Monday, January 16, 2017

A Broadway Books First Class Visit From Stockard Channing

Stockard Channing surrounded by the students in First Grade

Stockard Channing first sauntered into the landscape of my adolescence as Betty Rizzo, leader of the Pink Ladies in the movie musical Grease.  I could not keep my eyes off this beautiful, feisty and secretly sensitive soul as she navigated high school and belted out catchy tunes.

Stockard Channing in Grease
It was the summer of 1978 and that September I would enter high school myself.

Who knew it was going to be such an adventure?!

On the first day I drove up to school with my older brother - a senior - and as we got out of the car I adjusted my sunglasses, gave him my best Rizzo smirk and said, "We're gonna rule the school"

Then, he pushed me away and said, "Don't walk with me!"

Still, I kept the "Let's go get 'em" school spirit and channeled my inner Riz until graduation.

Over the next few years I followed Stockard Channing's career closely from her 1979 television series Just Friends to Broadway and ultimately to Silent Victory: The Kitty O'Neil Story.  She played a woman who is deaf and struggling to find independence.  Again, I was fascinated.  I sought out sign language classes and taught myself the handshape alphabet.  A seed had been planted that would later grow to impact the course of my life.

In 1986 - I was now a performing arts major at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts - Stockard Channing was appearing at the 92nd Street Y in Three Verse Dramas by William Butler Yeats.  After the performance I went backstage to meet her.  She was lovely.  I was probably a bit much.

Meeting Stockard Channing at the 92nd Street Y on March 17, 1986

In the years that followed I changed course - from actor to teacher - and found my true purpose.  Stockard went on to win a Tony Award (six nominations), two Emmys, and an Academy Award nomination for Six Degrees of Separation.  Her interest in Deaf culture continued as well and in 2007 she narrated the PBS documentary Through Deaf Eyes.

So, it should come as no surprise that when I created Broadway Books First Class Stockard Channing was at the top of my list. A chance meeting - set up by the universe - with Kim Weild put the dream in motion and Voila! One afternoon in December Stockard Channing paid a visit to my first grade classroom.

Copies of Be Who You Are made possible with a grant from
Columbia University Teachers College

She read Todd Parr's Be Who You Are with an exquisite intensity incorporating gestures, signs and the perfect touch of gravitas.  The children joined in on the repeating refrain, "Just be who you are!"

"Always be yourself and
Be Who You Are!"
As she read she delighted in the kids, stopping to listen to their comments and acknowledge their insights.

As a skilled actress she took her cue from them to explore interesting concepts (e.g. feelings, food) and highlight certain illustrations.

Once again I had a front row seat to a master class and it was all unfolding in my very own classroom.  Although it was somewhat surreal, the awesomeness was not lost on me for a moment.

The children learned about her work before her visit and after the reading were very eager to ask her about her roles in The Girl Most Likely To... and in any show she performed with the name Joey in it (e.g. Pal Joey, Joe[y] Egg) because we have our very own first grade Joey.

Our questions brought forth some fantastic stories and information. We learned...
  • Her favorite role was as Ouisa in Six Degrees of Separation.  
  • She loved doing Grease and had fun dancing, laughing and singing
  • Yes, it is indeed cool to be on Broadway because you can move people and make them laugh or think.
  • She felt "crazy and so happy" when she won the Tony Award!
Before she left she sat down to autograph copies of Todd Parr's book as I chatted with her about varying perspectives on deaf education (she prepared for her visit with us by reading Deafness by David Wright), theater and books.

Stockard Channing autographing copies of Be Who You Are

I've heard it said that we should never meet our idols because it is nearly impossible for them live up to our expectations and inevitably we are left feeling disappointed. This was far from the case with Stockard Channing.  She could not have been more open, patient and giving with the children and extremely generous to participate in the program.

To paraphrase the last lines from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, "What happened to the man whose dreams suddenly came true?  He lived happily ever after!"

Thank You Stockard Channing!

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

A Broadway Books First Class Visit From Devlin Elliott and Nathan Lane

First graders learning naughty from nice with Devlin Elliott and Nathan Lane

I used to love rainy days when I was growing up. Those dark, comfortable afternoons brought a fresh, earthy scent wafting on the breeze through our open windows. I couldn't go outside to play with my brothers and sister so we would happily occupy ourselves inside with board games, coloring books, toy cars and our imaginations. Eventually, I'd slip away to find some blissfully snug spot and read.

