By Joshua Kay
In January 2018, Newbery Award-winning children’s author Matt de la Peña penned an essay for Time Magazine’s website in which he posed a question to fellow Newbery winner Kate di Camillo: Is it the job of artists who make art for young audiences to tell the truth or preserve their innocence? Three days later, DiCamillo replied in a Time online essay of her own. She suggested that by telling the truth, these artists help their audiences feel seen and understood. Reflecting on E.B. White’s story, Charlotte’s Web, which has jerked more than a few tears, she wondered how White managed to make it both emotionally truthful and bearable. She concluded that White loved the world, and “in loving the world he told the truth about it — its sorrow, its heartbreak, its devastating beauty. He trusted his readers enough to tell them the truth, and with that truth came comfort and a feeling that we were not alone.”
A similar trust in its audiences marks the work of Ann Arbor-based Spinning Dot Theatre, which is known for presenting emotionally honest, resonant plays for young people. The company, which specializes in performing international works, embraces diversity, celebrates differences while illuminating commonalities, and reminds audiences that our shared world is both big and small at the same time. Three companies in one — the Repertory Company of professional, adult actors; the Teen Apprentice Program; and the Youth Company — Spinning Dot has produced shows that explore love and loss, identity and otherness, strife and friendship. In them, young characters often turn the tide, an undeniable message that they are capable, important, and can even change the world.
The house lights dim in a studio space in Ypsilanti’s Riverside Arts Center. The set is spare and simple. There is no theater lighting, at least not the common kind. Instead, as the actors take the stage they use iPhone lights, sometimes held, sometimes placed, to create a shifting tableau of light and shadow. Moody guitar and violin music contributes to a tone of mystery and possibility. The show is The Ogreling by Suzanne Lebeau of Canada, the latest production from the Spinning Dot Repertory Company. The play explores the idea of the “other” through the story of a young ogre born to a human mother and an absent ogre father. As the boy comes of age, his mother is desperate to suppress his emerging ogre characteristics. One could describe the show as a dark fairytale, but that would not do it justice. The play moves in the grey zone between darkness and light, traveling through places of unclear motivation and moral ambiguity, conflict and longing — something like life.
The Ogreling was written for young audiences, in this case ages thirteen and up, but it never coddles. During the show, I see rapt looks on the faces of adults and children alike. After the performance, the audience exits through a room full of exhibits —foods and objects to touch, taste, smell — reflecting the rich sensory language of the play. This is not ordinary children’s theater, at least not in the United States.
Artistic Director Jenny Anne Koppera founded Spinning Dot Theatre after seeing international plays for children that gave “quality and attention to theater for young audiences the way that we don’t get here.” For example, she saw a company of Scottish actors who had worked on developing their show for three years, and the “other things in their bios were things like working with the Royal Shakespeare Company.” She wanted to find ways to bring that level of artistry to children’s theater here in the United States, but it would not be easy. “There were a lot of things set up against me,” Koppera said. “I wanted to do a really long rehearsal process. I wanted to do plays that people have never heard of before. I wanted to bring topics to audiences that people are not usually dealing with even in adult theater, let alone children’s theater.”
She wrote to a mentor to ask if it would be crazy to start a theater company focusing on international shows. He replied, “It’s crazy, but it’s a good crazy.” Hearing that, Koppera convened a small group of fellow artists to develop the idea, and their discussions led to picking the company’s first play, The Cat Who Ran. A moving Japanese story about a chance meeting and unlikely friendship between a cat and a fish, Koppera said, “It would definitely let people know that what we’re doing is different.” Audiences responded. “Not only did the young people stay engaged, but the adults who never thought in a million years that they would feel engaged were engaged, which is the point of trying to create theater that’s just good.”
Associate Artistic Director Tyler Calhoun said that at Spinning Dot, “we approach each production with complete respect for our target audience, which is youth.” At its best, he said, “Theater serves as a mirror that reflects life in all its nuances, beauty, pain, and joy. Theater can be a very powerful tool for expanding a person’s sense of empathy and respect for differing opinions, cultures, and perspectives. In our current society, especially in the U.S., I think we could all benefit by having a stronger sense of empathy.” But none of it matters if the show isn’t good. Calhoun said, “We spend eight months devising each Repertory Company production, and it shows.”
