FESTIVAL ARCHIVE  —  2023

2023 Festival Archive: Little Uprisings

Little Uprisings: My Night in the Planetarium

January 19-22, 2023

Studebaker Theater

Presented at Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center, Marshall Field Garden Apartments/Art on Sedgwick, Navy Pier, ETA Creative Arts Foundation

The Free Neighborhood Tour fosters an appreciation for puppetry throughout the city by bringing free, family-friendly performances to locations outside of Chicago’s theaters. The tour offers a range of high-quality puppetry styles in order to create moments of community enjoyment while expanding the base of puppet enthusiasts.

With special support from: The Marshall Frankel Foundation and Cheryl Henson

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Scholarship and Resources

A  Pop-up–Book Social Justice Performance for Young Audiences

Free Neighborhood Tour: My Night in the Planetarium by Little Uprisings

An Essay by Claudia Orenstein

My Night in the Planetarium from the Boston-based organization Little Uprisings, which was offered as the festival’s free neighborhood tour, thoroughly accomplished its goals of reaching audiences outside of the usual festival spectators and engaging children in social justice issues through art. The show is based on the children’s book of the same name by Indonesian writer Innosanto Nagara. Its story culminates in a recounting of the night Nagara spent with his mother in Jakarta’s planetarium when he was seven, as his father, a playwright who had written and performed a show critical of Suharto’s dictatorship, escaped into hiding to save his life. The show deals with this material and a few other weighty issues in ways that are entertaining and accessible to young viewers, encouraging them to consult their own feelings about what is fair and their own experiences of being brave in confronting challenging situations. Among Nagara’s other works are the board book A is for Activist and the storybook M is for Movement, as well as other projects that marry children’s literature with social and political engagement. My Night in the Planetarium is thoughtfully directed by Roxanna Myhrum, with beautiful designs and construction by Sarah Nolen.

As parents and their kids enter ETA Creative Arts Foundation’s small theater space, they are greeted by puppeteer Tanya Nixon-Silberg standing casually alongside her tabletop setup, chatting with young spectators—a relaxed, inviting beginning to the event. Nixon-Silberg starts the formal presentation by asking the audience if they have ever loved a book so much that they wanted to jump into it. In response to the resounding yesses (spurred on by her encouragement to speak up loudly), Nixon-Silberg lets us know that My Night in the Planetarium is one of her favorite books. A large pop-up version of the volume and a hand puppet, representing Nagara as a child, which Nixon-Silberg deftly weaves through the pop-up sets, allow her to take us through the story, one she tells with the addition of personal commentaries and questions to the audience. Nagara, the adult author himself, also takes part in the show in the form of occasional prerecorded voiceovers, a wonderful device for bringing his presence directly into the production.  

Before dealing with Suharto, the show quickly introduces Indonesia with its many islands, ethnic groups, and languages through a pop-up map with pullout images of people in various types of traditional dress. It then offers a very brief account of Indonesia’s 350 years of Dutch colonization using a large cutout of a boot sporting a yellow moustache to represent the Dutch. The mustachioed boot stomps across a pop-up of an Indonesian landscape. To give kids a simple way into understanding colonialism, Nixon-Silberg asks them to consider what it would be like if someone came into their homes, took their food and toys, and refused to leave. Spectators subsequently get a sense of how one small voice can ignite a political movement when Nixon-Silberg whispers the Indonesians’ injunction to the Dutch to “get out” into the ears of those seated on the stage right aisle and asks them to pass the message along to their neighbors. The call slowly travels throughout the theater. This is just one of several empowering audience participation elements in the show.

Although the audience’s engagement contributes to finally booting out the Dutch, and Nixon-Silberg teases us with the idea that Indonesians subsequently lived “happily ever after,” her introduction of a new figure, referred to here only as “The General,” doesn’t bode well. The General is a cutout of a head sporting a cap and dark glasses. The flat figure rides atop the puppeteer’s fist, which she opens and closes, concretely illustrating her claim that he ruled “with an iron fist.” He peers here and there over the buildings of the pop-up city, demonstrating his ubiquitous, domineering presence and his constant surveillance of the population.

By contrast, Nixon-Silberg also brings on the young Nagara, or Ino, her bright-eyed hand puppet, who brims with enthusiasm as he introduces his new friend (Nixon-Silberg) to his home city of Jakarta and to delicious Indonesian foods. He even invites her to watch his Balinese dance class: A flat, clever cutout version of the boy, wearing a Balinese headdress and sarong, dances to gamelan music, his leg lifting up and down in the iconic Baris, or warrior dance pose. Ino later takes Nixon-Silberg to meet his father, a shadow figure illuminated within a pop-up house, typing at a desk as he works on his secret, dangerous theatrical project. 

Ino’s youthful exuberance evidently spreads to his excitement about his father’s play. In a sweet comic moment, Ino tells Nixon-Silberg how essential he is to the rehearsals, telling actors where to go and correcting their lines. His father (a voiceover of the author) judiciously curbs his son’s well-meaning but disruptive contributions by letting him know that, because he is so interested in the show, he will be given a part, that of a spy whose main role is to be silent and hidden. Another clever set device captures the success of the subsequent touring show. The pop-up book’s scene of the rehearsal stage with silhouetted actors pulls out from its setting and folds up to represent a suitcase. Nixon-Silberg carries it from one spot on the stage to another, at each juncture opening it up to represent a new performance venue. 

The tour is cut short when the show is raided by The General’s officers, forcing Ino’s father to flee, while the boy and his mother take refuge in the planetarium. As Nixon-Silberg turns the next page to reveal the domed planetarium, lighting of a starry night sky encompasses the entire stage. This magical moment—which elicited oohs and aahs from the audience—allowed spectators to experience the sense of wonder, as well as the peace and safety, of Ino and his mother’s unlikely refuge. At the end of the show, Nixon-Silberg brought out Nagara’s other books and invited audience members to examine them and the show’s pop-ups. Kids flooded the stage to greet the performer and her hand puppet while their parents snapped photos. One young girl brought her own doll to make friends with the Ino puppet.

My Night at the Planetarium, deceptively simple in its means, magnificently accomplishes the daunting task of engaging young children in a true, potentially scary story about politics, repression, and personal freedom. Nixon-Silberg’s gentle presence helps young spectators engage with her tale, and the directorial and design choices effectively translate Nagara’s book to the puppet stage. This night remains memorable, both for its beautiful and imaginative scenography and its inspiring story of personal courage in a world where authoritarianism is once again on the rise. 

Festival Performances

About the Performance

Thursday, January 19
Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center, 4048 W. Armitage
Friday, January 20 
Marshall Field’s Garden Apartments / Art on Sedgwick, 1408 N. Sedgwick St.
Saturday, January 21 
Navy Pier, 700 E. Grand Ave.
Sunday, January 22 
ETA Creative Arts Foundation, 7558 S. South Chicago Ave. 

My Night in the Planetarium is based on the award-winning book by Innosanto Nagara, a graphic artist and acclaimed author/illustrator of “A Is for Activist” and “Counting on Community.” Nagara tells his own true story of facing dictatorship and oppression in his childhood in Indonesia. It is a child’s view of a particular place and time—but it is also an introduction to Indonesia, a story about colonialism, and a message about the power of creativity.

With special support from: The Marshall Frankel Foundation and Cheryl Henson

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Past Performances and Further Reading