Those comforting memories often revisit me today when I'm in my classroom with the rain tap-tap-tapping on the playground outside our window. That long ago feeling of cherished togetherness and safety returns to envelop me and my first graders.

It was one of those stormy, relaxed days when we metaphorically curled up with Devlin Elliott and Nathan Lane's latest book Naughty Mabel Sees It All.

What could be better on a rainy day than welcoming these visiting authors into our peaceful space to share the latest antics of their darling, Mabel?

The children introduce themselves to Devlin Elliott and Nathan Lane

Tony Award nominated producer - and charmer - Devlin Elliott is a returning guest to Broadway Books First Class. He visited during the first year of the program and happily accepted my invitation to come back a second time. This time he brought Tony and Emmy Award Winner Nathan Lane.

Nathan famously voiced Timon, the meerkat, in Disney's animated blockbuster The Lion King. That tidbit was not lost on my excited first graders who relished the thought of meeting the man behind Timon. We sang and signed our hearts out to "Hakuna Matata" and "Circle of Life" in preparation for our guests. In fact, we did quite a lot to prepare for our visit.  We learned about Nathan's job as a stage and film actor. We came up with a list of questions about the role of a producer, how actors and producers work together and about favorite roles and memories.

Devlin and Nathan did some preparation too. In addition to carving out the time in their busy schedules, they also generously offered to provide each child in the class with his or her very own copy of their book!

After introductions, conducted strictly in American Sign Language, we focused our attention on an energetic French bulldog named Mabel, whose ocular mishaps lead to a visit to an "optimist, an optopotamus, an op-tha-mo-lo-gist...Oh, you know, the eye doctor".

Nathan Lane masterfully read the book, stopping periodically for children's questions or simply to laugh amusedly at their quirky commentary. Devlin encouraged playful interaction during the reading to allow for close inspection of Dan Krall's illustrations. Also, never underestimate the humor inherent in a character passing gas (sound effects - as Devlin and Nathan know - only elevate the hilarity).

Devlin Elliott and Nathan Lane reading Naughty Mabel Sees It All with ASL interpreter  Lynnette Taylor

Naughty Mabel Sees It All is a children's book, yes, but like the best children's entertainment it is also chock full of references to keep the adults interested. I ask you, how many children's books hilariously reference Bette Davis as a wide-eyed, slightly off-her-rocker Baby Jane Hudson?

A very lively round of questions and answers followed the reading. We learned that producers generally do not really have much direct interaction with performers, except perhaps on opening night if the show goes well.

Nathan shared that of the many plays and musicals he's performed on Broadway his favorite tends to be whatever he is doing at the moment. He explained that he is currently performing in The Front Page and quipped, "It's about the newspaper business, which I'm sure you'll be fascinated by" (decidedly not a show for children). His "for young audiences" description of his character in the show, Walter Burns, who is a "ruthless, not-so-very-nice man" had the adults chuckling. He went on to explain that he likes to play the "mean guy" because they are always the most interesting and "do not see themselves as mean because they think they have a good reason for what they do".

Devlin taught us about a producer's job in a nutshell; "Find the show, raise the money and know when to close".  Also that having passion for a project is satisfying and fulfilling. He is currently producing an innovative show called White Rabbit Red Rabbit.

Students enjoy reading their signed copies of Naughty Mabel Sees It All.
Thank you Nathan and Devlin for your generous contribution!

We concluded the visit with gifts. Devlin and Nathan signed copies of Naughty Mabel Sees It All for each child before biding us adieu. And that brings us back full circle to the purpose of their visit in the first place, which is to celebrate literacy and the Arts and to encourage more children to enjoy a good book on a stormy day.  I couldn't be more grateful!

Please Darlings, keep an eye out for Naughty Mabel on Nickelodeon soon!

Friday, November 11, 2016

A Broadway Books First Class Visit From Bryce Pinkham

For a time we were all gentleman in top hats thanks to our charismatic
  ringleader, Tony Award Nominee Bryce Pinkham
The performers who find their way to Broadway Books First Class are an exceptional lot. That should come as no surprise. It is a special someone who readily spends an afternoon with a group of young children to share a story and make them feel important.

