Ballet for Aliens: A Play About Ballet for Kids by Kids
Plan-B Theatre’s Free Elementary School Tour celebrates its 10th anniversary with the world premiere of our play BALLET FOR ALIENS. It’s created specifically for grades 4-6 and is about being a child living with a chronic illness and how imagination can help get you through.
Jacob loves ballet, turkey sandwiches, Pokedudes, and his orange blanket. He does not love living with Crohn’s disease or nurses who can’t get the IV in on the first try. On the day of his latest infusion, he meets Sophie, a nurse unlike any other (who might be an alien).
BALLET FOR ALIENS will tour elementary schools statewide the entire school year. But fret not, there are two free public performances this month in partnership with the City Library: Saturday, September 10 at 1pm at the Chapman Branch and Saturday, September 17 at 3pm at the Marmalade Branch.
The play is based on the life and perspective of playwright Gerard Hernandez. Following are thoughts about the writing process and hopes for the play from each of the three members of the writing team.
From Playwright Jenny Kokai
BALLET FOR ALIENS is about a talented boy with many interests whose life is derailed by a chronic illness that severely impacts his health and wellbeing. The play was co-written with my son, Oliver Kokai-Means and his friend Gerard Hernandez. [Oliver was in 7th grade and Gerard was in 6th grade when the process began; they’re now in 10th and 9th grade, respectively.] We knew that Gerard liked to goof around, that he liked school, and that he was serious about participating in ballet.
Gerard and Ollie used to play soccer together and then Gerard disappeared. Because I know his parents, I know that he suﬀered a mystery ailment, that he had to go to the Mayo Clinic for a diagnosis, and that he was ultimately diagnosed with Crohn’s disease, a chronic condition that requires him to get monthly chemotherapy. But throughout all this, Gerard kept up a demanding ballet schedule to the best of his ability.
As a mother of a child with a complex disability that prevented him from attending school for several years, I keenly understand how deeply lonely and isolating a chronic illness can make a family feel. I understand how stressful it is to watch your child struggle and to physically suﬀer and not to be able to find answers as to why or how to help. Ollie and I really identified with Gerard’s commitment to ballet, to the idea that art can get you through tough times. We found that there is something powerful and joyful in transmuting stressful, painful scenarios into art—in our case theatre. I previously co-wrote ZOMBIE THOUGHTS with Ollie, a play about his experience with Generalized Anxiety Disorder. This play has been enormously successful, as Ollie didn’t approach discussing his issues with shame or embarrassment nor did he diminish the serious impacts they have on his life. And so I took my cues on how to write the play from him. This honesty and humor have connected with many audiences.
I remain committed to the idea that theatre for youth should be written by (or at least with) youth. Young writers can articulate their experiences truthfully, honestly, and in a framework that speaks to other people their own age. There is no worry about condescending or belittling young experiences. I am not saying there is nothing of value in the thoughtful plays for youth written by many adults, but there is an authenticity in the references, dialogue, and ways of understanding a world when you privilege a young person’s voice.
This time we wanted to share the truth of what it is like to be a child with a serious debilitating physical illness but to do it in a way that also reflects Gerard’s silliness and interests. It is not a play just about a sick child, it is a play about a whole person who happens to be sick. I often think about what it would have meant for me as a kid to see theatre that showed kids in all their complexity— pivoting from wise to silly in a moment, allowed to be a mess and to be scared, allowed to speak up when adults fail them, allowed to be an authority over their own experiences and stories. Ollie and Gerard don’t feel ashamed of the things that make them diﬀerent from other kids nor do they seem to spend a lot of time feeling sorry for themselves, they just accept them as things that are and get on with their lives. Honestly, this is a lesson I’m still trying to learn as an adult.
Beyond the main story of the play, it was also important to us to show that boys can and do perform ballet. We didn’t want to just say that, we wanted to show it by including moments of dance in the play. It is important to Gerard to show the ways that dance can serve as an expression of inner emotions when sometimes words fail. We also wanted to include a parody of the Nutcracker, a ballet Gerard has performed in four times and that he loves. While we suspect it will be challenging for performers to play kazoos while doing a ballet dance battle with giant syringes, we look forward to seeing the result.
