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"

Monday, October 31, 2016

"Ichabod's Head"

So much drama in one picture!
My former team teacher, Oni, visited recently to share one of our favorite Halloween stories with my current crop of first graders.

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow is a riveting story.  It never fails to get the little ones deliciously frightened and humerously freaked out.

The suspense builds until the midnight ride across the bridge near the graveyard on the moonlit night.  The shadow of a figure behind Ichabod's broken-down horse, the intensity with which Ichabod strives to reach safety, the hooves clomping closer and closer until Ichabod turns to witness the horse rear up behind him and upon it...THE HEADLESS HORSEMAN!

A mad dash but it is too late!  In a swift motion the Headless Horseman catapults his pumpkin head toward a terrified Ichabod. An owl hoots.  The wind blows. The church bells ring.  Then, silence.

Notice the labels..."No Head" (very helpful)

In the aftermath the townsfolk are left with a mystery.  What happened to Ichabod?  All that remains is a shattered, smashed pumpkin at the foot of the bridge.

And if anyone knows the true story...they aren't telling (Yes, we are looking at you Brom!).

Saturday, October 29, 2016

Broadway Books Upper Class with Gregory Jbara

Tony Award Winner Gregory Jbara and theater students from BCS448
I had an opportunity to hang with the big kids last week courtesy of Broadway Books Upper Class. This program extends the reach of Broadway Books First Class into the upper grades and kicked off its inaugural session with Tony Award Winner Gregory Jbara. It seemed only fitting that he would be our initial guest because I credit him with lighting the fuse on our little rocket in the first place.

Broadway Books Upper Class started when Kori Rushton, a drama teacher at Brooklyn Collaborative and the Artistic Director of IRT Theater in Greenwich Village, approached me about expanding and adapting my guest artist series for older students. This new incarnation replaces the children's book read aloud with a series of in-depth questions about the life and loves of a theater professional. Guest artists are also invited to perform a monologue, song or scene for - or with - the students.

Gregory Jbara accepted the invitation to perform by bringing along a script from his long-running CBS hit Blue Bloods. He read a scene between his character, Garret Moore, and the New York Police Commissioner played by Tom Selleck with a delighted student.

Tony Award Winner Gregory Jbara reads a scene from Blue Bloods with a BCS drama student
As the scene unfolded I glanced around the room to take in the faces of this rapt audience. It was very interesting to view these high school students through my first grade teacher lens. I generally dwell in the 6-year-old mindset so it intrigued me to project the fresh, open personalities of my students forward into the angsty teenage years.

There was one young man who could not contain his excitement for Greg's visit or his sincere interest in theater. He was charming in his gratitude for this high profile visitor and expressed this in his words and demeanor.

Then, seated next to me there was a student trying hard not to appear engaged. He sat slouched with his hoodie pulled over his head and his chin resting on his fist. He appeared to be the high school student who is a bit too cool for all of this. Only his eyes gave him away. He watched and listened intently throughout the visit. He may have even smiled.

Next, there were the two students who seemed to really like each another. Perhaps they were dating.  They caught one another's eye throughout Greg's talk and there was an obvious connection between them. Their quiet smiles and meaningful looks gave an indication of shared expereince and I just knew they would be talking about this visit later.

And there was the confident student who had it all together. She appeared to be the respected leader of the class. Their voice. She kept things on track and ushered us into the Q&A portion of the morning.

Gregory Jbara answering questions in a blackbox theater room
The students attentively listened to Gregory Jbara as he responded to their thoughtfully prepared questions.
  • Has a moment of weakness ever affected your life?
  • Who was your first heartbreak?
  • When did you go though a big change in your life? What was the before and after?
  • What persuaded you to become an actor?
  • What was your favorite show you ever performed in?
  • Have you ever experienced any discrimination when auditioning for a role?
They asked 22 questions in all. With each answer we were treated to the inside scoop of the Broadway rehearsal process (Dirty Rotten Scoundrels), the Tony Awards (Billy Elliott the Musical), the audition process (Victor/Victoria, Chicago), how a performer balances life and work (the challenges of saying, "No"), how decisions are weighed and made by a professional actor and what inspires someone to live a life upon the wicked stage.

We had our own little private Inside the Actors Studio conversation and it was riveting. I saw how adapting my Broadway Books series for older students allowed for deep conversations that wouldn't fly in first grade. This extension felt like the perfect compliment to BBFC.

The drama students are now going to create a monologue (or theater piece) to perform inspired by the answers Greg gave to their questions.

There are many take-aways from an experience like this and those lasting impressions depend on the individual. For me, what sticks is when Greg talked about positivity. He described himself as a positive person with childhood memories of being loved and supported. It speaks to me because I relate to it in a personal way.

My experiences and outlook mirror those he described. I believe Greg's upbringing allows him to be a man who can now extend himself to others by giving back to the community in ways such as Broadway Books First Class. And with that in mind, it pushes me further in trying to create a safe, loving environment for the students in my class, so they can become adults who pay it forward like Gregory Jbara.


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