Bryce Pinkham, who kicked off the second year of my little program celebrating literacy and the arts in New York City, certainly has a gracious spirit and a generous heart.

For anyone lucky enough to see Bryce in A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder, or even catch his performance on the Tony Awards, his humor and talent are evident. It was those qualities, coupled with his penchant for community service that sent Bryce to the top of my visitor dream list.

Bryce is cofounder of an outreach program called Zara Aina (Share Life!).  Zara Aina is "an organization that provides under-privileged students in Madagascar with school supplies and instills self-confidence through the art of theater".  Their mission aligns with the vision of Broadway Books First Class, so I hoped Bryce would accept the invitation I sent to the stage door of the Walter Kerr Theater last November.

In true gentlemanly fashion Bryce responded with a handwritten note stating, "I would love to come join you guys at Broadway Books First Class after Gentleman's Guide closes".

A first grade student introduces herself to a joyful, attentive Bryce Pinkham.  

And so he did!

I prepared the students beforehand by showing them pictures of Bryce and discussing some of the roles he's played on Broadway. His youngest fans were very intrigued by the escapades of his Gentleman's Guide character Monty Navarro as well as his energetic performance in his current show, Holiday Inn (the show runs through the middle of January 2017).

We also came up with a list of questions to ask him about his life growing up and his passion for theater and helping others. We rehearsed our introductions and made top hats in his honor (as an homage to his gentlemanly inclinations). When he arrived we gifted him with his own collapsable top hat, which he graciously wore throughout the visit. What a guy!

Bryce Pinkham reading Be A Friend with ASL interpreter Dylan Geil

Bryce read Be A Friend by Salina Yoon. It is a sweet story of a self-proclaimed "Mime Boy" named Dennis who expresses himself in extraordinary ways. His path is a lonely one until he eventually finds a friend who shares the gift of imagination. Together they teach others that the world is more than what we see. It is also what we can create. We can generate endless possibilities if we can only imagine.

Bryce, a storyteller himself with a vast imagination, sprinkled his reading with exercises designed to engage his young audience. He showed them how to "climb a ladder" and "walk down the street" like Dennis.  A little girl shouted as he walked effortlessly in place but seemingly forward, "That's cool! It looks like the carpet is moving!" And it did!

Throughout the reading the children giggled, gasped, interjected, observed, commented and asked thoughtful questions. They made connections, shared their experiences and knowledge and traveled with Bryce through each page. The energy and joy in his interactions with the children were palpable.

Afterwards, Bryce taught them a mirror exercise, which has become a popular activity ever since. He explained that it requires, "Concentration, listening and team work. Three things you have to have if you want to be on Broadway. Concentration, the ability to listen and the ability to be a team player".  It's also a recipe for success in first grade.  

Bryce teaches the students some mime and theater exercises

After the reading we asked Bryce some questions beginning with, "Is it cool to be in Broadway shows and why?"

His response,
YES!  It is so cool. Every night I get to do what I love. I get to sing. I get to perform and I get to make people laugh. So, performing on Broadway - for me - is me following my dream. When I was your age I wanted to be on Broadway. So every night I go out there I'm very grateful. But it is also really cool because I get a chance to come meet tons of different types of people, like you guys. I would never be here if I hadn't been on Broadway.
They also asked him about Zara Aina and he gave his account of arriving in Madagascar to meet a group of children like them.  He explained how they communicated through gesture and the language of laughter. And our children seized upon the opportunity to teach Bryce some American Sign Language.

Bryce signed a book for each child with the optimistic idiom - Pigs Can Fly 

Our time with Bryce was coming to a close so we presented him with one final gift, a copy of Be A Friend signed by every student. Bryce returned the favor by tirelessly signing copies for all of us.

As he gathered up his things the children surrounded him. They asked for one more exercise, "Can you lift something heavy?" He obliged by teaching them how.

This is how you lift something heavy over your head.

All good things must come to an end. Bryce made his final goodbyes and after many hugs from the children we made our way down to the lobby. While we walked he wondered aloud how he could do more for the kids and how he could provide more support for Broadway Books First Class.

And my mind wandered back to the book.  Only this time I saw it a little differently...

"Bryce was an ordinary man who expressed himself in EXTRAORDINARY ways."

A Thank You card for Bryce Pinkham - "LOVE HIM"

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