All animals are created equal

Theater workshop gives children a chance to create their own play

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Director Leah Towle watches a scene in which Zora Lotten Barker, front center, and Jillian Schwartz, who are playing the roles of the twins, shove Allison Wilson, who is playing the role of non-binary girl, to the ground, during a rehearsal for "Ladies of the Fly" on Monday, Aug. 22, 2016 at Cider Gallery, 810 Pennsylvania. The play, which is produced by Orange Mouse Theatricals and is inspired by William Golding's The Lord of the Flies, features an all-female cast of young, local actors.
Courtesy of Mathew Klickstein

Maria Montessori believed in the innate intelligence of children. 

“The child is not an empty being who owes whatever he knows to us who have filled him up with it,” she said. “No, the child is the builder of man. There is no man existing who has not been formed by the child he once was.”

And yet the voices of the youth often get lost. Local author and playwright Mathew Klickstein hopes to change that. 

Klickstein has teamed up with Louisville’s CenterStage Theatre Company to develop a specialized writing and performance workshop for kids ages 8 to 14. Starting on April 18, the Animal Farm Writing/Acting Workshop invites children to explore traditional elements of improv, creative play and group discussion to create their own play, based on themes from George Orwell’s Animal Farm, to be presented in September. 

“Ultimately it’s going to be the kids writing it themselves, preferably based on their own experiences and personalities,” Klickstein says. 

The final production should not be seen as an adaptation of the classic allegory. Instead, the workshop pinpoints main themes from the book that young participants can use to explore and share their own thoughts. 

“The book was very much meant to be read by kids and younger people because [Orwell] wanted to explain certain things in a way that they can understand,” Klickstein says. “It’s a book that was written almost 100 years ago that still holds a lot of weight today.” 

The writing portion of the workshop — which will run on Thursdays through June 20 — is designed to resemble a typical TV writers’ room, with a white board in front and an open discussion for spitballing ideas. Klickstein is there to provide guidance and consistency in the narrative, but aside from that it will be up to the young folks to decide what the story will be and what the performance will look like. 

Participants will collaborate to develop characters, themes and settings. The final creation — everything from the dialog to the score — will be entirely of their own making. The production will be performed at CenterStage’s Black Box Theater and other to-be-determined venues around Boulder County. 

“I think it’s going to be really exciting for the community to behold when it is actually performed, and really great for the kids to help them open up and express themselves and discuss their unique perspectives on what’s going on in the world right now and how that may or may not relate to Animal Farm,” Klickstein says. 

Klickstein has traveled around the country doing projects of a similar nature. In Lawrence, Kansas, he constructed a workshop focused on girls ages 8 to 16 incorporating themes from William Goulding’s Lord of the Flies. Together, the girls discussed their lives, hopes and dreams, anxieties and frustrations to develop a script. Klickstein says the workshop resulted in a sold-out production — and lots of questions from the audience about how it was done. 

“There is a certain freshness and vivacity to seeing a bunch of kids perform a production that they created themselves,” Klickstein says. “There might be rough edges and moments that are a little sloppier than they would be if they were written by Andrew Lloyd Webber, but at the end of the day it will be their project.”

The motivation is to enable children to express themselves in healthy and creative ways while also facilitating a sense of agency over what they are developing. Though it may seem risky to some, Klickstein believes in the power of young thoughts and voices. 

“We’re so pummeled by this media machine that is telling us what to look at and believe and it’s refreshing to get a bit of this underground voice about these different topical issues,” Klickstein says. 

As a writer and filmmaker, Klickstein is passionate about authenticity. He believes there is an abundance to learn from children because their thoughts are still pure and blossoming.

“What I would love to see is a more diversified group of kids getting involved with this project — as in kids who normally wouldn’t do something like this or even know about it,” Klickstein says. “So we are trying to reach out to partnership organizations that could potentially offer scholarship opportunities for children who might not typically do this whether because of financial discrepancies, disabilities or whatever.”

When Klickstein worked on the Lord of the Flies project, he witnessed a young girl go from barely being able to speak because of her shyness to “basically running the whole thing” by the end of the project. Klickstein wants to see that transformation again during the Animal Farm project.

“That’s what it is about for me,” Klickstein says. “It’s learning about this other group of people that we don’t typically get to hear from or see.”