Sunday, May 13, 2018

A Broadway Books First Class Visit From Douglas Sills

Broadway in the Classroom!
Tony Award Nominee Douglas Sills with my Pre-K and Second Grade students

The 1997 - 1998 Broadway season ushered in long-running, beloved musicals (THE LION KING, RAGTIME), award winning plays (THE BEAUTY QUEEN OF LEENANE, ART, A VIEW FROM THE BRIDGE), and celebrated revivals (CABARET, THE SOUND OF MUSIC, 1776, THE DIARY OF ANNE FRANK, THE SUNSHINE BOYS) but nothing captured my imagination like THE SCARLET PIMPERNEL.

The Scarlet Pimpernel starred the charismatic, ridiculously handsome Douglas Sills as Sir Percy Blakeney, a dashing English aristocrat with a secret.  The musical, set in 1792 during the early stages of the French Revolution, contains themes of love, betrayal, and redemption wrapped in a life-and-death adventure with a social justice call to arms.

Douglas, as Sir Percy, was at various points in the show "a formidable swordsman and quick-thinking escape artist" and a "dim-witted, foppish playboy" whose self-appointed mission was to rescue innocent victims from the swift slash of Madame Guillotine.

Sardi's portrait
Douglas Sills became the toast of the town in his Broadway debut.

He received a Tony Award nomination for Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Musical as well as Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle Award nominations (he won the Theatre World Award).

I even remember reading the paper and seeing he had his portrait added to the famed gallery of theater notables at Sardi's.

The show had several incarnations on Broadway because, although it evidently had structural problems, fans refused to let it go gently into that final good night. I was one of them.  I attended every artistic reboot and marveled at Douglas' soaring vocals on songs like INTO THE FIRE and the goosebump inducing SHE WAS THERE.  Like every good theater geek I bought the cast recording, took friends to see the show and read the original source material.  And although I may have let myself imagine meeting Douglas and, perhaps, becoming best buds, I never envisioned "that damned, elusive pimpernel" taking part in Broadway Books First Class.  That happened by chance, a happy series of circumstances that allowed our paths to cross and, in turn, confirmed my belief that the universe has my back.

This is a good time to answer one of the questions I get asked most often with regards to the program, which is "How do you get performers to visit?" Sometimes the chain of events is quite short.  I may know the performer or reach out directly via email or handwritten letter sent to the stage door.

In this case (with Douglas) the chain is quite long. It started with Nicole Duncan-Smith (mother of my former first grade student and Broadway performer, Eden Duncan-Smith) who introduced me to Hollie Wright who introduced me to Kim Weild who introduced me to Elizabeth Ward Land.

Elizabeth and I performed My Grown-Up Christmas List at a benefit called Broadway Holiday (she sang, I signed) and she visited the program in Year Two.  Elizabeth was also featured on Broadway in The Scarlet Pimpernel and introduced me to Douglas Sills via email after she learned of my love for that show and my admiration of his talent.

Douglas Sills reading WE'RE ALL WONDERS by R. J. Palacio with ASL interpreter Rick Rubin

It took a bit of time to arrange a visit because Douglas was starring in WAR PAINT with Broadway legends Patti LuPone and Christine Ebersole but on March 20, 2018 Douglas Sills stepped into my classroom!

As soon as he sat down the children questioned him about the stage mechanisms involved with the guillotine. They were very intrigued to learn more about how theater magic makes the audience think heads are falling into baskets. For his part, Douglas was interested in learning more about American Sign Language (ASL).  By the time he left he had a few signs under his belt and even had his own name sign (given to him by a student who is deaf, which is in line with the unwritten, yet understood, rules of Deaf culture).

After introductions (he memorized the name of every student), Douglas shared some childhood pictures. He was amiable, animated, and amused throughout by the children and their questions as he talked about his mom Rhoda (that 60s hair style), the sweet dog his family rescued (named Satan!), his love for his siblings, and his First Grade class picture ("Where is Waldo? Where is Douglas?"). Nobody guessed correctly but everyone had fun trying, including the adults in the room.

Douglas read the beautiful children's book WE'RE ALL WONDERS by R. J. Palacio. He told the children, "The most successful people and the most fun people enjoy reading and talking about reading".  The connection was made between reading and creating art, which is the point of Broadway Books First Class, when he talked about composer, lyricist and producer Frank Wildhorn (THE SCARLET PIMPERNEL, JEKYLL & HYDE).  Douglas even FaceTimed Frank (he didn't answer but we recorded a message for him).

