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Lessons beyond the stage: Joliet native helps kids learn new skills

During his grade school and high school years, former Joliet resident Erick Deshaun Dorris loved and participated in music and theatrical activities at Eisenhower Academy, Washington Junior High and Joliet Central High School.

Dorris, now of Chicago, even majored in theater and minored in music at Millikin University in Decatur.

Now as an educational contractor and a performer with Barrel of Monkeys educational theater company, Dorris is helping bring similar experiences to Chicago grade school students.

“My job is to bring after-school art and music programs to 29 schools,” Dorris said. “Barrel of Monkeys fits right into it.”

Barrel of Monkeys offers a six-week program for students in third through fifth grades. The kids learn about persuasive writing, revision, constructing dialogue and composing tall tales. At times, they will first act out a story before writing it.

“That makes it fun and engaging for the students,” Dorris said, “and it helps them remember it when they write it down.”

Near the end of the program, the adult actor-educators from Barrel of Monkeys perform those stories in a school assembly, which is thrilling for the students to witness, Dorris said.

“We say, ‘This was written by so and so and can you stand up?’ ” Dorris said.

“Then everyone shouts and cheers.”

Afterward, performers meet with the students to analyze and discuss the final product. Were the students happy with the actors’ interpretations of their stories? If not, what suggestions might they offer for improvement?

“If they’re really excited about the experience,” Dorris said, “they’ll want to continue to write.”

Learning composition basics is especially important because as the students advance into higher education, they will be expected to write concisely and grammatically in their own distinct voices, Dorris said.

He believes that if children are inexperienced with such exercises, they may find essay writing tedious and difficult.

“It’s a skill that’s getting lost with ‘text speak,’ ” Dorris said, “but we can inspire children to develop and use their voices in a very short amount of time.”

In 2007, Dorris was working in the educational department at the not-for-profit Steppenwolf Theatre Co. in Chicago when a co-worker introduced him to Barrel of Monkeys. The concept appealed to him and he instantly “fell in love with it,” he said.

“I just had to be a part of it,” Dorris said. “I immediately joined it.”

Starting in early December and continuing through Jan. 13, Barrel of Monkeys performs a weekly “best of the best” hourlong show featuring 15 to 20 children’s holiday skits. These are presented consecutively either as plays or set to music and sung.

“We do this every year,” Dorris said, “and it’s become quite popular.”

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