Children’s Theater of Madison knows that some of the 3, 4, and 7-year-olds arriving for The Mole Hill Stories this month may never have been to a live performance. The COVID-19 pandemic kept them away from theaters until recently, and the idea of watching actors tell a story on a stage might feel very new indeed.
So CTM is prepared — with music and wit, movement and storytelling and a bright, surprising stage design — to make true believers out of the younger group. Running October 15-30 at the Starlight Theater at Madison Youth Arts Center or MYArts, The Mole Hill Stories is a non-stop woodland adventure with dialogue that seamlessly slides from English to Spanish and back again, with people in roles such as fox, skunk, cuckoo and moon.
The Mole Hill Stories is based on the work of the late Wisconsin children’s fiction superstar Lois Ehlert, illustrator of the classic Chicka Chicka Boom Boom (she also won the 1990 Caldecott Honor Award for the book Color Zoo).
People also read…
Born in Beaver Dam in 1934, Ehlert grew up using scissors and scraps to create the colorful collage paintings that made her books famous. She studied at both UW-Madison and the Layton School of Art in Milwaukee, the city where she died last year at the age of 86.
For The Mole Hill Stories, playwright Alvaro Saar Rios combined three of Ehlert’s picture books: Mole’s Hill, Cuckoo/Cucú and Moon Rope/Un Lazo a la Luna. The play takes place in the woods of Wisconsin — and music is plentiful.
“This script is so beautiful, it’s so inviting, it’s so sensitive,” said Jamal Howard, the show’s director and choreographer. “It’s such a unique experience to be in a room and witness a show with a whole audience and (they) are all absorbing it in that moment and learning in that moment.”
Chicago resident Howard is also Associate Artistic Director of the New American Folk Theater and was previously Associate Artistic Director of the Emerald City Theater for Young Audiences in Chicago. Howard designed The Mole Hill Stories to be very “tactile,” with “movement work and big, colorful designs,” he said. “But I’ve also invested in music.”
CTM hired Chicago composer Gonzalo Cordova, a Latin American singer and musician originally from Mexico City, to build on folk songs and add originals to The Mole Hill Stories. Cordova has performed at Madison’s Overture Center with his group Sones de Mexico in the past.
Theatergoers will hear the violin, nylon-string guitar, a trumpet, percussive cajon and claves, and a chorus of ukuleles, said music director Elleon Dobias, who will play some of the instruments herself.
“Because we have actor-musicians on stage, the kids can see the instruments as they’re being played,” she said.
“I think it’s really important to see how that sound is made. My hope with this production is that by seeing the instruments and connecting this with the story, children will not only understand the story more clearly and feel the story more deeply, but will also be inspired to maybe try an instrument themselves. Or just clap along and get involved that way.”
With actors performing music and puppetry right onstage, “there’s magic when the story comes together in front of you,” said assistant director Alejandro Tey, who also plays the role of Zorrillo (Spanish for “skunk”).
“There’s this kind of meta-level where kids can see us doing the things we do,” he said, “so when they have their own imaginative playtime, they can do it themselves.”
In addition to dialogue, singing and puppetry, the show also includes some acrobatics and tumbling, clowning and pantomime.
“There are so many theatrical styles involved,” Tey said. “It’s kind of an introduction to all these worlds.”
start of the season
The Mole Hill Stories is the first of four productions in CTM’s 2022-23 season. A series of nine shows of “A Christmas Carol” will follow in December. — traditionally CTM’s biggest annual show — but this year with a new production and script at the Capitol Theater at the Overture Center for the Arts.
Finder and the North Star, written by CTM Education Director Erica Berman, follows February 18 through March 5; Complete with bow ties and directed by CTM Artistic Director Roseann Sheridan, “Peter Pan” runs April 22-30 at the Capitol Theater.
The group also offers youth theater classes at its new home, the MYArts center it built with its co-anchor organization Madison Youth Choirs and opened last fall. All CTM productions feature both youthful actors and experienced adult performers, and the theater company has pushed for more inclusivity in both cast and audience.
For example, the organization has focused on promoting Mole Hill Stories to Spanish-speaking and bilingual communities, as well as primarily English speakers. Each CTM production also includes a sensory-friendly performance and another with sign language interpretation.
Beyond the Stage
An Enrichment Guide for families and educators online at ctmtheater.org provides background on Wisconsin Indigenous, Mexican, and Peruvian traditions that influence The Mole Hill Stories. Among other things, the guide includes a video tutorial on how to create a collage in the spirit of Lois Ehlert, as well as a video visit to Ehlert himself in 1994.
CTM will host pre-show activities in the lobby, and just before the play begins, the cast of Mole Hill will gather around the house to greet young theatergoers and answer their questions.
“I think that really opens the space — for people to feel like this is all a thing that we experience together,” Dobias said of the pre-show.
Although the production is designed for a very young audience, it should also appeal to adults, Tey said.
At 50 minutes, “it’s a short show, but it’s such a dense show because there are so many elements,” he said. “We use the animals as a starting point. But it’s really such a human story about community and learning to accept others and grow in community.
“We grow when we relate to other people — and that’s really at the heart of this story,” Tey said. “Even though they’re all these woodland creatures, at the core of it is so universally human.”
“There’s this kind of meta-level where kids can see how we’re doing the things we’re doing. So if they have their own imaginative playtime, they can do it themselves.”
Alejandro Tey, assistant director