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Rives Collins on the Power of Storytelling

Rives Collins discusses telling stories to youth in “The Hundred Dresses”

Rives Collins has been telling stories since he was 4 years old. The great-grandson of a vaudeville monologue performer and current fellow in the Searle Center for Teaching Excellence has been a storyteller ever since, and this year he brings to life one of his favorite stories from childhood at Northwestern in “The Hundred Dresses.” The play, which deals poignantly with the subject of bullying, opens Friday.

Young and old patrons of the performances may be surprised to learn of Northwestern's rich tradition and history of theatre and drama for young people. It was here that the legendary instructor Winifred Ward revolutionized the field, teaching a generation of teachers who took her methodology and spread it across the country.

Collins was an undergraduate student at Colorado College when he first studied with a professor who had known Ward in Evanston. Then, as a graduate student at Arizona State University, Collins was named the Winifred Ward Scholar, a national honor awarded to an outstanding graduate-level scholar of child drama and theatre. He was drawn to Evanston, where the field truly began with Ward, and he now teaches and directs a new generation of actors, teachers and artists as associate professor of theatre in the School of Communication.

Darcy Coussens (Communication '14) spoke with him about telling stories to young people.

How did you become a storyteller?

I started telling stories when I was really little. I even got in trouble for telling stories in some settings! In graduate school I had a storytelling mentor, and I apprenticed with him and learned about the folk art of storytelling. Now storytelling is at the heart of everything I do: directing, teaching and communicating. I believe in the power of a great story to make a difference.

What is important to keep in mind when you're telling a story to young audiences?

I think children respond very sensitively to emotional truth. The biggest mistake anybody makes in doing theatre for young people is to offer them watered down, cardboard emotions. I think there is a lie detector in children that says, that doesn't feel real. So I think offering emotional truth is an absolute essential, which is why as we've worked with the cast of “The Hundred Dresses,” we've insisted that the work be honest.

Why did you choose to direct “The Hundred Dresses”?

It’s a book by Eleanor Estes that I remember from childhood. I wasn't sure if it was okay for a boy to like that book, but I did. I loved it. This book stayed in my memory over time, and I saw that it had been adapted for the theatre at a time when nationally, we're so concerned about the horrifying statistics about bullying, the kind of garden-variety cruelty that exists on every playground. As we struggle to help our children become empathic and compassionate, finding good stories to tell is essential.

How does the story address bullying in schools today?

It was published in 1944. It won the Newbery Honor in 1945, and we’re setting it in the late 1940s -- because we can allow ourselves to let go of details and see truth more easily through a story set in the past, instead of the present. What was so compelling to me about “The Hundred Dresses,” especially in the stage adaptation, is that it is not a story about the girl who's teased, and it's not a story about the ringleader of the teasing. It's about the one who's caught in the middle -- because that's most of us. We've all walked that path of being the one in the middle, and I think a play that shines light on that without offering easy morals or easy answers is a story worth telling.

How do music and dance help to engage young people in this story?

All children are inherently kinesthetic beings, so I have to look for ways to go beyond “talking heads” in the theatre. We have jump ropes, handclap games, dance and songs. We’re speaking many languages through those elements. The language of dance puts both the exuberance of childhood and heartbreaking loneliness in the bodies of these characters. The language of music -- with its rhythms, harmony and dissonance -- speaks to the heart. The spoken text helps move the story forward. As the director, I work to unify those elements and make sure everyone involved is telling the same story.

What do you hope audiences will leave with that they didn't arrive with, when they come to “The Hundred Dresses”?

I hope that they'll have a wonderful time, and that the theatre will be a very special place for young people and families!

I also hope that through this story, they'll take an emotional journey with the characters. I hope they will particularly identify with Maddie's inner life as she goes along with the cruelty and then becomes somebody who takes a stand, somebody who vows, “I'll never do nothing again.” I hope Maddie will serve as a source of courage and inspiration for people of all ages. I don't think we ever outgrow the kind of decisions Maddie has to make, and I hope this play will plant seeds of hope and the possibility of people making a difference on behalf of one another.

Note: "The Hundred Dresses" by Ralph Covert and G. Riley Mills will be staged at 7 p.m. Friday, Nov. 1; 2 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 2; 2 and 5 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 3; 7 p.m. Friday, Nov. 8; 2 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 9; and 2 and 5 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 10. Performances will take place at the Hal and Martha Hyer Wallis Theater, 1949 Campus Drive, Evanston.

- Darcy Coussens is a senior in the School of Communication

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