Kindness Project was reaction to adult fights, bullying
You thought nothing good came out of the backbiting, bullying and belligerence of the 2016 presidential campaign? Children’s Theatre of Charlotte begs to differ – in a kindly way, of course.
Its leaders realized a creep armed only with crankiness and a computer could spread ugliness across the country in an instant. Yet it takes a village to raise a smile, instilling lasting values that prevent kids from becoming malicious oafs.
So artistic director Adam Burke and managing director Linda Reynolds created The Kindness Project, a series of three world premieres over two seasons (and maybe more down the road) that remind young audiences this virtue has to be learned, like any other.
“We were dismayed, coming into that election, by the way adults talked to each other, especially on social media,” says Burke. “Linda had found a list of the top children’s books about kindness. We reached out far and wide to staff members, our friends at the ( public library) and other places for suggestions. In the end, we picked three books from that original list.”
They hired Gloria Bond Clunie to adapt “Last Stop on Market Street,” which runs Nov. 2-18 at ImaginOn. Nicole B. Adkins will transform “A Sick Day for Amos McGee” for a run May 29-June 9, and Christopher Parks will render “The Invisible Boy” for a spot in the 20192020 season. (Parks is also directing “Market Street.”)
As Reynolds notes, these plays serve the whole younger span of CTC audiences: Animal puppets in “Amos McGee,” characters who help their ailing zookeeper, will appeal to kids ages 2 to 5. The other plays might speak to any elementary schoolers.
You may be wondering what the big deal is. Doesn’t Children’s Theatre encourage toler- ance, open-mindedness, respect, and racial and gender inclusivity with every production? But there’s a difference.
“Kindness is an active virtue,” says Burke. “My colleagues talk about empathy and sympathy,
helping kids grow up to be high-functioning members of society. But there had to be a moment in these plays when a character acts to help someone.”
Reynolds and Burke had no template for this idea; they don’t know of other theaters for young adults that have tried it. So they raised money, hired writers and turned them loose with the proviso that kindness be stressed, though not in a preachy way that sent audiences out with reaffirming pats on their heads. The first play went through workshops with test audiences, as will the next two.
That suited Clunie, who took on a picture book by Matt de la Peña and Christian Robinson that won the Newbery Medal and Caldecott Honor, the best-known awards in children’s literature.
The Chicago-based playwright has also written for adults and wanted to make this show subtly imaginative for more than just youngsters. (Grownups need kindness reminders too, right?)
The story follows C.J., who leaves church one day with his Nana and gets on a bus. He doesn’t know why they can’t ride in a car – he sees a friend doing that – or why they need to visit a rougher part of town. Along the way, he meets people who first seem odd or intimidating – a lady carrying a jar of butterflies, a gruff tattooed man – but who turn out to be personable.
“It’s a journey that teaches him to look for inner beauty, not beautiful exteriors,” Clunie says. “He also learns to understand people from another perspective, to see the world through their eyes. With all the acrimony in America now, that’s something children need (to learn).”
The one-hour script has fantasy elements: A pic- ture of a dragon on the side of a vehicle inspires a flight of fancy, and a song sequence puts C.J. metaphorically inside the singer’s head.
But Clunie and Parks made the story mostly realistic to get their point across. They also agreed C.J. should be a curious kid willing to learn, not a brat granted an epiphany about bad behavior. As Reynolds says, “These stories show what you should be doing, not what you shouldn’t.”
Parks, who wrote and directed a CTC production of “Journey to Oz” that has toured America for three years, will bookend The Kindness Project next season with “The Invisible Boy,” a musical he’s work- ing up with composing partner Josh Totora. That story also deals with ordinary kids gently transformed by an everyday experience.
“An introverted boy comes to a new school, and in all the excitement of daily life, nobody takes the trouble to get to know him,” says Parks. “Finally, one classmate does. Josh and I have been careful not to make the new boy an exceptional student or a football star, somebody you’d have to admire. He’s just a kid worth knowing, if you take the trouble.
“When someone’s really introverted, it takes work for other people to slow down and bring him into the discussion. Kindness is an ongoing thing: You make time every day to acknowledge that everyone has something to say.”
Does this seem rudimentary? All four interviewees agree it is. But as Clunie observes, “Maybe children don’t hear about kindness in their homes or schools, or they’re so busy they don’t stop to think about it.”
CTC must now decide how to spread the word beyond the playhouse.
The company has created a page on its website to explain the project, is collecting stories and photos that depict acts of kindness on another page, and is giving free purple “kindness bracelets” to anyone who asks via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. (Burke says CTC has supplied an entire school with bracelets.)
Other theaters have begun to ask about the plays and the project itself. “Amos McGee” will premiere in May at One Theatre World, the festival held every two years by Theatre for Young Adults/ USA. CTC will present it at Alliance Theatre in Atlanta, then bring it home to ImaginOn.
“We’ve talked about extending this series indefinitely,” says Burke. “You can tell a lot of stories about a lot of characters with this theme, and the need for kindness will never go away.”
This story is part of an Observer underwriting project with the Thrive Campaign for the Arts, supporting arts journalism in Charlotte.
Guitar Man (Jeremy Decarlos, right) plays his song on the dragon bus during rehearsal of the “Last Stop on Market Street,” which opens at ImaginOn Nov. 2.
Nana (Corlis Hayes, center) and other cast members rehearse the "Last Stop on Market Street."
Mumford the Dragon (Ron Lee McGill, left), who is happy to blow soap bubbles instead of flames, gets some help from Magical Minion (Allison Rhinehardt).