Interview with Lauren Jost, Founder of the Spellbound Theatre
I was fascinated by the decision to go into theatre for small children, in particular babies, and ran across Lauren Jost, the power behind Spellbound Theatre as well as many children’s theatre initiatives in Brooklyn and beyond. See our interview below.
Me: Your bio is so complex! How do you answer the question of what you do in one sentence at a party?
Lauren: I usually describe myself as a storyteller – that seems to be the theme that runs throughout my work as a director, teacher, and performer. I’m obsessed with creating spaces for regular people to share regular stories about our lives. I love it when we are able to make meaning and find magic in our everyday lived experiences, and stories are the way that we do that, whether we are 2 year olds, high schoolers, or retirees.
What made you compelled to start Spellbound (and I know you must have been compelled because something like that is tough to do!)?
I have worked with very young children as a teaching artist, visiting classrooms and leading workshops for families for many years. In that work, I often got to see professional performances for young children under 5, which were always European or Australian companies visiting New York on tour. I absolutely loved the work – it is so creative, and sometimes abstract, and always compelling and I wanted to make some work like that…but when I looked around there were no New York companies that created theater for children under five. So I started one. It started with just one show and some weekly storytimes led by myself and my friend and colleague, Margot Fitzsimmons. But once I started I wanted to do more and more!
Did you start working with Children’s theater before you had kids? If so, how has having kids changed your work?
I’ve worked in children’s theatre and educational theatre since 2002, though mostly as an educator. Creating Spellbound was a chance for me to stretch my own creative wings. In 2011, when Margot and I began Spellbound, I had two young children under 3, and I spent a lot of time in playgroups with babies and toddlers. I wanted to create something for that community, and spent a lot of time researching (sometimes formally, sometimes just by watching them play) what they are engaged by and how they express their creativity. I also found that being home with my children gave me the time and space to follow my own creativity as I let my teaching schedule relax a little bit. Now, six years later, my own children are not so small and neither is Spellbound. We have over 20 artists on our roster, visit hundreds of classrooms, and are starting to tour our shows nationally. I get just as much creative satisfaction out of growing a company as I do directing shows, and I love finding new opportunities to expand and develop our work. The field of “Theatre for the Very Young” is starting to grow across the United States, and Spellbound is one of the companies leading the way!
How are the Spellbound classes at Birthday Presence different from the shows at the Old Stone House?
Our Birth Day Presence classes are based in creative play, which is somewhat improvisational and based on the individual children who come to class that week, as well as the weekly inspiration of the teaching artist who is leading the class. We tell familiar stories and songs together, like a storytime, but also use props and our bodies to explore different themes and stories. This morning we went “under the water” on a search for starfish. Our shows at the Old Stone House, however, are specific stories that have been written and rehearsed over 6-12 months before they are performed for the first time. They often have interactive and creative elements that involve the children in the audience, but they also have original music, props, puppets and stories that were created uniquely for just that show. Often, the shows at the Old Stone House have a whole creative team behind them – designers and musicians and even a “front of house” team that do craft activities with the families before they enter the show. Our biggest show this year, Babywild, which is at the Old Stone House this month (February 23, 24, and 25), was created by a team of five devising artists and three designers. For one weekend, we will transform the Old Stone House into an installation performance space just for 6-18 month olds and their families!
Most of these things seem focused in Brooklyn, do you live here? (If so, what is your favorite thing about raising kids in Brooklyn?)
I do live in Brooklyn, near Prospect Park, and when I had very young children I wanted to make work that was very close to my home community. We would perform in the park, and at the Old Stone House, and began partnering with local schools, who were easy to connect with. Now that Spellbound is growing, we travel to schools across the city, and this year we had our first out-of-town production at the Miami Theater Center, where we brought our show Wink to over a thousand children in South Florida. Next year we’ll be doing even more work in other parts of the country, bringing “baby theater” to new cities for the first time, but we’ll always consider Brooklyn our homebase. The Old Stone House and JJ Byrne Park have been our home for so long, and even as we expand they are an important part of being connected to our community and the families who have helped us grow. Brooklyn is in many ways the baby capital of the country and we couldn’t ask for a better home audience!
Tell me about your work with local schools?
Many of our performances have been designed small enough to go into preschool classrooms, and we have been bringing performances and teaching artist workshops to schools around the city since 2012. We are huge advocates for the role of the arts in every child’s education, and that should start from the very beginning. We are one of the only companies in NYC making work that is created just for preschoolers, and our artists are trained for early childhood settings. Since the NYC DoE expanded Pre-K for All in 2015, we have started partnering with public schools as well as independent preschools, and will be in over 150 public Pre-K classrooms in Brooklyn this spring!
What do you secretly wish people would ask you?
Ooooh, that is a great question. I will talk anyone’s ear off about early childhood arts and how creative babies are without them ever asking – I love talking about my work. But right now, I wish people would ask, “How can I help?” Launching a home-grown company onto the national stage is full of unexpected challenges and exciting opportunities, and every day I am learning new things about how to grow and sustain a company at the same time as we develop new and better work. I am always on the lookout for people who want to join one of our advisory committees, or even the Board (did I mention that we are not-for-profit?!), or just help spread the word about the importance of creativity and art and storytelling for young children. For me, Spellbound’s mission isn’t just about performing for children, it is about shaping the our culture to see very young children as sophisticated, eager audiences deserving of high-quality, professional art just like every other age group. Every parent, grandparent, and caregiver who brings a child to one of our classes or shows is a part of that shift. I want to be an evangelist for baby theater, and I want to recruit everyone else to be an advocate, too!
Lauren Jost is a theatre artist and arts educator in New York. She is the Artistic Director of Spellbound Theatre, New York’s award-winning theatre exclusively for the very young. Lauren can occasionally be found performing as a storyteller and puppeteer, but spends most of her time directing and producing Spellbound’s public, school, and national touring theater productions for children ages 0-5. Her work can be seen this year at Miami Theater Center (Wink), Symphony Space (Wink), The Old Stone House (Babywild) and in 30+ schools and early childhood centers around New York City. Lauren is a 2018-19 UT Austin/TYA-USA Artistic Exchange Fellow, and her company, Spellbound, was named the American Allliance of Theater & Education’s “Outstanding New Children’s Theater of 2017.” Additionally, Lauren works as an arts educator with New Victory Theater, Lifetime Arts, the Brooklyn Public Library and New York University, and provides professional development on stortyelling, theater, and puppetry for early childhood settings for teachers, artists, and theater companies in a variety of settings. Lauren is mom to J. and L., whose imaginations are her daily inspiration.