Tuesday, August 13, 2019

A Broadway Books First Class Visit From Julee Cerda

Julee Cerda with PreK and Second Grade students

Julee Cerda made her Broadway debut in the 2018 Broadway revival of Children of a Lesser God. She was part of director Kenny Leon's vision to imbue the show with a diverse cast and showcase multiple perspectives. The tagline for this show was "Are you listening?" Its aim, it seemed to me, was to encourage dialogue over sensitive issues surrounding culture, race, (dis)ability, and privilege. The extraordinary cast included my friend and former team teacher, Lauren Ridloff.

I've had the great good fortune to welcome most of the cast (with the exception of Anthony Edwards) into the classroom as guest artists with Broadway Books First Class to extend the conversation started by the show. At school, the children were given a front row seat as they questioned role models (both Deaf and hearing) to better understand themselves and their possibilities.

Children's books are at the center of the visits. It is through them we explore themes, celebrate words, and get to know one another. Julee Cerda chose to read The Missing Piece by Shel Silverstein.

Julee Cerda reads THE MISSING PIECE alongside ASL interpreter Dylan Geil

The Missing Piece - as described on the book jacket - is a "fable that gently probes the nature of quest and fulfillment". It is one of Julee's favorites because of the wonderful, simplistic illustrations and the life lessons contained within its pages. Her joy with the material was evident as she sang the oft-repeated refrain...
Oh, I'm lookin' for my missin' piece
I'm lookin' for my missin' piece
Hi-dee-ho, here I go, 
Lookin' for my missin' piece
At one point in the story the main character finds its missing piece. It fills the triangle-shaped hole where its mouth is (think Pac-Man). It then tries to sing again but the words are now mumbled and difficult to understand. Julee imitated that muffled, incoherent song to the great amusement of the children. In fact, when asked at the end of the school year about their favorite memories, this moment stood out.

Their connection with this small, seemingly insignificant moment brought to mind a quote by Robert Lawson, "No one can possibly tell what tiny detail of a drawing or what seemingly trivial phrase in a story will be the spark that sets off a great flash in the mind of some child, a flash that will leave a glow there until the day he dies."

What are the artistic sparks that ignite a great flash and create a lasting glow?

The message of the book is fairly straightforward, but still leaves some room for interpretation. One take away is that our search for fulfillment brings us closer to ourselves than actually finding the answers we seek. Happiness lies in the quest itself. That is the place where truth and beauty reside. Or perhaps it's telling us we do not need any one else to make us whole - we are fine just the way we are.

Child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim writes in his book, The Uses of Enchantment, that when it comes to fairy tales, its best to let children make meaning for themselves. Otherwise, the stories lose their hold and their power is diminished. I ascribe to that same caution with this modern day fiction. The children can tease the message out for themselves (or not). The good thing is The Missing Piece, like fairy tales, will be there for them as they grow because each child received a copy - signed by Julee - to take home. It is in rereading that they will notice new things and develop new understandings. All as it should be.

Julee Cerda signs a book for a delighted student

The children got to know Julee throughout the visit. When she first sat down she shared that she was very shy when she was a young child. In fact, she would sometimes freeze when someone started talking to her. She didn't find her voice - literally and figuratively - until "much later".  We also learned that she loves acting in comedies because there is an atmosphere of fun that permeates the cast, crew and audience. This revelation led to a few knock-knock and "Why did the..." jokes. They may not all have been winners, but we enjoyed them just the same. A palpable joy filled the room bringing silly smiles to all our faces. That's the power of comedy, folks!

We ended our conversation as it began, with Children of a Lesser God. The students wanted to know more about her character and the fight for social justice. Intertwined with this was a bit of deaf history and advocacy. Issues that touched the lives of the children and their parents. It was interesting to see the small faces become suddenly serious as they sought answers and asked "Why?" Whey were teachers of the deaf traditionally hearing in the past? Why did Lauren's character, Sarah, have to scream on stage? Why did she fight for justice? These questions bring understanding and insight. If Kenny Leon's mission as the director of the play was to encourage conversation, I'd say that mission was accomplished during Julee's visit.

Students ask Julee Cerda a series of questions

A big thank you to Julee for spending the morning with us. We are excited to see where your talent takes you next - hopefully you'll come back to see us again.

Sunday, July 14, 2019

A Broadway Books First Class Visit From Richie Jackson

Richie Jackson visiting with PreK and Second Grade students
"Sometimes it takes just ONE." 
from One by Kathryn Otoshi
Richie Jackson is ONE who makes a difference. His careful nurturing of the collective human spirit and, what I see as a determination to fold the world into his loving embrace, makes me want to up my game. He appears very comfortable with who he is and honest about how he got there. Richie leaves me wondering what more I can do, both privately and publicly, to be a better role model, stand up for others, and be unapologetically me.

