Studio visit is a Q&A with a local artist. Here, Melissa Merli chats with Jennifer Goran, a writer and specialist in children's theater.
Q: Are you still teaching drama at Judah Christian School?
A: I am not. I have not been in a teacher capacity professionally for four years.
Q: What are you doing now?
A: I very much like to write. I wrote a full-length play, "A Week in Mercy Falls," that had a staged reading at Parkland last year. I am hoping to find someone to direct and produce it.
And I am writing the monologues for these acting pieces I'm doing for Doug Peterson (a Champaign author). The first one is called "The Vanishing Woman," and the second is about Elizabeth Van Lew, a Southern belle who became the mastermind of a Union spy ring during the Civil War. She's also a character in Doug's fourth historical novel, "The Lincoln League," coming out in July.
Q: Tell us about Ellen Craft.
A: She was born a slave, as was her husband. They desperately wanted to escape from slavery, and so in 1848, her husband convinced her, because her skin was so white, to dress up as a white gentleman while he would pose as her slave to escape together to the North. She had to pose as a gentleman because it was against the law for a white woman to travel with a black male slave.
Q: How often have you portrayed Ellen Craft and where?
A: So far we've been at the Conner Prairie History Park near Indianapolis, and I portrayed her at Mahomet Elementary School and Judah Christian. We're about to do her at the Champaign Public Library. I start the piece by coming out as the character, and I do a freeze and Doug narrates information about the time period.
Q: How long does the presentation last?
A: Forty to 45 minutes. We can make it different lengths, depending on the audience and the time frame we have.
Q: Aren't you a drama specialist?
A: I graduated from the University of Illinois in theater. I had a concentration in children's theater.
Q: What kind of things have you done?
A: I guess I'm most interested in doing theater that inspires healthy change in the individual and the community. The favorite play I've directed is "Orphan Train" at the Parkland College Theatre. I not only directed, but we also set up special presentations so children could see the play during the day.
I also put an advertisement in The News-Gazette to try to find descendants of the real Orphan Train riders and, indeed, I found six. We did a program with kids where they interviewed these descendants about how their ancestors were involved in Orphan Train, a welfare program that took children from cities like New York and Boston to foster homes across the country, between 1853 and 1929.
We took the stories they told us and wrote it into a play structure and then we acted out the play at the Windsor of Savoy for the descendants and others.
What's really interesting about the whole thing: I was in charge of the Illinois Theatre Association yearly conference, and we got Aurand Harris, author of the "Orphan Train" play, to be the keynote speaker.
At the time, I also was doing Risk Takers Prevention Theater with kids.
Q: What was that?
A: I started that as a volunteer at Edison Middle School when my twins started sixth grade there. I saw this beautiful old theater at Edison not being used and decided that I would sponsor an after-school theater program called RISK, which stood for Respect the Integrity of Striving Kids.
Q: How long did you do that?
A: One year, and then the Champaign Park District saw it and asked if I would come under their umbrella. I did it six years for the district, and it won a national award from the National Recreation and Park Association.
Q: Have you ever acted for the Champaign Urbana Theatre Company or at the Station Theatre?
A: Yes, but the last acting I did was at Parkland and then solo stuff. I was in the Celebration Company at the Station in 1974-75 and was in five shows back then. It must have been their second, if not their first, year of existence.
Editor's note: Goran and Peterson will present their Ellen Craft program at 2 p.m. Thursday at the Champaign Public Library, 200 W. Green St., and at 11 a.m. Aug. 17 at the Rantoul Public Library. The programs are free.