A year into the pandemic, Imagine U’s virtual storytimes continue to evolve


Illustration by Peach Sahasakul

Shimcheong and her father share a moment in “The Tale of Shimcheong.” Imagine U’s latest virtual story premiered on YouTube on Sunday.

Alexa Crowder, Reporter

Over a year after the theatre group Imagine U was forced to transition to virtual programming, Artistic Director Lynn Kelso said they have grown artistically to heights they never before imagined.

Before the pandemic, Imagine U hosted multiple live shows per year geared toward children. But now, the theatre group uploads digital children’s stories to the Wirtz Center YouTube channel every Sunday at 6 p.m. The stories, a mix of retold favorites and original pieces, include narrative voice overs, drawings, music and live acting over video chat.

Past performances have included “Tale of Tafa,” told through cartoon animation and live action, and “The Little Red Hen Goes Digital,” told through screen recordings of FaceTime calls and iMessage threads.

Kelso said Imagine U was thoughtful in crafting its new digital format.

“We thought: what could we do that would engage the children? We didn’t want to simply entertain them,” Kelso said. “We wanted to give them quality stories that we also could have an experiential piece embedded in.”

As Imagine U progressed, the videos of faculty and students monologuing children’s stories soon became more visually complex and interactive, as Kelso and her team had originally envisioned. Soon, RTVF majors were involved in the process, adding video editing, graphics, and animation to the virtual stories.

One RTVF major, Head Editor Grace Frome, joined the Imagine U team in Fall Quarter after responding to an email calling for video editors. The Communication junior oversees each story from its table read to the final cut, working with the storytellers and her two assistant editors at every step.

“Imagine U is really about engaging in that fantastical aspect of the world,” Frome said. “We really try to bring it to life.”

The latest YouTube release from Imagine U, “The Tale of Shimcheong,” exemplifies what student creators have achieved after a year of virtual storytelling. The 11-minute video is a retelling of a Korean folktale that follows a girl, Shimcheong, who sacrifices herself for her blind father to regain his sight.

Communication junior Claire Kwon narrates over Communication junior Peach Sahasakul’s illustrations and Harvard junior Julia Riew’s original music. Everything is stitched together with simple animations. In the last three minutes of the video, Kwon teaches the audience about the story’s Korean roots and invites children to sing Shimcheong’s song with her.

Kwon, Sahasakul, and Riew parsed through the story to cut unnecessary scenes and make edits. At one point, Kwon said, they considered toning down the moment where Shimcheong throws herself off a ship into the sea as a sacrifice for her father.

“There are a lot of stories in Asian and Asian American cultures that have that theme of filial piety, of sacrificing yourself for your family,” Kwon said of the decision to keep the original scene. “Asian kids and Asian American kids are used to that stuff. Why shouldn’t all kids experience all different kinds of stories?”

The creative team modified the story in other ways, particularly to highlight Shimcheong’s bravery and to clearly articulate her consent in marrying the king.

While student creators do not get applause in this virtual format, Kelso said she regularly receives emails thanking her for Imagine U’s storytimes. She said she was particularly moved by a kindergarten teacher from an Evanston public school who said she shows Imagine U videos to her students.

As theatre looks to a future return to in-person performances, Kelso said Imagine U is still working through the details of continuing virtual storytelling.

“We won’t let go of it completely, but we’ll scale it to fit, because we’re a theater — we’re not film, and we don’t want to be,” Kelso said. “But the one thing that we’ve learned from it is that it reaches kids who can’t come to the theater. I want to keep in touch with those children.”

Email: [email protected] 
Twitter: @AlexaCrowder

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