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Beyond Child’s Play: Spinning Dot Theatre’s Revolutionary Approach

The Spinning Dot Teen Company performs The Underground Library, written by South African playwright Jon Keevy.
The Spinning Dot Theatre Website
The Spinning Dot Teen Company performs “The Underground Library,” written by South African playwright Jon Keevy.

I’ve seen it all before. A group of bored children waddle on stage and are told to stand in straight lines while they perform the chorus of “Annie” to a group of bored parents. For many of us, this is what children’s theater is. It is not exciting, it is not challenging and it is not thought-provoking. It’s simply a hollow organization of overused, underwhelming fluff with no educational merit. I see this everywhere. From school plays to summer camps, the future actors of the world are confined to brainless nonsense.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. Why not challenge students to make more out of theater? Why not showcase children’s innate artistic abilities in a way that will get them excited about a future in the arts?

One theater company here in Ann Arbor is doing just that. Spinning Dot Theatre was founded by Jenny Koppera in 2014 with the goal of making global theater to connect American audiences with the rest of the world. Koppera uses these connections to make higher-quality theater for young people.

“I think in the United States, oftentimes, theater for young people is of a lesser grade than [theater] that is prepared for adults,” Koppera said.

Koppera was in graduate school at Eastern Michigan University when she attended some international conferences.

“I saw the work that was being done abroad and it was just really different,” Koppera said. She was inspired to see “theater for young people that was made more applicable to their lives and with a high [level of] artistry.”

When Koppera returned home to Michigan, she brought these perspectives with her.

Now in its tenth year, Spinning Dot boasts four separate divisions: a Youth Company, a Teen Company, a Teen Repertory Company and an adult Repertory Company — all of which perform international work of varying complexity. Spinning Dot has also hosted international playwrights for residencies here in Michigan, often to watch and participate in productions of their work. The company has tackled topics from Apartheid, to gun violence, to civil war, to IRA bombings, to blood diamonds. Each work focuses on the real-life experiences of children and teens from around the world. At the same time, silliness is celebrated. Kids in Spinning Dot write their own stories of dejected clowns, giants, witches, spiders, middle school drama, spacecraft, and more. Through these experiences, Spinning Dot gives its participants the freedom to gain confidence, find their voices and engage in any aspect of theater they choose.

While it can dive into difficult issues, Spinning Dot also finds room to create safe spaces where kids can be vulnerable,
“Oftentimes, when kids do theater, they have to keep re-auditioning,” Koppera said. “[They] have to keep re-risking [their] heart. And that level of vulnerability is really hard … especially for young people. I think that a lot of times, people who get to do Spinning Dot appreciate the fact that once they’re in, their shoulders can come down. There’s not that constant need to compete or perform better than somebody else. You just get to relax and be a part of a community that will just accept you where you are.”

As teens, we are constantly advised to learn grit, creativity and perseverance. If we are fed only lighthearted, non-confrontational fairy tales, how are we to grow as a generation? You should not feel the need to shelter your children from real-world issues that can be and are reflected in many modern theatrical pieces today. Children’s theater can be exciting. It can be challenging. It can be thought-provoking. And Spinning Dot is leading the way.

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About the Contributor
Malcolm London
Malcolm London, Journalist
Malcolm is an aspiring journalist with a passion for the greater good. By day, he writes articles and performs for the Community Ensemble Theatre. By night, he fights crime and commits admirable acts of heroism. With the shadows as his only ally, Malcolm has single-handedly turned the crime-riddled streets of Ann Arbor into a joyful utopia. This is his first year on staff.

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