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Bring on the Drama! Picture Books & STEAM as Theatrical Experiences: Adventures with Jenna Barricklo

Updated: Dec 4, 2022

A picture book is a perfect theatrical experience, especially in the hands of Charleston Stage's Jenna Barricklo. Jenna is not only an accomplished performer, she is an intuitive teacher who grasps how to build meaningful connections through drama, literacy, and real-world STEAM connections. In this lively conversation, we talk about the links between diverse picture books, theatre, and STEAM experiences.

Listen to the full episode here. We will be taking a two week break for the holidays, then starting 2023 with a fresh batch of adventures in learning. In the meantime, enjoy going back and sampling new and favorite stories and voices here.

Curtains Up: Meet Jenna Barricklo

We're talking to a young lady that I've had the privilege of knowing for, it's got to be at least six years now, Jenna Barricklo. She graduated from Shenandoah University with a BFA in musical theater, and she is currently at Charleston Stage, where she is gracing the stage, most recently as Wednesday Addams and now as Belle in A Christmas Carol, and she's also teaching children. So Jenna, welcome to the show.

[00:49] Jenna: Hi, Diane. Thanks so much for having me. I'm so excited.

[00:53] Dr. Diane: So walk us through how you got to where you are. You're a musical theater major and you're currently at Charleston Stage, but you've done a lot of interesting things to get there.

[01:04] Jenna: Yeah, I think it really started for me in high school. So I started teaching because I worked at my dance studio. I’ve assisted and taught dance classes since I was probably like nine years old. And it was kind of just the thing that everyone did and it was kind of what you did as you got older. But then I got really into it and started really taking over and having it really become more part of my life. And so it kind of naturally became a thing where I decided I really liked teaching. But at the same time I wanted to perform. So then I was like, well, I'm going to go get my BFA in musical theater. For a second I really thought I was going to go become a teacher, like go get my BA and become a classroom teacher. But then high school came and I was like, I think I want to perform. So I did a lot of teaching in high school, but then in college it kind of took a sidebar, mostly because it's kind of hard to balance a BFA curriculum and anything else. But during the pandemic, I did summer camps on Zoom, and so I got to really get back into teaching that way through summer camps and kind of slowing down due to the pandemic. And then this past year, life was crazy. I booked a national tour. The national tour got canceled. I then was looking around for jobs and I started working at this company called KidStock in Winchester, Massachusetts, which is so funny because I went to college in Winchester, Virginia. So working at KidStock, I started teaching theater after school programming five days a week. And so I really dove right back into it headfirst. I probably hadn't taught a classroom full of kids outside of a camp setting in like five years, so it was a little jarring at first, but I think it really solidified that I really do value teaching as such a big part of my life in addition to performing. So I went to one of those big audition conferences. I went to UPTAs (United Professional Theater Auditions) last year, and through UPTAs, I got this job at Charleston Stage where I'm a resident actor. So we perform in all their main stage shows, but we also are their teachers for their theater school during the day. So it kind of is serendipitous that I ended up here because it wasn't really in the plans to end up here. And also I didn't go into it knowing that the teaching part of it was going to be, like, as great as it is. So it kind of was a little magical how I got here. But I think it kind of worked out exactly in the way that I needed it to.

[04:02] Dr. Diane: Well, and I think that all of those experiences we have end up circling back and leading us exactly where we need to be.

[04:09] Jenna: 100%. I think everything we do in life ultimately helps us in the future. I think if I hadn't been teaching dance at 16, that then taking a job in college leads to the job after college, and all that kind of is like a domino effect.

How do we build connections through drama, picture books, and STEAM?

[04:30] Dr. Diane: I know what a natural teacher you are because I was one of the summer Zoom camps you helped with. It was so much fun to have you play with animal adaptations and dinosaurs and linking the arts and science in particular as we were working with kids. Do you find that you're still building those kind of connections in the curriculum you're using now?

[04:52] Jenna: I think so. I think a lot of it is through taking what they're learning in school right now and then kind of putting it into our theater curriculum, especially with my younger kids, my early childhood education kids. I think a lot of it is, like, finding books that we use. We use books in the classroom all the time, and everything that we do theater wise relates back to literature. But I think what's really cool about that is then finding books that have a wide variety of topics. So we have books science, math, history, and they all can be used in, like, a theater setting, but they all have a bunch of different topics, and they can hopefully most of the time, they relate back to what the kids are actually learning in their public school during the day, which is really cool.

