Born in a pandemic, Imagine U Storytime turns the page on its second season


Courtesy of Stephen Lewis

Arts and Media Producer Stephen Lewis designed and created this graphic that is featured in the introduction of all Imagine U Storytime videos.

Jane Wiertel, Reporter

As the virtual storybook opens, a snowflake covered screen with a picture of a castle appears. Music from the movie “Frozen” plays, and an actor wearing a straw hat and suspenders begins to narrate. The words come to life, and the characters start to dance. This is Imagine U Storytime.

“We didn’t expect it to be this wildly fun and successful as it has been, and it is delightful,” Lynn Kelso, Imagine U’s founder said.

After classes switched to a virtual format in Spring Quarter of last year and the theater doors closed, Kelso said the Imagine U program, which produces musicals and plays geared toward children and families, needed to pivot to remain in-touch with its audiences. Thus, Imagine U Storytime was born.

At first, only theater faculty members were telling the ten-minute video stories as students worked to adjust to online classes. Now, Imagine U’s cast has expanded to involve undergraduate students, graduate students, faculty and even alumni — last spring, alumni living in New York put on three stories, including a rendition of Road Dahl’s “James and the Giant Peach,” from New York City, Kelso said.

As the number of creators involved with this program increased, so too did the number of activities and engagements linked with each video. Kelso said the team wanted these videos to be more interactive for young audiences and their families so they were not just watching them, but also participating and customizing the experience.

As a result, the faculty and students crafted activities and guides for children’s engagement, providing coloring book sheets and puppet-making instructions, for example, Kelso said.

The program has seen many developments since its debut in the spring. Video director Natalie Rarick said the program will continue to develop as it moves into its third season this winter. With the addition of an editing team composed of many RTVF students, the quality of the videos has elevated, Rarick said. Additionally, she said because the team created filming and editing reference documents for their shows this quarter, the process itself has become much more consistent.

“We learned a lot from this quarter,” Rarick said. “At first we thought, ‘This will work great’ and then, of course, we ran into so many problems and things that we had to work with on the spot. But we’ve really grown through that process.”

The Imagine U Storytime program will only continue to grow in its content and also its creativity, Kelso said. In a couple of weeks, she said the team will put on an original piece titled “The Elephant in the Zoom,” chronicling the story of a Zoom classroom.

Theater Department Chair Rives Collins said he hopes Imagine U will still continue once the need for a virtual format passes. There are so many sides of this art-form to love, he said. Imagine U Storytime celebrates the creativity of faculty and students while also nurturing imagination and developing empathy in young people, Collins said.

“It doesn’t mean that we won’t do plays again,” Collins said. “But I think we’ve discovered something that people are hungry for.”

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