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Student group takes home top award for children’s theatre

Seniors Jacob Watson and Kelby Siddons and juniors Abby Schwarz and Allison Finn were on hand to accept the award and congratulations from Rives Collins, theatre faculty member and current AATE president. Photo courtesy of Purple Crayon Players.

The Zeta Phi Eta Winifred Ward Outstanding New Children’s Theatre Company Award, named after former Northwestern professor Winifred Ward, has come home.

The annual award, given by the American Alliance for Theatre & Education (AATE) at its national conference, honors an up-and-coming theatre company serving young audiences. The 2010 recipient was Northwestern’s own Purple Crayon Players, a student-run theatre and community service organization that produces professionally written theatre for young audiences within their mainstage season, as well as special projects and events by, with, and for youth. The Purple Crayon Players were honored at this year’s AATE conference in San Francisco Aug. 5-8.

Winifred Ward taught at Northwestern from 1918 to 1950. Photo courtesy of University Archives.

The AATE evolved from Children’s Theater Conference, an organization started by Ward in 1944.

“To receive this award affirms one of our essential beliefs: not only can people of all ages connect with Theater for Young Audiences, people of all ages can create a brighter future for Theater for Young Audiences,” said Purple Crayon Players artistic director and senior theatre major Jacob Watson in his award acceptance speech.

According to the AATE web site, the winning company must “have attained a high level of artistic production and possess sound management practices while having stimulated community interest in its endeavors,” as well as be organizational members of AATE. Companies in the running must have been in business for two years but for no more than five years.

Purple Crayon players work through a play-in-progress at the annual PLAYground Festival for new works. Last year’s festival featured work by D.W. Gregory, Ramon Esquivel, and Jessica Puller (C07). Photo courtesy of Purple Crayon Players.

“We feel very lucky to have the support of Northwestern’s School of Communication in our theatrical pursuits,” Watson said. “Not only have we partnered with the Theatre and Interpretation Center to produce events and workshops such as our annual PLAYground Festival, but the School of Communication also helped to fund our spring 2010 touring production of The Phantom Tollbooth, allowing us to offer both discounted and free tours to schools in the Chicagoland community. Because we spend so much time working with local parents, students, and teachers, it is important to us to maintain a high level of professionalism. The funding, encouragement and validation we receive from the school are invaluable in this regard.”

Northwestern theatre department chair Rives Collins, who is president of AATE, had the honor of presenting the Purple Crayon Players with the Ward award at the conference. Collins had no idea the Players were even nominated and was sure that he was purposefully kept out of the loop.

“When they won, I burst into tears,” he said. “I think Ms. Winifred Ward would be so proud of the vision, the sense of purpose and the respect for young people that this company has.”

Winifred Ward, a faculty member of the precursor to the School of Communication, started a children’s theatre in 1924 to benefit the children of Evanston and to give university students a laboratory in the study of theatre for young people. Ward directed The Children’s Theatre of Evanston for twenty-five years. Photo courtesy of University Archives.

Collins said the Purple Crayon Players are “transforming” the way undergraduate theatre communities engage the greater arts community. Their innovation, evident in the new PLAYground reading festival program the group started last year, Collins said, is a large reason they were recognized for the Ward Award.

Ward was a founder of modern creative drama and a founder of children’s theatre education. She studied at the Northwestern University’s Cumnock School of Oratory (the precursor to the School of Communication), receiving her diploma in 1905. After receiving her doctorate from the University of Chicago, she returned to Northwestern to teach from 1918 to her retirement in 1950. She died in 1975.

For more information about the Purple Crayon Players, visit