[05:48] Dr. Diane: Do you have favorite books that you've discovered that you love using with the kids?

[05:52] Jenna: Oh, my gosh. This one's kind of silly, but there's this book that I did at a summer camp a couple of years ago called Where on Earth Is My Bagel, about this little boy in Korea who has a dream of a bagel. Like, he just dreams it, but nobody knows what a bagel is, and he goes around to all the people in his town. And he's like, do you know what a bagel is? Do you know a bagel? And they're like, no. And so he writes a letter to New York City

asking for a bagel. He waits and waits and waits and waits. No one comes. And finally he gets a letter that's like, we can't send you a bagel because it would be stale, but we'll send you the recipe. So then he has to go back to all these people in his village, the fisherman, the farmer, the baker, and he gets all these ingredients from them that he's gotten in this recipe. And they all work together to create a giant bagel. But it's all about, I just love it because it's all about community. And they get a little bit of cooking knowledge in there.

So when I read it to my kids over the summer, they were obsessed with it. And we read it probably five or six times in three weeks. And so then I was like, this is a great book to use in the theater setting. And so then my current kindergarten and first grade class is using it for their final performance. We've adapted it into a stage production. And they're all playing the different characters, the farmer and the fisherman and the whatever. And I think they are enjoying it. It's a very fun, easy book.

And I like it because it kind of has a little bit of a crosscultural exploration as well, that kind of, you know, it invites them into a new culture that they don't necessarily know, but they all know bagels.

[07:51] Dr. Diane: I was going to say as you were talking, I was sort of envisioning all the different connections that you're able to make. You can connect to culture. You're able to build theater and oral expression and performance. There's also the chemistry that goes with baking. You've got measuring and math and all the things that would go into creating a bagel. So there's all kinds of cross curriculum connections just with that one book.

[08:13] Jenna It's super fun. I know we had to have a whole conversation about, like, why are these the ingredients in a bagel? What happens when you mix them all together? And why do they rise in the oven? And it's such fun conversations, and it's all through theater. Then you get to act it out with your body and experience it and not just sit at your desk and learn about it in your brain.

[08:36] Dr. Diane: Exactly. And different kids have different ways that they need to learn. And theater provides that outlet for kids who need to be up and about and expressing.

It's great to see how different activities bring out different sides of kids. And what's so cool about theater is, it really is like a full body experience. And so something that uses your voice is going to click more for one kid versus something using their body. And so that whole idea of audiovisual kinetic learning is all encompassed into one class easily when you're teaching a theater class. And it's really cool to see how different kids grasp onto different pieces of learning when you're teaching in a theater setting. [08:45] Jenna
Connecting Picture Books and Drama For Windows, Mirrors, and Empathy

[09:23] Dr. Diane: Absolutely. And I know I use Dr Rudine Sims Bishop's work a lot. She talked about windows, mirrors, and sliding glass doors and trying to provide books that allow kids to see themselves, but also, as you just said, to have a window into another culture authentically. How are you finding that informs your work in terms of both in the classroom and, I think, also in the performing arts as an actor, in terms of representation?

[09:51] Jenna: I think it makes me grateful for where we are now in the world, that the books that we have access to are just so much more diverse than the books that we read growing up, and that there's so many different kinds of experiences. And then I think about that with the kind of work that I then want to do as an actor. And I think it directly correlates.

What do I want my students or, in a broader sense, the public or my students at large, to see in the work that I'm doing on stage? What do I want them to be getting out of coming to see me as an actor? And then I think it really makes me think about what work am I putting on? What work am I seeking out? And what playwrights are out there? And what are we doing to kind of, again, bring those cultures that people aren't seeing or they don't know or connect to science or math or all kinds of things that you learn through theater? And how can we, like, translate that to stage?

And so I do think reading children's books, which are so theatrical in the way that they are written, really also makes me think about the work I'm doing as an actor on stage and how am I translating that into my work and what choices I'm making in the theater.

[11:16] Dr. Diane: And I like the way you just said children's books are theatrical because that's such a perfect way to look at a picture book. You've got 32 pages to go beginning, middle, end, to grab attention and to tell your story. And often, it's not just the words. The illustrations add a whole different layer to what's going on. So there's nuance, and it really is a full theatrical experience.

