Summer Readers, Summer Jokers at the Plaza Branch

In the summertime, the Library is more than just a place to read a book and cool off. It’s also a great place for talking gibberish. No, the heat hasn’t gotten to us quite yet – gibberish is just one of the ways theater instructor John Mulvey gets teens to think on their feet.

On a recent Friday afternoon, the orange-haired elder thespian led a group of 14 teens and preteens in a series of confidence-building improvisational comedy games. One such exercise included having off-stage students translate the gibberish issuing from the mouths of the actors on stage, creating a puppetmaster effect.

“My whole thing is, I want kids to be able to think for themselves,” says Mulvey, whose educational resumé includes the Theatre for Young America, Young Audiences and the Starlight Theatre.

For an hour and a half, under the lights in Truman Forum Auditorium, the teens engaged in the sorts of quick-witted sparring and comic improv you might see at the Westport Coffeehouse on a weekend night.

More than just providing a diversion from the dog days of summer, the classes are designed to build confidence. While performing on stage comes naturally for some teens, for shyer kids, it can be potentially mortifying. That’s why Mulvey maintains an atmosphere of learning where it’s OK to “bomb” (to borrow a stand-up-comedy term) so long as you’re trying and taking risks.

“We’re giving them training wheels until they can balance on their own,” Mulvey says.

To that end, he’s been training kids in more than just improv. His weekly Friday drama classes series, which began on Friday, June 10, and concludes with an evening of performances on Friday, July 8, includes a variety of activities for children of different ages.

In the morning portion of the workshop, titled “The Art of Play,” Mulvey and his assistant, 21-year-old UMKC theater student Hailey Jones, work with kids aged 3 to 5, teaching them “creative playmaking” skills such as learning to play in a group.

In the subsequent session, called “Folktales of Land, Sky, and Water,” 6-to-10-year-olds are learning how to tell stories to each other, including yarns they’ve spun themselves and classic fairytales like Cinderella. Afternoons are given over to Improv Comedy classes for ages 11 to 17.

This summer marks Mulvey’s second year of offering drama classes at the Library.

“I feel that these classes tie in well with what we do here at the Library, particularly during the summer,” says Plaza Children’s Librarian April Roy. Roy notes that many of the children taking classes are also participating in the Summer Reading Program – another way in which the Library is Building a Community of Readers in Kansas City.

“Arts experiences are life-enhancing,” Roy adds. “One mother reported that her 12-year-old son really came out of his shell after last year’s classes, and he was one of the first to enroll this year.”  

And so far, he’s not the only one.

“I like doing comedy improv because you get to play different characters,” said aspiring actor Evan Ochoa after Mulvey’s class.

“My ideal character would be…,” he takes a beat, “a confused guy who likes waffles.”

Clearly, Evan’s getting into character.

Witness the talents of all of Mulvey’s students at Friday Night Family Fun: Lights, Camera, Act!, Friday, July 8, at 7 p.m. at the Plaza Branch.


-- Jason Harper