Kasey Dose, 9, of Ottawa and fellow cast members rehearse "The Monsters Under Bed" last week at Ottawa Dance Academy. The WilleyWorld Community Productions children's play will be staged Saturday, Jan. 20, in Ottawa.
Monsters under the bed aren't always big, hairy, glowing-eyed creatures. Sometimes they are what kids fear even more — reality.
Bullying and teasing, tests and thunderstorms are some of the issues characters of the second Starved Rock Country Children's Learning Theatre production, "The Monsters Under The Bed," will face and conquer in a lighthearted stage production kids of all ages will enjoy.
The plot surrounds a group of girls having a slumber party. Things go awry when one is unable to sleep because of her fear of the dark. Soon, all of the girls' fears are revealed and the "monsters" come out from under the bed. Together they help each other overcome the fears and the monsters are banished.
Walt Willey, actor and founder of WilleyWorld Community Productions and the children's learning theater, teaches the acting classes — alongside assistant Karly Swords — that culminate in a final public presentation.
As producer and director, Willey was struck by the "kid power" theme of the play.
"What's so great about this play is that it's about kids helping kids with real issues they deal with every day in a way they can understand," he said.
"We, as parents, teachers — adults in general — can say something to a kid, but when they hear the same thing from another kid, a peer, someone more their age, it seems to resonate more. Sometimes it's all about the source," Willey told The Times.
What Willey appreciates as much as the theme is the fact the play originated locally. Written by Father Dominic Garramone, director of the drama department at St. Bede Academy in Peru, the play was developed during a children’s summer theater program in 1987. The characters and “monsters” were created by students involved in that program.
“I read many, many plays looking for our next show, and to find a show 'born' in Starved Rock Country, written by and for children, was such a wonderful coincidence, a true blessing,” Willey said.
Willey doesn't select a production until he works with the kids in his workshop and gets a feel for their personalities and skill levels.
Madeline Sanders, 10, plays Stephanie, the hostess of the slumber party.
"Stephanie is a sweet girl and likes to be a helper, always ready to help the others feel better and kind of take care of things," Sanders explained.
A second-timer to the group, Sanders said she learned a lot from Willey.
"The first time I didn't know what to expect. Now when I hear 'stage left,' 'stage right,' I'm like 'Oh, I got this.' "
Playing Cathy, Stephanie's older sister, Neva Morris, also 10, is enjoying her first role in a theatrical production.
"Cathy is the oldest and is kind of a know-it-all. In some ways she's like me, but in some ways she's not. I love being in the play though even though it's hard and stressful at times. It's my first time acting and I think it's a fun thing to do," Morris said.
And for Danielle Shepard, another 10-year-old, playing party guest Jennifer has helped in her personal life.
"I'm really shy, but the workshop and plays are helping," Shepard said. "In the first play, (WWCP's first production, 'All I Really Need to Know I Learned by Being in a Bad Play') I was always hiding behind people backstage, but now it's getting easier," she told The Times.
The monsters under the bed came out to talk with The Times as well.
"I'm a monster, because you know, all boys are," Noah Blakely, 14, joked.
Blakely plays Teazle, a somewhat bullying, teasing monster and shows no fear on stage.
"I like to be in the spotlight," he said with a sort of "jazz-hands" gesture.
Duncan Osmund, 13, plays the Final Freak, the monster of tests and final exams, and also has a second role.
"Duncan is my sergeant at arms, so to speak," said Willey. "He's my second assistant running things backstage."
Osmund, whose brother Jack also is in the play, says he enjoys the backstage work but knows his true calling.
"It's tough to wrangle the younger kids backstage sometimes, but I like it. Being on the stage is really where I like to be though. I knew I'd really enjoy it when I heard of the workshop last fall."
In a press release, Garramone and original cast members shared their excitement for revival of their play so close in proximity to its "birthplace."
“The 'Monsters Under the Bed' continues to be one of Dramatic Publishing’s most popular children’s shows, but the theaters that produce it are usually out of state. I’m thrilled that there’s a production practically in my backyard,” said Garramone. "Some of the members of the original production tell me that taking on one of those roles was a turning point for them, helping them gain self-confidence at a difficult age.”
Chenar Howard — who played one of the “monsters,” Dr. Wicked Schott, in the original production — said of the experience: “As an adult, the summer theater workshop at St. Bede remains one of my fondest childhood memories. I valued the time spent creating with peers and being mentored by high school students. Our ideas were taken seriously, and we learned how to negotiate and accommodate one another's input. And, we had a lot of fun. With the massive and intrusive amount of technology in children's lives today, we spent an entire summer creating from our imaginations, and that is priceless. To this day, I still remember my lines.”
Shannon Sonnon, who played one of the girls at the sleepover, said: “Having the opportunity to be a part of making such a wonderful play ... was really amazing. Learning the process of what it entailed from start to finish was a true growing experience. The collaboration of peers, all the same age, creating a play to help explain the fears of children was an experience I will never forget. I am so happy that future generations will be able to enjoy this great play as much as we did so many years ago.”
For Willey, teaching and directing the final productions have offered him professional and personal gains he hadn't considered when starting the theater group last year.
"While working with these kids I've learned infinite patience, which makes it a much more enjoyable experience for me and even helps me when directing the adults I work with," he said.
"It's extremely gratifying seeing some of these kids overcome personal struggles of their own and I've discovered that excellence comes from unexpected places."
"There are many ways to reach a child and its not always the first thing you try. What we're doing here seems to work. And I knew I'd like it. I just didn't know I'd like it this much."
- "THE MONSTERS Under the Bed" will be presented at 3 p.m. Saturday, June 20, at the 807 Building Performance Space, 807 La Salle St., Ottawa (above Jeremiah Joe Coffee).
- TICKETS ARE $10 in advance by calling the Ottawa Visitors Center at 815-434-2737 or at pickusottawail.com. Tickets at the door will be $15 each.
- FOR MORE INFORMATION about WilleyWorld Community Productions and the Starved Rock Country Children's Learning Theatre, visit waltwilleyworld.com or Facebook.com/WaltWilleyWorld.