[11:42] Jenna: Yeah, it's really cool using picture books in a theater class setting because so much can be learned from just looking at a picture book. You can do the whole thing with just the words, and you can do the whole activity with just reading the book. And then you could do the whole activity, not reading the book at all and just looking at the pictures. And they can create an entirely different story by just looking at the pictures in the story. So it's really cool because it can be so multilayered and using books in a classroom setting, and it's a way to have them access that side of themselves because kids are already so I always like to say I teach creative play. It's not theater, especially with little, little kids. When you're teaching that early childhood education age group, they're already naturally so predisposed and at an age where that's what they do. They'll read a book and they'll become that kid.

What Books Connected From Jenna's Childhood? Becoming the Characters

Jenna: Like, I used to read books as a kid, All of a Kind Family, I know you read that book. When I was in kindergarten, I wanted to be Ella. I used to sign all my journals as Ella, the oldest daughter. So kids are already trying to become the characters they read in books at that age. And so it's so cool. It's so easy to just take these books, and they're set up perfectly to be turned into, like, a creative play experience that they can then learn something from.

[13:18] Dr. Diane: So you were Ella from All of a Kind Family. I was, too. Who were some of the other picture book or children's book characters that you found yourself becoming as a child?

[13:29] Jenna: I loved The Boxcar Children. I don't remember their names, but me and my brother, I used to make us pretend to be The Boxcar Children because they kept their milk in the waterfall. And I thought that was the coolest thing ever.

[13:44] Dr. Diane: Jesse and Violet and Henry and Benny.

[13:47] Jenna: Yes! Oh, I loved them. I loved The Boxcar Children. They were my absolute favorite. I also was like a big Nancy Drew and Trixie Belden fan. I love Trixie Belden. She lived on a ranch, and I was like, wow, I want to live on a ranch and ride a horse. And I love that.

[14:08] Dr. Diane: And a totally different experience for a New York City kid.

[14:12] Jenna: Totally different experience. I think whatever I was envisioning in my head was probably not even correct. Like, I had no semblance of what a ranch lifestyle was like, but I loved it because it was so different than what I grew up with. The only time I ever saw a horse is if I went apple picking in upstate New York.

[14:32] Dr. Diane: Right.

[14:33] Jenna: Or the horse carriages near Central Park, right? Yeah, exactly. So I think those kinds of characters I loved. I loved a lot of British books, like The Shoes books by Noel Streatfield. Ballet Shoes. Dancing Shoes. Circus Shoes. Tennis Shoes. Skating Shoes

[14:54] Dr. Diane: Theater Shoes. Still my favorite.

[14:57] Jenna: Yeah. Ballet Shoes I've probably read more than any other book.

[15:02] Dr. Diane: I tore the cover off of mine. I read it so many times, the cover fell apart.

[15:08] Jenna: Yeah. My mom, because not all of the Shoes books are available in the United States, so my mom started special ordering over from the UK. Because I was running out of Shoes books to read. So I desperately wanted to be all the girls and all the Shoes books, especially the Ballet Shoes one. My favorite was when they learned that they went to a conservatory. I think that really is what birthed my want to go to theater school.

[15:37] Dr. Diane: So were you Pauline, Petrova or Posy?

[15:40] Jenna: Pauline.

[15:41] Dr. Diane: Absolutely.

[15:41] Jenna: Because I'm always the eldest daughter.

[15:43] Dr. Diane: I get it. Me too.

[15:45] Jenna: That's always who I am drawn to.

[15:47] Dr. Diane: I wanted to be cool like Petrova or wild like Posy, but I was always Pauline.

[15:52] Jenna: But I was Pauline. I was always Pauline. I named one of my webkins Pauline. My beagle was named Pauline. Yes, exactly. I always wanted to be like one of the crazy ones, but I was like I'm just drawn to the older sister vibe.

[16:07] Dr. Diane: I was Rachel in Dancing Shoes. I wanted to be Hilary or Dulcie, but no way. I was totally Rachel.

[16:14] Jenna: Yeah.

[16:16] Dr. Diane: Oh, you brought back such memories with those.

[16:19] Jenna: I love those books.

Becoming TOO Much Like the Characters -- An Occupational Hazard?

[16:21] Dr. Diane: Were there any characters that your mother said, no, that book is not coming, or it miraculously disappeared from your house?

