Willems’s appearance is one of his frequent visits to Washington for a new job: the Kennedy Center’s first education artist-in-residence.
“I love the symphony and theater — these things that people think are stuffy,” Willems says. And he knows young people can love them, too. As he puts it, “Kids are shorter and newer. But we’re the same species.”
He wants kids to know that there’s no wrong way to think about a performance.
“Whatever you get from it, you’re doing it right,” he said.
Willems’s goal for the two-year residency is to help folks of all ages take themselves less seriously when they’re watching something onstage.
His first offering was a story time in July with well-known comedians acting out some of his popular books. Parents may have thought they brought their kids, but Willems says it was actually the other way around. The show was his sneaky way of teaching grown-ups how to loosen up.
“They can get really boring,” he says.
Next up is the opening festival for the REACH, a Kennedy Center extension that features a dozen new spaces for concerts, plays, rehearsals, classes, movie screenings and even summer camp. It’s a place for artists and the community to come together and tinker.
Willems plans to show up in sequins for a “MO-a-PALOOZA Live!” concert, featuring songs from stage adaptations of his “Knuffle Bunny” and “Elephant and Piggie” books, plus sneak peeks from the Kennedy Center’s upcoming musical version of “Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus!”
For older kids, a big draw will probably be the Moonshot Studio, an all-ages “maker space” named for President John Kennedy’s ambitious plan to put a human on the moon. To kick off the program of hands-on activities, Willems is putting together lessons for budding artists and storytellers, including tips for how to draw his characters.
But that’s just a hint of what Willems has planned at the Kennedy Center. He’s gearing up for next year’s Jazz Doodle Jam, based on his family’s nightly tradition of pulling out a huge sheet of paper and doodling together. (Before that, family doodling was reserved for dining out. “I only would go to restaurants with crayons,” he says.) In a studio at the REACH, a jazz band will improvise music based on what the audience draws.
Willems also has a 250th birthday surprise for Ludwig van Beethoven. Instead of a card, he’s making abstract artworks based on the German composer’s nine symphonies. Each symphony has four movements — kind of like four frames of a comic strip — and he wants to encourage people to create their own classical-music-inspired comics.
That sounds a little odd. And that’s the point. Willems encourages kids to take risks when creating.
“Have a crazy idea,” he says. “The first thing you do is say it out loud. Then it’s real and out there. If you say it to people who can say yes, then it can really happen.”
If you go
What: The REACH Opening Festival, with more than 400 free events.
Where: Kennedy Center, 2700 F Street in Northwest Washington.
When: September 7 to 22.
How much: Free, timed-entry passes for the REACH Opening Festival are required.
For more information: A parent can call 202-467-4600 or visit kennedy-center.org.