U student’s theater project is child’s play

Josh Kaplan combined his fields into a new play inspired by area kids’ stories

by Katie Wilber

Josh Kaplan was frustrated.

He was pursuing a theater degree at the University and was involved in many productions. But he was tired of performing for the same people over and over.

So after he got that theater degree, he entered the University’s master’s of education program in elementary education.

He found a way to combine both his passions with the passions of kids younger than 12 and he discovered a new audience – kids.

Kaplan used his undergraduate and graduate work to create a theater project with help from elementary school students.

“I wanted to actually get out into the community and create a positive learning experience for kids,” he said.

He e-mailed a dozen elementary school principals about a year ago and heard back from one or two. That wasn’t as many as he’d hoped for. He decided his next approach would be more personal; he’d contact people he knew at schools.

Kaplan plays in a band with the Carver Elementary School principal. His aunt works in the Wayzata district. And then there’s his old elementary school where he happens to be getting his observation hours.

He didn’t have a specific theme or age group when he started the project, but he knew he wanted to act out stories that meant something to kids, to give them the chance to see their ideas take shape.

When his personal connections helped him identify a few interested teachers and schools, he told the educators to start soliciting student stories.

These educators, unlike his first batch, were thrilled with his idea.

“I was surprised at the response,” he said. “They were really receptive to the project since they never get the chance to do stuff like this.”

Kaplan was open to ideas about the themes of the stories to be acted out, despite the fact that the content of his own performance would hinge on those ideas.

He knew teachers tend to have strict curriculum standards, so he wanted to make it as easy for the teachers as possible.

“I basically said, ‘Give me whatever is part of the curriculum. If you’ve got a unit on ancient Egypt, have the kids write an extra-credit paper about mummies,’ ” he said.

When the stories started coming in, Kaplan sent out an e-mail for actors. He and his cast met for the first time in March to start whittling down the piles of stories they’d gotten.

The show is a little longer than an hour, and the script contains stories from the kids, mostly fourth- through sixth- graders in suburban schools, that had a recurrent theme or a similar thread, Kaplan said. Some of the stories were more like lists, like the results of an entire class brainstorming about things that take courage.

Thursday was the first performance at one of the elementary schools, and Kaplan was excited.

“I’m so happy to see something that I thought about and believed in and worked for actually having life breathed into it and being performed for its intended audience,” he said.

He’s interested to see the reactions from the students, both at the elementary level and at the collegiate level. Maybe what makes the little kids laugh will trigger nostalgia in us. He was eager to see who laughs at what and to see if the show works.

His first audience was 600 kindergarten through sixth-grade students.

“I’m getting a kick out of it,” Kaplan said. “It’s actually happening.”