The quality of Spinning Dot’s work is what attracted Catherine Fritz to the company. Now co-director of the Teen Apprentice Program, which offers teens an immersive experience in all aspects of theater production, Fritz went to see a Spinning Dot show with low expectations because it was children’s theater. She came away enchanted. “It was this beautiful, magical little piece of theater with such exquisite attention to detail. The story was amazing, and the performers were versatile and dynamic.” Fritz assisted with Spinning Dot’s youth summer camps before working with Koppera to develop the Teen Apprentice Program, which she described as giving teens “an opportunity to feel both self-directed and supported” as they delve into the craft of theater. This year’s teens are working directly with a playwright to develop their main production while pursuing individual projects in various aspects of theater. Last year, the company’s production of The Underground Library, a South African play about government control of information, won the Audience Choice Award at the Detroit Fringe Forward Festival. Fritz said, “I feel like the kind of work that Spinning Dot chooses to do is making a contribution. It’s getting people to think about new and different things. It feels full of vitality. It feels edgy sometimes. Spinning Dot is trying to make the world smaller and help people relate to people who are different from them.” She said it’s important to “receive and interact with stories from people we might otherwise ‘other,’ to humanize differences.”
For founding Repertory Company member Tae Hoon Yoo, a.k.a. Big Fire, the diversity of the company and its audiences is meaningful. “Jenny wanted to open theater up to everyone,” he said, adding that it’s important that the shows reflect people’s lived experience. “People are wearing masks every day and build a big wall to be safe, but in a theater space, when an audience member’s story is synced [to the performance], the wall opens and they become vulnerable, just as the performers are.” One of the special things about Spinning Dot is that it honors that children have rich emotional lives. “American theater for young audiences is often one flavor: sweet, sweet, sweet. But we aren’t smiling all the time.” Recognizing this emotional truth makes for good theater. Big Fire’s one-man show, A Mouth with Flame, a poignant exploration of history, culture, and identity, was nominated for a Wilde Award for best theater for young audiences.
Spinning Dot also creates theater by kids. Actors ages 8 to 12 make up the Youth Company, which formed in Fall 2014 within a year of Spinning Dot’s founding. These young actors stay together for the entire school year, like the Teen Apprentices and the Repertory Company. During that time, they develop an international play and devise an original work inspired by folk tales from around the world. They don’t shy away from challenging subjects, either. Their first major production, The Bridge, was a play from Kosovo that explored themes of friendship, community, conflict, and reconciliation. The next year, the company performed a Danish play, Winner Takes All?, that examined pressures of competition and conformity. Like the actors in the other Spinning Dot companies, Youth Company members are involved in all aspects of the production. Big Fire admires that: “It’s important to give them ownership. The world is for them, for their future.”
As for Spinning Dot’s future, Koppera sees the need to keep reaching new audiences, and she intends to do that by continuing to perform diverse, emotionally powerful stories that respect “how much young people know and are thinking about.” The name “Spinning Dot” reflects that we all share one planet, this spinning dot called Earth. Koppera said, “The idea of ‘globalness’ and getting it into the hands of young people, I think that’s crucial in our crazy world, because we’re not isolated little beings anymore. As our world gets bigger and smaller, you’ve got to have [connection], otherwise ‘otherness’ can become dangerously present.”
By masterfully performing plays that explore themes that are central to the lives of young people and adults alike — family, friendship, love, loss, conflict, reconciliation, identity — and doing so with actors who reflect the diversity of society, Spinning Dot is, as Teen Apprentice co-director Fritz described, “expanding people’s idea of what theater can be. It’s helping theater to gain a wider audience by drawing people in who might otherwise not be interested at all.” Those audiences can get the emotional experience that good theater provides. “It’s almost like an emotional flush,” Fritz said, smiling. “To me, that’s what good theater feels like. I get to be happy! And sad! And exuberant! And terrified! And feel empathy! And be heartened by people’s resilience! All of those things. To me, that’s the heart of theater, and that’s what keeps me going back.”
For more information, go to www.spinningdot.org.