The Monkeys' business: What's behind "Grandma"'s success?

May 11, 2011

Barrel of Monkeys just celebrated its tenth anniversary—but lots of fans still don’t really know how the company gets those great, flaky stories out of kids and up onstage in That’s Weird, Grandma. School residencies: understood. And…?

“We get to be this crazy uncle who comes in and makes a splash and entertains everybody for 90 minutes, says BOM artistic director Luke Hatton. “But also, I think, it teaches something valuable, very valuable. We have them push their desks aside, and we do theater-game warm-ups in the middle of the room, and so it’s breaking the mold and allowing them to be kids and allowing them to express themselves.”

Monday night’s much-loved That’s Weird, Grandma at the Neo-Futurarium, made up of sketches adapted from students’ stories, is just the tip of the BOM iceberg. The Monkeys go into about 16 schools a year, six weeks at each school (different teams work simultaneously), helping young authors get their words on the page, adapting/rehearsing outside the classroom, then inviting the entire school to the resulting show.

Asked how the kids react, Hatton and BOM musical director Laura McKenzie yell simultaneously: “It’s fabulous! They love it!” Hatton says, “Often there’s a school where the audience dynamic is so wonderful that, when we say the author’s name, there’s just huge cheers, and everyone turns to look at the kid and pats him on the back.” (BOM also honors its student writers at a free event, “Celebration of Authors,” June 7 this year at Steppenwolf.)

The kids’ subject matter can be grim. “The Grandma shows lean toward comedy,” McKenzie says. But in the schools, “we do our best to honor what the students have written. At this one school, there happened to be a lot of violence at the time the Monkeys were doing their residency.” Hatton explains: “There’d been a shooting three days before the lesson we call ‘argument day,’ where the kids write an argument about what they’re passionate about and what they want to change in the world. Most of the arguments ended up being about this incident, and there was a wide range of responses. One kid said, ‘I think I should get to be by myself so I don’t get killed.’ Another kid was like, ‘We should all be brothers and sisters.’”

McKenzie says, “It was that thing where, we don’t want to ignore it, but we don’t want to diminish it by making it funny because that’s not their intention. So I took the stories home, compiled them, and made up this song.” At the show, she says, “There was this nice moment where you could feel the room get behind it—at one point everybody started clapping along.” Hatton adds: “Afterward the janitor came up to me and said, ‘Who wrote that song? That was fantastic.’ It felt like we had helped recognize this event.”

At the other end of the spectrum is fifth-grader Shakyra’s “Kung Fu Guys”—“one of the longest-running stories ever” in Grandma, Hatton says. On “picture day,” he “sort of engineered” who’d get the great photo of guys dancing around in towels in a scene from a Johnny Knoxville movie. “I knew Shakyra was a really good writer—though she was shy in the acting stuff, everything she said was funny. I had a hunch the story would come out well, but it far exceeded my expectations.”

What’s in it for the BOM folks? “It’s fun to see kids support each other,” says McKenzie. “And really… it doesn’t happen that often. It’s so much easier, it seems, to be confrontational or combative instead of supportive. I love it when they learn that supporting each other is way more fun.”

Hatton adds, “The process sometimes shifts the paradigm of who the cool kids are or who the successful kids are, because a lot of kids can be quote-unquote unsuccessful in academia, but then when you introduce theater and drama and writing—creative, spontaneous writing—they can really shine. That’s always fun for me, to witness that happen for kids.”