It is no surprise that his response, when asked which book he wanted to read during his Broadway Books First Class visit, was One by Kathryn Otoshi. It is a book that literally shouts, "Everyone COUNTS!" That is the message Richie brought with him on a crisp February morning when he visited with our deaf, hard of hearing, and hearing students in preschool and second grade.

Photo Credit: Eileen Lograno
A student introduces himself  to Richie Jackson by fingerspelling his name

Richie and I go way back - over 30 years! We met when we were both students at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts. I remember him as a blonde, floppy-haired, young man full of energy and movement with a great, big, welcoming smile. He seemed to know everyone, was universally liked, and could answer all of my questions about school, the city, and Broadway. I often felt like a small fish in a big pond at NYU, but Richie had - and still has - a way of making those around him feel valued. He takes you in, he listens, and he shows his heart. He was a very good fellow for me to know.

Since those early years he's continued his work in the theater. In fact, Richie was nominated for a Tony Award this year for producing the Broadway revival of Harvey Fierstein's TORCH SONG, which starred another Broadway Books First Class guest artist, Michael Urie. Richie's mom took him to see the original production in the early 80s and it left an indelible imprint on him. It's amazing to think that he brought it back to the same Broadway house over 30 years later.

Richie Jackson reads ONE by Kathryn Otoshi alongside ASL interpreter Cathy Markland

I wanted Richie to share time with the students and was so happy when he accepted my invitation to be a guest artist. After introductions, which included Richie sharing photographs of himself at Age 4 and Age 7, we dove, quite naturally, into a discussion about fear and expectation. There are things children worry about. Things that have to do with growing up and getting older. Things that cannot be controlled. But, Richie told them, when/if they do happen you realize it wasn't really something to worry about in the first place. I think we've all experienced this. As FDR said in his First Inaugural Address, "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself". It's better to place our energies into something more productive, if we can.

It was a perfect introduction to the reading because ONE tells the story of Blue. And Blue has some worries. Richie began...
"Blue was a quiet color. He enjoyed looking up at the sky, floating on the waves, and on days he felt daring - splashing in rain puddles" 
The problem is, there's a bully in this story. I don't want to give it all away but issues are cleverly resolved and we learn a lesson about fear, anger, and acceptance. A lesson that ends with these words, "Sometimes it just takes One".  It invites children to be that one - to step up, conquer fear, and move forward.

Photo Credit: Eileen Lograno
The students ask, "What does a producer do?"

After the reading, the children asked Richie a few questions about being a producer. In addition to Broadway, Richie produced the movie Shortbus and the television series Nurse Jackie. He explained the role of a producer to us. A producer chooses what play or show to do, hires actors, raises money, and figures out how to bring in an audience. He likened the working parts to the operation of a school. The principal is the producer, the teacher is the director, and the students are like the actors. In both situations everyone works together towards a common goal. As the light bulb of understanding went on, a second grader suggested we make the school into a Broadway show.

Richie shared a bit of his story concerning how he became a producer. I love when our guest artists break down the mystery and let the children see the journey before the arrival - the fact that it is a process of amassing understanding and becoming educated in a field. That the hard work unfolds on a daily basis, while keeping your eye on your goals and dreams. Richie started out answering phones for a production company representing Cats and Starlight Express. Over time he created opportunities for himself and became a success because he laid a firm foundation.

Richie Jackson signs copies of ONE for each student

As we were about to move into a bit of gift giving one student raised her hand. She had a question she really wanted to ask because it surrounds an issue she is grappling with in her family. She asked Richie, "How did you become gay?" Now, she knew a little bit about Richie's personal life because we talked about the fact that he has a husband and two children. Richie responded to her saying, "I knew I was gay from as young as I could remember. I knew in my heart that I was gay and I was so happy and it made me feel so special. I never thought I was anything else." She took it in and thoughtfully replied, "So, you were being yourself." Yes, indeed!

With that we gave Richie a few presents - a copy of ONE signed by all of the children and a Broadway Books First Class t-shirt. And, in turn, he signed copies of the book for each child. A wave of acceptance and love washed over us all that morning. As one girl wrote in her thank you note...
"Thank you for reading the book. It showed me a great life lesson."

Thank you cards for Richie Jackson

Saturday, July 6, 2019

A Broadway Books First Class Visit From David Staller

David Staller visits with our PreK and Second Grade students

"No! No, No, No, No, No! Oh, No! Ugh!"

That was my over-the-top reaction when I was told Broadway Books First Class guest artist David Staller was in my classroom. It wasn't that I wasn't thrilled to have him there. I was. It's just that I was down the hall, standing outside the preschool bathroom waiting on my students and unable to make the proper fuss. Welcoming a guest is a big deal. There is fanfare and applause when a guest arrives. David was being robbed of the entrance he deserved.

