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Table-top theatre gives aspiring artists big storytelling results

When it comes to theatrical productions, bigger is often assumed to be better, but in Northwestern University’s course in Toy Theatre, the opposite is true as students convey powerful ideas in miniature spaces.

Jessica Thebus, a Chicago director, an alumna and now the director of the School of Communication’s MFA program in directing, teaches the course. She said she was inspired to offer the course after dabbling in the medium herself and also studying the table-top toy theaters of the Victorian age, as well as contemporary toy theatre works from the likes of Clare Dolan, Great Small Works, Laura Heit, and Janie Geiser.

“I was a fan of diminutive worlds, the endless transformation, the simplicity blended with complexity and the handmade humor of scale and surprise,” said Thebus. “This unusual course is a place where directors and designers could explore storytelling in collaboration but outside their usual roles…Toy Theatre is also the perfect place to develop the skill of pairing spectacle with intimacy.”

Each directing and design student in the class must create and perform their own Toy Theatre production to the public in the annual Northwestern Toy Theater Festival, which played to a sold-out audience this month.

Lauren Shouse, a third-year directing student, took the class last year, creating a piece inspired by a family story of when she was four and her brother fell off a boat. The story is told through the lens of shadow puppetry on a dining room table. She always assumed she’d saved her brother’s life, but her brother always believed she’d tried to kill him, a story that became more exaggerated with each telling.

Shouse said the class was a revelation, revealing the blocks she had as an artist. “Toy Theatre is the class that reveals the thing you need to most work on as an artist,” she said. “For me, I had a lot of nerves about performing that I had to overcome. I needed to work on clarity and action in my storytelling. So, making this piece exposed those things I might have been afraid to tackle otherwise, and I had to work through the fear in order to create a final, meaningful piece.”

Shouse said the class helped her encounter her artistic and creative choices in a way that traditional theatre didn’t. “There is no chance of hiding behind good acting or spectacular design,” she said. “Toy Theatre requires an artist to master point of view, clarity, and specificity, which are necessary ingredients for a director or designer to create a meaningful story on any size stage.”

Aaron Snook, a Chicago actor and director for the twelve years, returned to school to pursue his MFA in directing. In Toy Theatre, Snook created a cowboy story involving original songs he composed. The compressed time limit of the puppet theatre performances also adds its own challenges, he said.

“This is a master class in storytelling,” said Snook, who is also a third-year student directing. “Since you are creating everything—story, container, and communication—it forces you to come to a fuller understanding of all the pieces required to tell your story and how they must fit together.”

Before taking the course, Snook said he’d been told by other students that Toy Theatre would encourage him to look into his artistic soul, but he said he’d been skeptical.

“Well, as odd as it may sound, this piece about a cowboy father and son, which very much hinges on classic western tropes and not biographical references, was as naked as I have ever been with my work,” he said. “I learned more about myself and my work than I ever thought possible.”

-Cara Lockwood