by Brittany Crowell
Upon clicking the zoom link, you find yourself in a space with Forester Finn, an energetic man in a parka vest, backdropped by autumnal leaves (which we later learn to be the Great Great Forest). You are joining a group of children standing, sitting, laying, jumping, and even possibly running around their living rooms and bedrooms. Forester spends the first few minutes greeting each child by name and brightly remarking on the amazing painting behind them, the doll they are carrying, or their superman shirt.
Zoom, dubbed “the cheapest theater in New York City (and the only one open)” by Adventure Theater LIVE founder and artist, Mackenzie Sherburne, gives children access to the characters of the Great Great Forest from their homes, and encourages them to engage with childhood theater entertainment in a whole new way.
“Forester is meant to be like Mr. Rogers, a classic kids entertainment host,” Sherburne said to me during our conversation. I recalled watching the piece the night before and marveling at how the characters engaged each child in a way I have never seen in theater, or on TV and film. “Wiggle your finger if you want to share,” Forester would say after asking a question to the group. “Use your body to tell the story,” he’d instruct, as he asked the children to mime climbing up a tree.
Adventure Theater LIVE, started by Sherburne, who has now been joined by twelve close collaborators, provides educational, kid-led entertainment. When the pandemic hit, Sherburne was working in a Broadway casting office and recalls the Artistic Producer of a prominent company walking into the room and noting that Broadway had shut down. “It suddenly became real,” she remembered.
In response, Sherburne sent an email to all of the teaching artists within her network. Understanding that the pandemic would leave many performers out of work and that kids were going to be entering a remote learning phase, she asked, “How can we use this time to create a way to interact with kids at home and teach them?”
Sherburne’s collection of artists had their first zoom call together on March 16, 2020. From there, they set up regular calls, with some artists leaving as their jobs returned and others being brought in by the ensemble. The group began playing with ideas by asking individuals to take turns donning costume elements from their homes and teaching a skill over the zoom call. “So much of the show has been: What do I have in my apartment? Which has been very funny,” Sherburne commented.
Jamie Roach, a company member, brought the team their first scripted idea, involving a character named Forester Finn in the setting of the Great Great Forest. This grew into Adventure Theater LIVE, which now has more than 40 adventures under their collective belt, featuring over 16 characters within the forest.
Today, the Adventure Theater LIVE team creates new shows each week: ‘Twig & Friends,’ a show for young ones (18 months to 4 years old), and ‘Adventures with Forester’ for ages 5-9. The group collaboratively devises each show in a process led by a rotating head writer, who crafts the structure of the piece. The head writer then meets with each of the “characters,” where they collaboratively develop the story and dialogue.
With each show, the team creates content focusing on “what kids are dealing with, and how we can give them tools to help with this,” Sherburne explained. “At the beginning, we were seeing people who were missing friends and we created our content around how we could cheer them up, and also cheer ourselves up. All of this has to do with the kids, but also what we are handling and the brain fog that everyone seems to be dealing with. We’re asking ourselves: how can we (never heavy handedly) take little steps, like talking to someone or playing a game with someone, to help them return to what’s good?”
The virtual platform allows Adventure Theater LIVE to engage children in a way that I have never seen before. When encountering a character who is feeling a difficult emotion, Forester asks those in the space to chime in: ‘What is Günter feeling? How do they act when they feel anxious or scared? What are ways that they deal with that feeling?’ All of this self-reflection and self-identification is ingeniously positioned towards the character, though it is very much about the emotional journey of each individual audience member. In positioning themselves this way, the team at Adventure Theater LIVE has created a show that encourages vulnerability, awareness, discovery, and adventure all at once, in a way that is moving and changing not only for children, but for adults as well.
Sherburne and the team quickly learned that the entrance into the zoom space and imagined world was equally important to the content of the show itself. “The first fifteen minutes were literally people just settling,” she explained. This was true both of the beginning of each show with the children, but also in regard to virtual company meetings and rehearsals. Alberto Denis, a founding company member and close collaborator of Sherburne, added, “We are still flesh and blood beings with these plastic screens in front of us. We have to do the human part, the organic part, of talking and sharing and doing the connection. It may not be physical, but it is an experiential one.”
Denis spoke additionally of the challenges the group has faced in creating a collective of artists, company members, and content creators in a pandemic. “We’re still a young company with 13 people, so in addition to navigating learning how to perform on this platform with the kids, we’re constantly learning who we are,” he said. “If we could erase the circumstances we’re under, we’d still be a young company learning how to work together. It’s crazy to be dealing with it all at once. It’s also beautiful; it’s a constant practice in growth and change, saying “yes” and reflecting.”
When asked to reflect on building an ensemble, responding to this moment, and forging a new style of virtual entertainment, Sherburne talked about how Adventure Theater LIVE supported her and her fellow artists just as much as the audience they were serving. “Both Al and I laughed harder than I’d laughed in so long,” she said in response to the character of “Swamp Lady” created by company member Jamie Roach. “It’s been great to be able to bring this to kids and be inspired by them, but it’s also kept me sane during all of this, to be able to create and collaborate and laugh and (to a certain extent) forget about what the world looks like right now.“
When asked about building a company during the pandemic, and what he most looks forward to as the world re-opens, Al commented, “I can’t wait to actually meet my colleagues, that’s going to be so exciting!”
Adventure Theater LIVE will be back for their second season, including the premiere of their adult show offerings this fall (beginning the week of September 7th).
To learn more about Adventure Theater LIVE visit: www.adventuretheaterlive.com
*Designs by Jessica Giannone