I anxiously encouraged the children not to dawdle and we made our way back. Upon turning into the doorway of our room I was immediately charmed. Here was David Staller - the celebrated founding artistic director of New York's Gingold Theatrical Group (GTG) and premier interpreter of the works of George Bernard Shaw - sitting crossed-legged on the floor chatting with ASL interpreter Stephanie Feyne! The bright yellow socks visibly peeking out from beneath his pant legs seemed to reflect the glow and warmth of the man himself. His beautiful, open smile welcomed US into the space and set the tone. All was going to unfold exactly as it should.

"Pink cat ears help any social situation"
(Caption by David Staller; Photo by Eileen Lograno)

I joined David and Stephanie on the floor as the preschool children settled in to face us. And then right on cue, the second graders arrived. At this point the children typically introduce themselves, but David had another surprise in store for us. He used ASL (without voice) to say HI, MY NAME IS DAVID. He even has a sign name! The children were visibly impressed, but one child could be heard over the others saying, "I'm so confused. Is he deaf?" Without missing a beat David responded (in sign) NO, I'M HEARING.

He also shared that he was a very shy, nonverbal child. He said a feeling of invisibility sometimes came upon him in his early years. Later in his life he understood and could articulate the importance of being seen and heard. Then he paused and deliberately looked at each child. His purpose shone through - he wanted them to know he saw them. He told us that as he grew older he decided it was time to take off that cloak of invisibility (nod to Harry Potter) and be seen. It was that determination, coupled with fortitude, that brought him into the wonderful world of theater.

Students introduce themselves using ASL

We shared a photograph of David from when he was 4-years-old to highlight not only the fact that, like all adults, he was once a child - a notion young ones always find shocking - but to put a spotlight on possibility. Who would have thought the quiet, curly haired boy in the picture would go on to become a celebrated artist? Yet, it happened. And the children in the room could likewise create their own life stories.
"Everything is wonderful if you enjoy it and you feel creative and you can communicate and you can collaborate and you can be a part of other people being happy and making other people happy." David Staller
David made a bold move when he was just 15-years-old. He left Chicago and traveled to Manhattan to join the prestigious Joffrey Ballet Company. From there he went on to study the cello and perform with one of the greatest cellists of the 20th century, Mstislav Rostropovich. He later tackled Broadway as a singer and actor in the original Broadway production of Evita with Patti LuPone and Mandy Patinkin. Roles in Cabaret and Hello, Dolly! followed, as well as parts in various off-Broadway and regional theater productions. Our cozy chat helped set the stage for his reading.

Photo Credit: Eileen Lograno
David Staller reads THE BEAR AND THE PIANO alongside ASL interpreter Stephanie Feyne.

I asked David to read The Bear and the Piano by David Litchfield. It is a beautiful story about a bear cub who discovers a piano in the forest. He learns to play it and by the time he grows into a big, strong, grizzly his friends have gathered many nights to hear his magical melodies. Eventually, the bear is discovered and whisked away to share his gifts with the world. But applause and adoration are meaningless without friends. He missed home. So, he returns. There is a bit of worry. Had he been forgotten? Of course not! He is greeted with love and welcomed home by his proud friends in an emotional reunion.

It's emotional for me too. I think anyone who leaves the comfort of home to pursue a dream can relate to this story. It also has the added bonus of showing Broadway in the illustrations. The children always take joy in making that connection to our guest artists. Note - This book was also read aloud in the second year of the program by the magnificent Elizabeth Ward Land.

Throughout the reading David stopped to clarify, ask questions, and interact with the students. And as always, I was taken with the beautiful ASL interpretation by Stephanie Feyne, who can often be found interpreting for Broadway shows and Shakespeare in the Park. Together, David and Stephanie made their own magic.

A second grade student asks David a question about Gingold Theatrical Company and directing

As we arrived at the question and answer portion of the visit we realized many of our questions had already been answered quite naturally throughout the morning. When asked why he formed Gingold Theatrical Group his answer reflected his previous responses and mirrored the message of the book...
"I started my own theater company to present plays that would encourage everybody to find their voice...We need to be strong together and to support each other." 
Our visit was brought to a close with a show of gratitude. We gave him a copy of the book signed by all of the children and he then signed copies of the book to give to each student.

Books were provided by the generous donors at DONORSCHOOSE.ORG

David really understood what I hope to achieve with this program and supported it wholeheartedly in word and deed. His visit was a wonderful way to end Year Four of the program. As I look ahead to working with kindergarteners next school year, I embrace David's message of support and community. I look forward to what Year Five will bring.

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