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GLT Datebook: Superheroes Go Classical For Kids

What if the things we’re teased about are actually the very things we need to make us strong?Nancy Steele Brokaw asked herself that question, and it led to the latest children’s opera from Prairie Fire Theatre: “How To Be A Superhero.” Each spring, the folks of Prairie Fire Theatre team up with Brokaw and music students from Illinois Wesleyan University to produce a lively, original musical that they then tour throughout central Illinois elementary schools for dozens of free performances.

Brokaw penned the book and lyrics for the show, utilizing popular melodies from classical music and opera to tell her story of holding tight to one’s dreams. Mozart, Puccini, Sullivan, Rossini—many of the heavy classical hitters are woven into Brokaw’s narrative which, borrowing from another heavy-hitter, shares the lesson of to thine own self be true. Brokaw hopes the young audience will learn another important lesson, that of appreciating the arts, especially classical music. 

Nancy by mirror
Credit Laura Kennedy / WGLT
Nancy Steele Brokaw hopes to inspire a love of classical music and theater with her work.

“A driving force for us is a feeling that this music has been around for 400 years, and it was written for the masses, so we think kids ought to get some exposure to it,” Brokaw said. 

“We all know that arts funding has been cut and cut and cut. A lot of kids don’t get to see live theater or get to hear real music, especially opera music. And so, we pack the show up and bring it to them with the idea that we want this music to continue. We want to build an audience for classical music. But also, we want kids to know, and a lot of them don’t, that it might be something that they want to do—sing, act, build sets, make props, write stories.” 

The company is eager to share the message of the arts having relevant value for all.

“We also have some good morals built into the story,” Brokaw said. “Something of higher value that we think will help build good citizens.” 

This is the ninth children’s opera produced by Prairie Fire Theatre. It functions not only as exposure to classical arts for elementary school children, but as a professional challenge for the IWU music students who enact the opera. 

“It’s just a great exposure to their craft. It’s like vaudeville. They have to load up the set, move it school to school, unload it, and play it. We do almost 50 performances in a little over three weeks, so it’s intense.” 

It‘s a daunting task, holding the attention of 500 kids sitting on a gym floor, all wriggly and excited on a warm spring day.  

"This music has been around for 400 years, and it was written for the masses, so we think kids ought to get some exposure to it."

“And if you can do that, you can do anything,” Brokaw enthused. “Most of our IWU students who have done this have gone on professionally or to grad school and have come back and said this is one of the best things they’ve ever done.” 

Writing for kids is also tough. You've got to know how to reach them without patronizing them, and Brokaw feels she has cracked that code. 

“Luckily for me, I’ve written a lot of shows that involve kids over the years, so I’m around kids a lot. One thing I don’t ever do is talk down to kids. If I think a big word is the right word, I’ll throw it in there. And we send a curriculum guide that goes around to all the schools, so if we have some big words or more difficult concepts, I explain them there.” 

“I think kids just like a good story,” Brokaw concluded with a smile. 

In addition to the round of school performances, Prairie Fire Theatre also offers public performances. “How To Be A Superhero” will be featured May 18 at the Normal Public Library at 10 a.m. and at the Unitarian Universalist Church at 3 p.m. There’s also two performances, at 10 and 11:30 a.m., at the Normal Theater on May 22.

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Reporter, content producer and former All Things Considered host, Laura Kennedy is a native of the Midwest who occasionally affects an English accent just for the heck of it. Related to two U.S. presidents, Kennedy appalled her family by going into show business.