town, dubbed Redmoon Central. Last year, the theater presented 40 events, up from nine in 2003.
The Dramagirls will perform at 7:30 p.m. May 18-20 at the Fourth Congregational Church, 2625 N. Talman Ave. Visit www.redmoon.org or call (312) 850-8440 for more information.
Rana Rosen is a student at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. She wrote this story for the Medill News Service.