When it comes to theater, Julie McKinley jumps in and takes charge. She put together her first production as a 9-year-old homeschool student in Lee’s Summit, recalling that she and other children played historical characters.
With this experience, McKinley and her fellow students began learning one of theater’s most crucial lessons: improvisation. Years later, she helped her friends when they began leading theater classes and directing performances for their younger siblings. When these friends moved away for college, however, McKinley again faced the unexpected – she didn’t go far away for college, so her students asked if she was going to take over.
In the 13 years since, she’s done just that, operating Storybook Theatre & Private Drama Studio out of her garage in Lee’s Summit. This month, McKinley secured a Blue Springs studio space at 3719 Southwest U.S. 40, inside Inspire Dance Studio.
After painting the walls purple and hauling in a bookshelf filled with both contemporary plays and Shakespeare, McKinley again turned her focus to her students, who range from ages 4 to 18. The adaptive attitude of getting used to a new space provides a natural transition for McKinley’s classes. This month, she’s teaching an improv workshop.
“It helps them think on their feet and boosts their confidence,” McKinley says of improv’s impact on her students. “I have a few former students who have started college this year. One of them called me and said, ‘Oh my gosh, I have to take a speech class. I’m the only one who’s not nervous.”
“I had to do so much at Storybook, and a speech can’t be scarier than that.”
Spend just a few minutes at Storybook, and it’s easy to observe kids opening up. As soon as they burst into the room, abandoning their shoes in favor of bare feet, they begin asking McKinley about the day’s games and activities.
First, they warm up. She instructs them to walk around the room naturally.
“How do you move?” McKinley asks, prompting flounces, saunters and a variety of poses. This speaks to Storybook’s slogan, “Your story is magic,” which allows kids to feel accepted and capable of their own unique creativity.
Then, she introduces new elements. How would the kids move if the room was filled with bubbles? What about lava? Or snakes?
“This class makes me less nervous,” said 11-year-old Risa Norbury. “In the future, if I forget a line, I can make one up.”
Indeed, Storybook’s improv classes often serve as a motivator for kids to become more involved in theater and to participate in future shows. The company puts on about six shows a year, ranging from short, 20-minute performances for younger students, to full-length plays for older students.
High schooler Mackenzie Haber, who has been in performances with Blue Springs City Theatre, says it’s one of these productions that attracted her to the company.
“I saw a Storybook show and was like, ‘This is one person in her garage with a bunch of homeschooled kids, and they did this,’” Haber recalled.
In fact, Haber says McKinley – who she calls her “inspiration” – has prompted her to think more deeply about her love for theater. Before, Haber considered it a side hobby. After starring in shows with Storybook and working with younger students as an intern, Haber now wants to pursue theater as a major in college. The reasoning is simple: Haber says Storybook feels different than anywhere else, part of McKinley’s central goal.
“When students come through the door, I want them to feel like they’re part of something really special, magical and different,” McKinley said, “whether they’re involved for one production or for years.”