Ali Oliver-Krueger is as content to share her unique take on the fine art of story theatre in the Washington metro area as in faraway Kenya. The comfort level of InterAct Story Theatre’s executive and artistic director was likely nurtured by her experience of growing up as an Army brat; living on an Army base in Japan as well as in a variety of stateside towns generated experiences that contributed to the dynamic artist she is today.
Of course, Oliver-Krueger received a proper education—an undergraduate degree in drama and music from the University of North Texas and a master’s in opera performance from the Boston Conservatory. But once earned, she said she began to realize that “what I really loved, what really excited me, was being able to teach through the arts, being able to really connect with kids and reach kids who might not get a chance to see things like theatre and opera if we don’t bring it to them.”
“I was inspired by seeing how the arts could open up learning for kids who might be struggling in school, and inspired by how people can really connect with each other through the arts, how the arts help us really express ourselves when words alone fail us,” she added.
Fast forward to 2003, when Oliver-Krueger joined InterAct Story Theatre as company manager. Lenore Blank Kelner launched InterAct in 1981, intending to provide quality performances, arts-infused workshops and artist-in-residency programs for students, teachers and families throughout the region and across the country. Through the years, underserved communities became a priority for the arts-based experiences. Kelner passed the torch to Oliver-Krueger in 2009.
A 2015 Wheaton Cultural Projects Grant from the Arts and Humanities Council of Montgomery County funded the creation of the Wheaton Family Theatre Series, which produces free performances that feature story theatre and composing stories for the stage.
As part of the series, Oliver-Krueger will present “Silly Smarts and Other Stories from Japan,” an interactive program that weaves childhood memories with Japanese mukashibanashi (long-ago stories), on Saturday, April 8, at Highland Elementary School in Silver Spring. The interactive event is designed for all ages. “We don’t discriminate on the basis of height,” she said.
And that’s not all. InterAct will present the first annual “KidStory Theatre Festival” on Saturday, May 9, at Glenallan Elementary School in Silver Spring. With more than 120 story entries from children throughout the region, Oliver-Krueger is in the process of selecting five of “the best of the best” to showcase. Five professional actors will recreate the short plays in the 40-minute event.
Whether the company is working with a school group or performing a show, Oliver-Krueger has instructed actors to respond to the individual audience member’s needs. This may include asking children to stand up and move, while for others, it might be best to slow down and repeat parts of the story. Sometimes, actors may perceive a need to ask more questions. “We do lots of pilots, going to schools and showing a production, and then letting students and educators critique the program,” she said.
Actor Rick Westerkamp, an InterAct board member, performed with the company before he became a director and performance teacher at Stone Ridge School of the Sacred Heart in Bethesda. “Children don’t have a filter,” he observed. “You know when they are on board much more than adults.”
InterAct’s efforts to make performing for children in underserved communities a priority inspires Westerkamp. “I love the less sophisticated kids who don’t always known the etiquette of clapping politely at the end of a theater production,” he said. Instead, they are “uproariously happy, clapping, standing, whistling. I’m fired up for the rest of the day. It’s electric.”
As a 29-year-old actor working with Oliver-Krueger, Westerkamp honed his organizational skills, which included rising early to pick up the costumes and scenery, driving to the event, setting it up, doing the performance–and then doing it all over again.
The Rev. Meg Ingalls, who offered InterAct free rehearsal space at Silver Spring’s Transfiguration Episcopal Church, often watches rehearsals. Oliver-Krueger’s cheerfulness has impressed her. “Even in the midst of a negative situation, she creates something positive,” she said.
Recently when InterAct performed its play, “Pufferfish Pat: A Tall Tale for Mad Times,” at the church, the response amazed the pastor, who noticed a few young parishioners with “anger management issues” become mesmerized by the production. She also heard a woman ask her grandchild about being teased. “Do you feel like that?” The child responded, “All the time.” Rev. Ingalls believes such experiences can help children learn empathy and communicate more effectively.
While the company continues to tour the country and even abroad, ultimately Oliver-Krueger hopes to create a physical theater in Wheaton. To that end, she serves on the Wheaton Urban District (WUD) citizen board, which is working to revitalize its burgeoning arts district, a monumental undertaking, said Luisa Montero-Diaz, who oversees the WUD as director of the Mid-County Regional Center. The district, she said, includes small streets that house a multitude of “small businesses alongside Westfield Shopping Center with its Costco store. And to make matters even more complex, it is bisected by three major streets.”
An arts and entertainment district is, she explained, “an important endeavor with an ethnically diverse population. The area needs the arts within reach. Ali has brought her energy and commitment to the area.
“A lot of the community wouldn’t have access to the arts without InterAct. They even performed at a local restaurant (Los Chorros).”
Best of all, said Montero-Diaz, “although Ali travels throughout the world performing, she always comes back to Wheaton to help.”
Ali Oliver-Krueger will perform “Silly Smarts and Other Stories from Japan,” at 11 a.m. Saturday, April 8, at Highland Elementary School, 3100 Medway St., Silver Spring. InterAct Story Theatre’s “KidStory Theatre Festival” is set 11 a.m. on Saturday, May 6, at Glenallan Elementary School, 12520 Heurich Road, Silver Spring. Admission to both events is free. For information, call 301-879-9305.