From Playwright Oliver Kokai-Means
Gerard, Mama, and I created BALLET FOR ALIENS to try to spread awareness for chronic illnesses and the eﬀects they have on kids. We wanted to make it fun but also informational so that people would watch it and remember the things it taught them. It gives an important perspective on the negative experiences kids with illnesses like Crohn’s have throughout their life, things such as constantly having to go to the bathroom, teachers getting mad at you for going to the bathroom because they think you are skipping school, and even the medicine that kids need to stay alive.
The play was made after we finished my first play, ZOMBIE THOUGHTS, and started to brainstorm other issue we could bring awareness to. I have learned a lot about the artistic process and how audiences react to dialogue and characters. I am obviously older than I was then, and I understand how important it is to spread awareness about issues like these. I wanted to write a second play because I knew that, based on the responses we got, people really needed to know a lot of the signs and eﬀects chronic illnesses and disorders can bring kids. We got lots of letters from students saying how grateful they were that we were telling teachers about these issues and helping them fit in more in school. We had the idea to ask my friend Gerard, who has Crohn’s, to help us write a play about what it’s like. We wanted to make a play that taught kids and adults about the eﬀects of Crohn’s. And so with the help of Gerard’s story and his fact-checking, me, Mama, and Gerard were able to create a play to help even more kids.
Writing both ZOMBIE THOUGHTS and BALLET FOR ALIENS has taught me quite a lot about playwriting as a kid. I learned that kids really loved ZOMBIE THOUGHTS simply because it didn’t belittle their condition or speak down to them. I hope that BALLET FOR ALIENS can give the same response and help kids and teachers understand a little more about the things kids go through.
From Playwright Gerard Hernandez
My name is Gerard. I’m really good at telling stories and jokes, and being a good friend is important to me. I was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease when I was seven years old. When I started writing BALLET FOR ALIENS, I was twelve years old.
Crohn’s causes lots of problems for me. Partly, Crohn’s is an invisible disease, so people can’t see my illness. For example, I’ll be in school taking an exam, and suddenly, without warning, I need to go to the bathroom! Sometimes teachers won’t allow me to leave until after the exam, and by then it’s too late. I can’t eat what I want (like tons of sugar, dairy, gluten and junk food and things that most kids can eat without getting sick). Birthday parties and other outings can be a struggle. It’s not something I can really talk about in public because it’s embarrassing to me. It’s hard to explain it… I’ve had the opportunity to create presentations that have helped others to understand without feeling sorry for me, as well as helping them to understand it that doesn’t tell too much…but enough for them to process the information.
I get infusions every month at the hospital to control my symptoms. It’s kind of like chemo. The play talks about some of these procedures in a comical way, and explains some of how Crohn’s is part of my daily life. I have to say that there are thousands of other kids just like me coping with Crohn’s and they are going through the same thing.
I was a ballet dancer starting at age four. When I was eight, after auditioning for THE NUTCRACKER, I joined the Ballet West Academy. I’ve danced with them until the COVID-19 pandemic. Ballet helped me to control my symptoms and allowed me to be around other boy ballet dancers who I got to befriend. Some people don’t understand how physical and demanding ballet can be. My favorite ballet moves are leaps. Jumping is fun! Ballet helps me to feel normal. But best of all, ballet helps me in all sports, including track—my favorite middle-school sport.
Camp Oasis, which is a camp for kids with Crohn’s, has been something “normal” I can do every summer vacation. Besides camp, friends, parents, teachers and counselors have helped me a lot by caring. I have several doctor specialists, including a gastroenterologist who I see twice a year now. Allergists, dermatologists, psychologists, orthopedic specialists…I see them all!
Ollie and I met in first grade. We both struggle with issues that most kids don’t so I jumped at the chance of working on a play with him. We played video games and nerf gun wars during writing breaks to help the creative process. Ollie’s mom helped us out by putting our thoughts into words. I pulled out a kazoo one day, and that got into the play! That’s my favorite part of the play because it’s funny, and I love comic relief. Comedy is how I cope with stress.
I’d like to learn how to write more plays based on this experience.
BALLET FOR ALIENS by Gerard Hernandez, Jenny Kokai, and Oliver Kokai-Means is directed by Jerry Rapier, choreographed by Peter Christie, designed by Arika Schockmel, and managed by Kallie Filanda. September 10 at 1pm at Chapman features Tamari Dunbar as Sophie and Amona Faatau as Jacob. September 17 at 3pm at Marmalade features Danny Borba as Jacob and Estephani Cerros as Sophie. Both performances are free, ticketless, and feature ASL interpretation.