[16:29] Jenna: Funnily enough, this was probably when I was like really, really little. Like maybe first grade we would go to the library and I would just like look at covers of books. But I couldn't even read too well yet. And I would just pick things and be like, mom, I want to read this. I really was drawn by, something about the cover of Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing by Judy Bloom really drew me in when I was like in first grade. And my mom was like, this book is not. She was like, I don't want my child doing the things that they do in this book. So she read it out loud to me and just chose to take out sections of the book. She like pre-read it and decided we're not going to read that part and then read it out loud to me. The Nancy edition.

[17:16] Dr. Diane: That's funny.

[17:17] Jenna: They were a little too wild and she didn't want me emulating.

[17:21] Dr. Diane: That parental editing in our case, my oldest child, your former roommate, Miranda, who as a toddler and preschooler, would become the characters in her books. So there was a two week period where she was Biscuit the dog and literally would sleep on the floor in my room. Biscuit needs a hug. Biscuit needs a drink. Biscuit needs to sleep. So I set out a mat in my room. I was fine with her being all the characters. We were Madeline, at one point she did all of them. I drew the line at Eloise when we came in and decided we were going to start being Eloise. That book miraculously was checked out of the library every time we went. I can't explain it. It was just popular. I like Eloise a lot now. It just did not work for my child in that moment.

[18:15] Jenna: Absolutely not. It’s funny how each kid has, like, the thing. For my brother, it was Harry Potter. My mom did not let my brother watch, like, read Harry Potter for a while because he would just really take on the emotions of the characters, and especially in the later books, it gets real intense, and so he would just really empathize with them, and he had some behavior problems. And so she was like, well, sorry.

[18:41] Dr. Diane: There's a reason Jonah and Ella are friends. I read those aloud to both girls separately because of the age difference, and I found out much later that Ella had bad dreams about Lord Voldemort, and that she didn't tell me about it because she was afraid I would stop reading. She was so invested. She wanted to keep going to find out what happened next. And so she must have been much older when I found that out. So that's that theatricality of books, though, is get connected like that.

[19:14] Jenna: You really do.

A Day in the Life at Charleston Stage


20:43] Dr. Diane: So welcome back to the podcast. I'm here with the lovely and talented Jenna Barricklo. And Jenna, can you tell us what a day in the life of Charleston Stage is like for you?

[20:53] Jenna: Oh, man, I'll give you my slow day, and then I'll give you my busy day, like, tomorrow. So what's nice is I work like a 3 to 10:00 pm schedule, which is a little funny because it's the exact opposite of every other human being on the planet, but it means that during the day, I have some free time, so I read constantly. That's all I do is I read. If you follow me on Instagram, you know that I am always posting what book I'm reading so I spend a lot of the day reading until I go to work, and then we teach. So I teach Tuesday through Thursday. That's when our theater school classes happen. And so I go in the afternoon, probably around 03:00, and do all my set up. I’ve got to pull props, costumes, make sure right now they have our final performances this week, and so we're like making sure their script is ready. So I go and probably do that at like, three. So on Tuesdays, I teach a first through fourth grade musical theater class, which is so fun. I think there are 28 of them in that class.

[22:03] Dr. Diane: That is a big class.

[22:05] Jenna: And the age range is wild. We’ve got a five year old and a ten year old in the same class, but they're doing great. So I teach those babies for an hour, and then I also teach what is called our Troupe kids. And so our Troupe kids are third through fifth graders and 6th through 8th graders who audition to be in this pre professional troupe. So they are then eligible to be in our main stage productions as well as they are putting on their own show next month. So I teach third through fifth grade troupe Dance on Tuesdays, and they are doing a show right now called Golly G Wiz, which is kind of like a Babes in Arms situation. Because they're putting on their own show, they got to save the town. So that is my Tuesday schedule. I teach two classes, and then Wednesdays I teach my 6th through 8th grade troupe kids, and they're doing like a big review show. And then Thursdays I teach kindergarten through first grade. So on a usual day, I'll teach. And then I'll probably get done around 630.

And then we go into rehearsals at seven for whatever show we're doing. So right now, we're doing A Christmas Carol. We open in like 15 days, and so we rehearse from like seven to ten. Sometimes it's dance rehearsals, sometimes it's vocal rehearsals. Last night we did our designer run, so we ran the whole show for the whole design team so they could see it. It's very exciting right now. It's all like hoopskirts and corsets and very proper and Bridgertonesque.

