Sunday, March 12, 2017

Another Broadway Books First Class Visit From Hollie Wright

Hollie E. Wright surrounded by the first grade Firebirds
There are times when saying, "Yes" opens us up to amazing grace and gratitude.

For me, that happened quite literally when I accepted an invitation from Nicole Duncan-Smith to accompany her to Amazing Grace on Broadway. It was a month before Broadway Books First Class premiered with Tony Award winner Gregory Jbara and we spent the day planning its debut.

Amazing Grace is a powerful show that delivers a one-two punch near the end. It left me an emotional mess - so much so that a woman seated several seats away offered me a Kleenex (or three) before the cast took their curtain calls.

Afterwards, I quietly pulled my sorry self together and slowly made my way out of the theater. It was then, on a hot night in early September outside the Nederlander Theatre, that I first met Hollie Wright. Nicole introduced us and the demands of actually speaking broke the walls of my constrained emotions.

I managed a friendly hello but quickly LOST IT while telling her how much I loved her show. Her response? She pulled me in for a hug while her nurturing voice whispered kindly, "Oh, honey".

That night Hollie held and comforted my aching spirit.

That night Hollie became the heart of Broadway Books First Class.

Her visits stand as a testament to my initial impression - she is a beautiful soul.

In my mind, Broadway Books First Class will forever remain synonymous with Hollie's kindness, her inclusiveness and her joy. I hope she remains a perpetual visitor who returns year after year.

The children introduce themselves, in ASL, to Hollie

This year she read Firebird by Misty Copeland. In the book,"Misty Copeland tells the story of a young girl - an every girl - whose confidence is fragile and who is questioning her own ability to reach the heights that Misty has reached. Misty encourages this young girl's faith in herself and shows her exactly how, through hard work and dedication, she too can become Firebird".

Sitting on the floor surrounded by children (some wearing tutus or well-worn Capezios), Hollie made the story personal by sharing stories of her journey as a professional dancer on Broadway and as a teacher at The Alvin Ailey School of Dance.

Hollie Wright reading Misty Copeland's Firebird alongside ASL interpreter Kathleen Taylor

This led into the question and answer portion of the visit wherein the children lifted their last question up in one loud voice with hands raised in sign, "Can you teach us to dance?"

Dance class in First Grade with Broadway performer Hollie Wright 

Without missing a beat Hollie directed their young bodies into rows and began teaching them ballet. A shift had occurred. Suddenly, the oft-times frenetic energy of a first grade classroom reflected the disciplined, mirror-lined walls of a dance studio as Hollie led them through a series of ballet exercises. Each student raising a curved arm, stepping into fourth position and executing a straight-backed pliƩ with quiet concentration. It was rather impressive.

A Thank You card to Hollie depicting our Firebird inspired dance class

Hollie also pulled back the curtain to show the children how a dancer keeps limber and in shape with  textured balls. She passed them around before demonstrating how she uses them to stretch or soothe aching muscles. She related it to building reading muscles and the taking time to develop new skills, which is a good lesson for impatient 6-year-olds.

Demonstrating how a dancer keeps in shape

Hollie then signed copies of Firebird for each child before departing to teach her class at The Ailey School.  Then, the children set about writing thank you cards.

Saying yes on that hot September night in 2015 altered the course of my fledgling program because I met the incredible Hollie Wright. Hollie brought the program to the attention of the talented Amazing Grace family and with one email she piqued the interest of Kim Weild, Oneika Phillips and Elizabeth Ward Land.

Kim Weild then brought on Alexandria Wales, Stockard Channing, Devlin Elliott, Nathan Lane, David Caudle, Anastasia Traina, Scott Cohen and, by extension, Jeremiah Maestas. She also spearheaded the Winter Workshop at PS347, the book How the I Becomes the We and its subsequent performance on The High Line.

It is interesting to witness how the ripples of a simple, "Yes" can create unforeseen momentum.

Thank you Hollie!

Saturday, March 4, 2017

"A Dangerous Book"

The image of the great, tall tailor stepping out of the shadows with shears in hand preparing to cut the thumbs off naughty, little Conrad is darkly intoxicating.

German cautionary tales, such as those represented in Struwwelpeter, provide a powerful commentary when viewed through a sociocultural lens.

Once upon a time children were not considered the precious little gems they are today.  In fact, the fairy tales collected and published by the Brothers Grimm were originally targeted for an adult audience.  The old stories kept things interesting back in the days when families and friends gathered around the hearth to entertain and pass the shadowy hours before retiring into slumber.

Hansel and Gretel 
The settings (an ominous forest), characters (mysterious witches) and storylines (struggles to feed and maintain a family) are familiar aspects of the most enduring stories (Hansel & Gretel, Little Red Riding Hood).

They were also reflective of the times.  The mortality rate for urban children under age five was as high as 66 percent in the late 1600s, it was not uncommon for women to die in childbirth, forests were dangerous and the majority of the population believed in - and feared - witches.

