MUDLARK IN YOUR EYE
By Bill McLean
ILLUSTRATION BY BARRY BLITT
By Bill McLean
ILLUSTRATION BY BARRY BLITT
When Christina Lepri-Stringer was 9 and the only child actor in the Steppenwolf Theatre production The Wolf Lullaby, she had to learn to speak with an Australian accent. Years later, as a Boston College Theater/ English double major, the Chicago native interned at the Theatre Royal in Bath, England, where she worked with actors in the theater’s children program.
“I taught a third grader in England how to speak with a Chicago accent, even though the child’s role in the play was the New York mayor,” Lepri-Stringer recalls.
She at least deserves credit for following the “teach what you know” maxim.
In early June, Lepri-Stringer, 35, was named artistic director at Mudlark Theater, an Evanston-based theater for young people, after having served there as education director and managing director from 2013-2020. She’s the third artistic director in Mudlark Theater’s 18-year history.
The accent at the nonprofit Mudlark will be on storytelling under Lepri-Stringer’s leadership.
“For a community, it can be powerful to watch children tell stories as performers in theater,” says Lepri-Stringer, who succeeded Andrew Biliter, who plans to write and direct as a resident artist at Mudlark. “Young people are incredibly capable of being great storytellers, and what I think is unique about Mudlark is that it centers youth voices in every production that it does. It also takes young people’s stories and perspectives seriously.
“At Mudlark,” she adds, “all actors have a purpose. No one will ever be tree No. 4 in the background.”
Actors and students (ages 10-15), Mudlark’s website notes, learn empathy, listening skills, public speaking, critical thinking, and collaboration—strengths that enhance their academic and personal growth, and will also prepare them to make a difference in any field they choose to enter.
“I love the idea of Mudlark Theater,” says Lepri-Stringer, who worked as director of education and community engagement at Northlight Theatre in Skokie the past three years. “It’s tough, for many, being a student in middle school. Kids at that age can show kindness one day and be cruel the next. Our young actors at Mudlark develop confidence, while rehearsing and performing, and then become more comfortable in front of people and during presentations at school.”
Mudlark Theater holds auditions for its eight productions (four in the fall, four in the spring) each year but does not cut any prospective actor. The theme for this fall’s lineup is Myths and Legends, beginning with That’s How We Grew the World. Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens will be staged next, followed by Six Pointed Starlight and Pinocchio.
“For each audition, we usually have four or five kids play games in a room while we observe them, and then we follow that up with a gentle improv scene,” says Lepri-Stringer, who, as a playwright and director at Mudlark, created more than 10 full-length plays, including Lot 47, The Enchanted Castle, The Nutcracker, and Little Women. “I like it when a parent warns me, ‘My son is a little rowdy.’ I react with a ‘Yes!’ because that means the child will take more risks on stage and push the boundaries.
“Our goal is to foster a vibrant theater where everyone belongs and have every young performer come away from a show thinking they had the best time. For two hours, they get to escape from their phones and other devices. It gives them a technology break—a break they want.”
The middle child of lawyers Robert and Julie, Lepri-Stringer grew up in Chicago’s Lakeview neighborhood and attended St. Ignatius College Prep. She was only 6 when she landed her first role—the Pink Lady in Vesuvius and the Power Rangers—at the Young Actors Program in Chicago. She also performed in March of the Mill Children (age 9) and Twelfth Night (age 10).
“I loved it there,” Lepri-Stringer says. “It was serious stuff. To be a kid who was a part of a play about a labor uprising (March of the Mill Children) was a great opportunity. I also got to meet students from other schools.”
As a high school student, she spent three years honing her craft at the Lookingglass Theatre Company, mostly as an ensemble member, and volunteered there for a couple of years as an usher.
“What I loved about my experience at Lookingglass was the chance to focus on writing plays,” Lepri-Stringer says. “I became more and more interested in writing plays as I got older. I owe Andrew (Biliter), who has had a big influence on me, a lot because he encouraged me to write during my early years at Mudlark. He has such a great ear and eye for theater.”
Her all-time favorite storefront, the House Theatre of Chicago, broke her heart when it ended its 21-year run last year. The venue was located under a viaduct. Watching Dave DaVinci Saves the Universe there thrilled her to no end.
“That play was quirky and funny,” Lepri- Stringer says. “It was like a nerd show. Performers at the House Theatre, under its low ceiling, always created magic for their audience. It was the ideal venue for good storytelling.”
So is Mudlark Theater.
“I want to offer a kaleidoscope of storytelling modes, whether that is sketch comedy, or theater with a fantasy element, or more realistic elements,” Lepri-Stringer says.
Christina met her future husband, Jake, in Richmond, Virginia. He’s an educational psychologist for surgeons. They live in Chicago’s Logan Square and hope to move someday to Evanston, the city that happens to be Lepri- Stringer’s artistic home. Again.
“I am delighted to return and support the next generation of young artists who will learn, play, and tell their stories at Mudlark,” she says. “I have seen young people grow up and emerge as exceptional performers and people at Mudlark.”
Were Lepri-Stringer ever to exit stage left at Mudlark, she’d make sure her landing spot attracted Mudlark-aged visitors.
“Maybe someday I’ll own a youth center or a community center, where kids could thrive in a safe place other than at home or at school and explore their interests,” Lepri- Stringer says. “If I do, I’d like the center to house a coffee shop, run mostly by young people.
“I feel such energy whenever I’m around young people.”
Mudlark Theater is located at 1417 Hinman Avenue in Evanston. For more information, call 847-448-0708 or visit mudlarktheater.org.