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!"

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!

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