I've embarked upon an exploration of the history of these beloved childhood stories by Charles Perrault (Mother Goose), The Grimm Brothers, Hans Christian Anderson, Marie-Catherine d'Aulnoy and others for a university course I am teaching on Children's Literature.

As I learn more about the beauty and horror in bedtime stories I am grateful I dwell in a professional landscape that allows for research rooted in theory and research based on practical implementation.

I became curious about how children today would react to the darkest of the dark.  They were already fascinated with The Legend of Sleepy Hollow so would they embrace The Story of Little Suck-A-Thumb? Would it be too much?

If you are unfamiliar, check out this video.

I began by acting out the story embodying the great tall tailor who "always comes to little boys that suck their thumbs".  The children giggled and called for more.  That afternoon - and for many days since - they've reenacted the story on the playground.  They also silently ask to read the book during free time by holding up their thumbs and pretending to snip it off.  They even drew pictures.

The Story of Little Suck-A-Thumb

In the end, I suppose children today are undeterred by the warnings presented in Struwwelpeter to be "good at meal-times, good at play, good all night and good all day" or else a terrible fate awaits. thoughtful first grader did quietly comment as he handed the book back to me, "This is a dangerous book".


Saturday, January 28, 2017

A Broadway Books First Class Visit from Elizabeth Ward Land

Glorious songbird Elizabeth Ward Land showers the children
with words, music and love

"Some combinations of words, miraculously, arouse intellectual curiosity, and that is the real magic performed by childhood books." 
Enchanted Hunters by Maria Tatar
Books, like theater, usher us into new experiences through the power of words.  Storytellers have been sharing ideas and imparting lessons from the fireside for generations.  Under the spell of those wondrous words children adventure outside their experience and become empathic observers.  In the long tradition of welcoming the troubadour's song Broadway Books First Class whisks children away to new lands and gently carries them home again.

The Bear and the Piano
That was the message from Broadway veteran Elizabeth Ward Land when she visited first grade this month.  She read The Bear and the Piano by David Litchfield to a rapt audience of 6-and-7-year-old children.

It's a story of longing to "explore the world beyond" and the struggle to stay connected to your roots, your heart.

That is something our guest knows something about.  As an actress and singer Elizabeth has performed in many Broadway and Off-Broadway shows, National Tours and concerts.  Our paths first crossed during her run in City of Angels as I sat "out there in the dark" watching and listening.  They crossed again in The Scarlet Pimpernel (she was in all 3 Broadway versions and I saw every single one) and finally in Amazing Grace the Musical.

The children introduce themselves to Broadway's Elizabeth Ward Land

However, it wasn't until Broadway Director (and BBFC alum) Kim Weild assembled a talented group of performers for Broadway Holiday that I met Elizabeth in person.  During that fundraiser she sang "My Grown Up Christmas List" while I signed.  We hit it off splendidly and I knew she would enrich the lives of my students by surrounding them in words and music.  How wonderful it is that she accepted my invitation.

In addition to the reading, Elizabeth sang us the first song from her mesmerizing CD First Harvest.  It was one of those "you could hear a pin drop" moments as she sang, "There's been a change in me..." beside our ASL interpreter who ensured that all of the children understood the message of the song.

Elizabeth Ward Land sings "A Change in Me" alongside ASL interpreter Sarah Bartow

Once she concluded, the class erupted as the children stood and threw their hands up to applaud or holler approval.  It was a spectacular moment filled with happiness and appreciation.

As always, we asked her some questions about life in the theater. The themes of the shows she's performed gave the little ones quite an education.  In preparation for her visit we learned about the French Revolution and "Madame Guillotine" courtesy of The Scarlet Pimpernel and Amazing Grace led to a discussion of slavery and the transatlantic slave trade.

They found the guillotine most intriguing so naturally their first question was, "In the show The Scarlet Pimpernel how did people get their heads chopped off?"  That question recalls the somewhat dark purpose of children's books in the first place, which was "navigating a child's fears about sleep as a prologue to death" (Tatar, 2009, p. 97).   There is a reason children are fascinated with darkness and death - it is part of growing up and accepting our mortality.

Elizabeth walked them through it unscathed and moved seamlessly on to their next question, "How did you learn to sing so good?"  She shared her tale of vocal lessons and the musicality instilled in her by her mother.  Elizabeth plays the piano, oboe, percussion, guitar and a little ukulele.  Those talents were on display when she performed last year at The Public Theater in Southern Comfort.  And with that we broached another topic - transgenderism.

Signing copies of The Bear and the Piano for each student.
(Book made possible by a donation from The Louis Valentino Jr. Memorial Fund)

The eventful morning ended as it began - with a celebration of words.  We gifted Elizabeth with a copy of the book signed by all of the children and in return, she signed copies for each one of them.

THANK YOU Elizabeth Ward Land for making a difference in the lives of these children, treating them with respect, teaching them about diversity and acceptance, for your words and for your glorious singing!

As Wordsworth put it: "What we have loved/Others will love, and we will teach them how"

"Love her!"


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