[23:39] Dr. Diane: I was just thinking that being in Charleston, I imagine they've got good costumes for that era.

[23:43] Jenna: Oh, this is pretty cool this year because our artistic director wrote this version of A Christmas Carol. This is a brand new version. He's reedited the entire script. They're also building all brand new costumes. So they're building, I think they said, 80 costumes for this production.

[24:04] Dr. Diane: Wow.

[24:04] Jenna: They've been working on it since July. And what's cool is because there are different time periods, you travel back in time to see young Scrooge. We also have different outfits to represent the different time period. So when I am Belle, I wear very, like, Regency era empire waist dress. It looks exactly like Daphne's dress in Bridgerton when she goes to the ball. It's so cool. And then when I'm in present day, present day Scrooge, it's like the giant hard hoop skirt and a bustle and the corsets and the whole completely different silhouette, which is very cool. So we get to hop around time periods a lot in that show, which is very fun. So that's kind of our usual day, is teach my classes in the afternoon and then I go to rehearsal at night.

But we also do in-school workshops very often. So we did them at the beginning of our school year. We have a connection with a Montessori school. So we went and did two weeks at a Montessori school, which was so fun. And that was all about their curriculum. So they were learning about bugs in kindergarten. So we went in and did theater workshops about bugs or whatever they were learning about. We made theater curriculum to go with their lesson plans. That's why it was so fun. They loved it. The kids were so excited. And then this week we're going into a public school because they are coming to see our production of the Best Christmas Pageant Ever. So this is a show we're doing during the day for schools to come on field trips to see. So we are doing a literacy workshop with them this week to learn about like, play structure, plot structure, learn about the technicalities and keywords. They have a word wall. So we'll be creating our own word wall of terms that have to do with structure of story. But we're doing it through the lens of the Best Christmas Pageant Ever.

[26:17] Dr. Diane: So exciting.

[26:18] Jenna: It's so fun. So we're going to go on this week and we'll have our kids for an hour second through fifth grade, each grade, Tuesday through Friday. So we'll get them every day. We'll give them this little literacy workshop surrounding the Best Christmas Pageant Ever. And then in December, they'll come on a school field trip to see us in The Best Christmas Pageant Ever.

[26:37] Dr. Diane: I love those cross curriculum connections.

[26:41] Jenna: Yeah, it's going to be a super fun way to culminate it. And then we're going to do the same thing when we do The Very Hungry Caterpillar in January. We're going to do the same thing with some in school workshops. And then when we do Charlotte's Web in March, we'll do the same thing where we go into schools and kind of do a pre-show workshop to kind of get the kids ready to come see this book that they've read on stage and kind of discuss like the literacy aspects of it. And then they'll get to see it on stage and they'll get to see their teachers perform in it, which will be super fun.

[27:18] Dr. Diane: So I was going to say, for shows like Best Christmas Pageant ever, the Hungry Caterpillar in Charlotte's Web, are you also performing in those or are those your youth troupe?

[27:27] Jenna: No, that's us. So what's cool is Best Christmas Pageant Ever is a show that is primarily children. So it is our youth troupe and then we play the adult roles. So the story of Best Christmas Pageant Ever is that it's a bunch of kids at their church and they're putting on their Christmas pageant, but there's like this drama with the other kids who come in the Herdmans. The Herdmans have never been to church.

[27:50] Dr. Diane: Oh, the Herdmans.

[27:51] Jenna: But there's the mom and the dad and then the Reverend and Mrs. Armstrong. So there's a couple of roles that we as the adults are playing, but it's mostly our youth kids. And they are amazing. They're so good. They're going to literally be out of school to perform the show. But they're double cast, so they don't perform every day. They perform every other day, I think for two weeks. And then we'll be doing Christmas carol at night at the same time. So a lot of Christmas in December. I'm very excited.

[28:25] Dr. Diane: I was going to say that's awesome for you.

[28:28] Jenna: Yeah, I am living my best life. And what's funny is that on Sundays I teach Hebrew school, and my Hebrew school students, some of them, their parents already told me they're coming on the field trip to see Christmas pageant. They said they're going to see their Hebrew school teacher play a Reverend.

[28:44] Dr. Diane: I love the diversity of what you're playing.

[28:45] Jenna: Yeah, exactly. I was like, they're just getting exposure to all their cultures.