As we celebrate our 20 years of delighting audiences with our modern take on classic tales, we are talking to some of those people who have helped build Cow Over Moon to be the company that we are today. Katherine Grainger is one of the founding members and the company’s first official Artistic Director. Audrey Dwyer, our current AD, chatted with Katherine about her experiences in making Cow Over Moon a reality.
AD: What or Who inspired you (and your peers) to create Cow Over Moon Children’s Theatre? What made you choose fairy tales, improvisation and the style of performance? Why was that time the right time for Cow Over Moon Children’s Theatre?
KG: It’s hard to say what inspired us to start Cow Over Moon, I think it just came from being asked. John worked at a toy store. They asked if some of his friends could help with storytime, which they did by bringing some of the books to life through performance. After that, we started doing shows in Pizza Hut and Sears. We became known all through word-of-mouth.
We came up with our method of creating shows through improv “organically” because really we just didn’t have time to write the shows. For the Pizza Hut shows, which were one Monday a month, John would let us know a day or so before that we were in the show. We would see what we had available to us as far as costumes and props around school and our homes and at lunchtime the day of the show we would decide what story would be best and improvised it on the spot. We would come up with a couple of gags and a loose plot line so we knew when the story began and ended. When it came time to do full-fledged productions, John and Lisa were the original driving forces. Although the first show was scripted I think it would be safe to say we took a lot of liberties with it.
Initially, when it came time to do more shows, the intention was to have a few of us sit down and write a script. But it became evident very quickly that was not the way we developed our shows. The best thing for us to do was to just get up on our feet and try stuff. The “director” would write scene outlines and we would improvise them in rehearsal. The outlines themselves would often be changed, if through improvisation, the story went in another direction. However, some scenes, like a chase scene, always had to be a part of the plot. I think once the pressure was off and we embraced this style of development we came up with with the best productions.
After I took over the company I felt that familiar fairy tales allowed kids to engage more because there was a familiarity and allowed them to have a bit more agency in the story. It also allowed them to see that a story can be told many different ways, one of our underlying goal. Our young audiences left feeling like they had a part in the story and that they could also tell the story the way they wanted to.
AD: During your time with the company, what trends were you noticing among other children’s theatre? What do you feel made COM stand out? How did you choose the fairy tales?
KG: I don’t know that we followed many trends intentionally. I feel that the trend at the time was more about school performances with very clear lessons or morals at the end. Perhaps we stood out because we just kept doing the same kind of production and never made any allusions to it being more than what it was: really funny comedy shows for kids and families. There is a lot of value in having performances in which a parent or a caregiver and a child can sit together, have fun and laugh at the same jokes while watching a show. Occasionally we would do an aside or special jokes for the parents, but I know when I was directing I always tried to keep those to a minimum. We really worked to make the comedy come out of the characters in the situation and not being geared solely to the kids. Some of the little jokes were geared to the adults but the same jokes or situations were universally funny. I suppose the trend I would see in similar type shows for kids would be those asides to parents that kids are not supposed to get which I never really bought into. I believe good comedy comes from full characters and a really good story to keep everyone engaged and having fun at the same level.
AD: What were your audiences like? What did you enjoy about working with the teams that were selected? How were the fairy tales chosen?
KG: Our audiences really were, and probably still are, the absolute best. A lot of our families didn’t have a great deal of access to theatre. Some had decided to try theatre with their kids for the first time. Whoever they were they came to really enjoy our productions. As I would normally take care of the box office I would recognize the of names on the list. If there was a certain family that I thought, “Wait! They didn’t book there ticket yet,” I would wonder what was going on. When they came back, I would inquire as to where they were. New people were always coming to us along with our usual families who came back time and time again. It was really cool because with some families we got to see the kids grow up over the years. I used to joke that the shows were for kids ages 3-12 and 22-100. There are those years where teenagers are a little too “cool” for kids stuff. But we also had some fans who would come without kids; they just liked what we were doing and always laughed at the jokes.
For me what I miss most, and still miss to this day, are the people I worked with at Cow Over Moon. I am a genuine fan of most, if not every single one of the actors and designers that we worked with. Some of them I’ve known since high school and some of them I met in university or even later, but to be very honest, they are what I miss most. We used to laugh so much, and even though we worked hard, we always made sure it was fun. I could be silly and fun and yet still myself – I was good at appearing bossy and keeping things on track (I hope). But those friendships that were built while creating our productions and the bonds I have with that group of people, is something that I’ll have with me my entire life. I really do miss all those people. I’m a person who has no regrets in life whatsoever so I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about what I would do if I had a time machine. However, as I’m thinking about this time, and thinking about these people, I think I would, if I had a time machine, and I’m not saying I have access to a time machine right now, nor do I know someone who has access to one, but if someone were to present me with an opportunity to use a time machine that brought me back to a time in my own life, I think I would travel to a Cow Over Moon rehearsal. It is actually a reasonable choice as it would be fun, I would see my friends again, we would be young again, and it really wouldn’t have a noticeable impact in big political world affairs, and it would make me feel really good.