Imagine U brings ‘Winnie-the-Pooh’ to life


Ben Bomier/The Daily Northwestern

Communication sophomore Jay Towns rehearses “Winnie-the-Pooh.” Presented by Imagine U, the show opens this Friday at the Virginia Wadsworth Wirtz Center for the Performing Arts and will run through Nov. 17.

Jacob Fulton, Reporter

The world of the Hundred Acre Wood is leaping off storybook pages and out of television screens to come to life on the Northwestern stage.

Presented by Imagine U, “Winnie-the-Pooh” opens this Friday at the Virginia Wadsworth Wirtz Center for the Performing Arts, with weekend showings through Nov. 17. The show reimagines one of A.A. Milne’s original stories, and is geared toward children and families alike.

The Imagine U performance series was conceptualized nine years ago as a family series for Evanston and the North Shore, according to the program’s artistic mentor Lynn Kelso. She said Imagine U productions allow the University to engage with the Evanston community and carry on the city’s rich history in children’s theater.

Kelso said Evanston has pioneered theater geared toward young audiences across the country, with District 65 being one of the few schools to offer drama programs to every student in the district. While many schools are removing art programs from their curriculum, Kelso said she hopes the Imagine U series can continue to keep children engaged in theater as they grow up.

“Children need to see stories on the stage that embody the values that we want in our culture, and they need to have the opportunity to exercise their imaginations and go into worlds that are exciting and new,” Kelso said. “Live theater offers a community and an experience that films and electronic games can’t.”

Kelso added that Imagine U productions often shine a spotlight on the values of friendship and loyalty, and “Winnie-the-Pooh” is no exception. She added that characters like Winnie-the-Pooh, Piglet and Eeyore have played an influential role in many people’s childhoods.

Communication sophomore Jay Towns, who will be playing Winnie-the-Pooh, said taking on the well-known role seemed intimidating at first, especially because he didn’t immediately identify with the character. After deeper reflection, Towns said there are certain commonalities that helped him develop his portrayal of the role.

“Winnie-the-Pooh has a sense of assuming best intentions, which is something that I tried to do,” Towns said. “That innocence of mind was something that I really wanted to bring forward.”

The show’s director, Nate Cohen, a third-year MFA student in the School of Communication’s directing program, said he grappled with the adaptation of such an iconic story. For some viewers, this could be their first time seeing “Winnie-the-Pooh” — which Cohen said adds extra pressure to the directing process.

Still, Cohen said he tried to free the cast of the expectations that come with the characters. By altering the musical score, Cohen said, he encouraged the cast to express their own takes on the music.

“We had the idea pretty early on that we wanted to significantly rearrange the music,” Cohen said. “I got really excited about the idea of the actors themselves being the musicians. That way, the music was an extension of them, as opposed to something coming from the speakers.”

Cohen added that he hopes having the score performed by the actors will help audience members engage more with the musical. He said unlike a book or a movie, a live performance of “Winnie-the-Pooh” requires actors to constantly interact with viewers, especially when the majority of the audience are children.

For Towns, keeping the show’s intended audience in mind pushed him further as an actor. While he was challenged by the skills required to deliver the music on stage, Towns said he looks forward to performing for children and their families.

“More than ever, I found myself trying to think about what I would have loved to see as a kid,” Towns said. “I did my best to portray that as a story and do justice to the story because I feel like the kids, more than anyone, deserve and appreciate a good story.”

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