Local performers make children's books come to life
CHAMPAIGN — Tom Mitchell calls "Words in the Wind," concert-style performances of children's books by local veteran actors, always surprising.
"Once you're an adult, you sort of forget about these kids' books," he said. "But the same things that sort of delighted us as kids are still pretty delightful to us as adults. They either are funny or tell a story in a concise way that's effective and moving or clever in their poetry and rhyme."
Mitchell, associate director of the University of Illinois Department of Theatre, has organized the annual "Words in the Wind" the past four years to benefit WILL's Book Mentor Project.
This year's event will take place at 7:30 p.m. Thursday at Faith United Methodist Church, 1719 S. Prospect Ave., C.
Altogether, "Words in the Wind" will present 10 books and four songs: "Everybody Hurts" by REM, "The Warthog" by Flanders and Swann and "When Somebody Loved Me" and "You've Got a Friend in Me" from the "Toy Story" movies.
For "Words in the Wind," Mitchell chooses books he believes will work in the concert-style format. He tries to mix funny, whimsical and emotionally moving stories. The books are generally aimed at children 4-12; this event targets more of an adult audience, though children are welcome, too.
"We don't push it. It's not bright colors and flashy acting and stuff that you're used to in children's performances," Mitchell said.
All of the books to be presented are short picture books, but the actors do not show the illustrations to the audience, as a parent would.
"It's all about the actors communicating the book in the gist of their performances," Mitchell said.
He enlists actors from various theater groups in town. He's thinking cross-pollination.
"It helps them get to know each other and leads to more projects," he said.
Among the performers this year is Kent Conrad, a pianist known for his cabarets. He will do "The Warthog" song and the book "Diary of a Fly" by Doreen Cronin.
"He's always kind of clever in the way he performs the books," Mitchell said.
Lisa Gaye Dixon, an associate professor of theater at the UI, will present the book "Everybody Gets the Blues" by Leslie Staub. Mitchell has paired that with Ann Marie Morrissette singing "Everybody Hurts."
Gary Ambler will perform the book "Angel Girl" by Laurie Friedman. She based it on a Holocaust memoir written by Herman Rosenblat that was later discredited and pulled by its publisher.
"Angel Girl" focuses on a young man who falls in love with a girl across the fence in a concentration camp who would bring him an apple every day.
Steve Keen will present "Wicked Jack," an Appalachian folk tale adapted by author Connie Nordhielm. It's about a devilish character and is dark and Halloween-like, Mitchell said.
And actresses Cara Maurizi and Mindy Manolakes, both known for their comedic chops, will perform, respectively, "Math Attack!" by Joan Horton and "Oh, No! (Or How My Science Project Destroyed the World)" by Mac Barnett.
Other performers will be Barbara Evans, J.W. Morrissette, Rob Ek, Cameron Cornell, Jessica Holmes, Joe Murphy, Angela Marcum and Jeremiah Lowry.
And for the first time, younger performers — members of the Paxton-Buckley-Loda Junior High speech team — will perform. They will do "'Stand Back,' Said the Elephant, 'I'm Going to Sneeze!'" by Patricia Thomas. Performing with the students will be Barb Ridenour, retired drama director at University Laboratory High School in Urbana.
Molly Delaney, educational outreach director for Illinois Public Media, said she has invited other local high school speech and drama clubs to attend "Words in the Wind" for free.
A busload of PBL students attended last year.
"The selections presented were fresh, fun and very appealing to students," PBL speech coach Cindy Haile said. "Our students quoted their favorite parts for weeks after, and we were so grateful for the opportunity to attend."
WILL's Book Mentor Project is in its ninth year; it serves 42 Head Start classrooms in Rantoul, Savoy, Champaign and Urbana. Through the project, 720 families receive free books and educational materials for their children. WILL hopes to also use proceeds from this year's "Words in the Wind" to purchase an interactive white board for one of the Champaign County Head Start sites.
If you go
What: WILL presents "Words in the Wind," organized by Tom Mitchell, associate director of the University of Illinois Department of Theatre, and featuring concert-style performances of children's books by veteran local actors.
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday
Where: Faith United Methodist Church, 1719 S. Prospect Ave., C
Admission: Free for local speech and drama students; $4 suggested contribution for UI and Parkland students; $10 suggested contribution for general public (proceeds benefit WILL's Book Mentor Project)