Douglas Sills autographs books for every Pre-K and Second Grade student

Douglas prepared the children for the reading by telling them, "If you close your eyes for a moment and be quiet we are going on a trip together.  We're going to read a book.  Open your eyes and we'll begin".  They were hooked and later, in their thank you cards, many children wrote how much they enjoyed this part of his visit writing, "Thank you for inspiring us and asking us to close your eyes and imagine what's happening inside our mind."  Douglas is a wonderful teacher and got a healthy round of applause when the reading was complete.

Afterwards, he questioned the children on aspects of the book and then they asked him questions about his journey to Broadway - his training, his motivation, and his inspirations. He said, "I think, tell me if you agree, if something is worth doing, it's worth working hard at (the children visibly and/or audibly agree) sometimes the best things are the things you get through hard work, not the things that come easiest." Douglas showed off a bit of his hard work by singing INTO THE FIRE right there in the classroom - and it was spectacular.

FaceTime with Patti Lupone
As we entered into a conversation about WAR PAINT and his famous costars he took out his phone and called (via FaceTime) Broadway legend Patti Lupone!

And SHE ANSWERED!

I may have freaked out a little when he introduced us and may have shouted "I Love You!" into the phone but hopefully, for the most part, held it together.  We all said hi to Patti and her husband as a bit of chaos ensued with the children crowding around the phone to get a better look before saying goodbye.

Then, Douglas settled in to write a personal message and autograph copies of the book for each child. As he did he took his phone out again.  This time he called two-time Tony Award Winner Christine Ebersole!

And SHE ANSWERED!

Good Lord! Christine was just as gracious and kind as Patti, saying hello to the children with a big smile on her face. I've spent a lot of time sitting in the theater enjoying the talents of these two performers so having the opportunity to say hello was a great honor.

It turns out I met three of my theater heroes that morning.  All of them helped me send a message to the 30 students in attendance that reading feeds the imagination, that theater brings people together and that we are all wonders.

WE'RE ALL WONDERS!

Sunday, May 6, 2018

A Broadway Books First Class Visit From Michael Urie

Celebrating the success of Year Two with Broadway Books First Class guest artist Michael Urie

Broadway Books First Class did not spring to life fully formed like the Greek goddess Aphrodite. The seeds of its creation were planted over many years and when the program finally saw the sun in 2015 it had already grown roots.

I credit one encounter with Michael Urie on the night of March 23, 2009 as the first of these.  I had gone to see Celebrity Autobiography at The Triad NYC.  The show was created by my friend - and fellow Linda Ronstadt fan - Eugene Pack.  As Gene's guest I had an opportunity to mingle a bit with the performers. The show has a rotating performing company and Michael Urie was on the bill that night.  His combination of talent, easy charm and boyish good looks is hard to resist.

So, after the show I spoke with Michael and said, "If you ever want to come and read a book to my class let me know".  He said, "Sure" and we both went on our merry ways.  Never mind that we didn't exchange contact information. The invitation was out there - only to sit dormant for the next 8 years!

During that time I worked on my doctoral degree and Michael's star continued to rise. After I graduated I thought back to that night and realized I needed to make coming to my classroom to read a thing. It needed a name, an identity, a structure, a cute little dancing book logo! Once those things were in place the program would have some validity and therefore an invitation would have some immediate follow-through.

When the program was up and running I relied on my network of friends to see if anyone had contact information for Michael. Lo and behold, someone did and a plan was set in motion.

A student introduces herself to Michael Urie in American Sign Language

Michael, luckily, was still on board.  It turns out he was the final guest artist of Year Two, visiting just one day before the end of the school year.  He stepped into a very relaxed, light-hearted atmosphere, which was a fantastic fit for the children's book he read.

I chose a postmodern picture book entitled Snappsy the Alligator: Did Not Ask to Be in This Book! by Julie Falatko and Tim Miller for Michael because, first of all, the name SNAPPSY is ridiculously fun for an alligator.  Also, the main character (Snappsy) is a bit...gleefully dramatic. And I knew Michael would infuse his characterization of Snappsy with the appropriate cheekiness.  He didn't disappoint. He pulled the children into it as well, eliciting feedback, answering questions, encouraging them to dance like chickens (as one does).

The book is setup as a dialogue between Snappsy and the narrator.  At one point Snappsy is arguing with the narrator and tells him to "buzz off!" A surprised student then called out, "Wow! He's being mean to a Broadway actor? Seriously?!" Without missing a beat Michael good-naturedly responded with mock indignity, "I know! He doesn't even know who I am".  It was an incredibly active and interactive reading - thank goodness he is great with children.

Michael Urie reading SNAPPSY alongside ASL interpreter Zulay Maldonado

Michael is starring in The Government Inspector at The Red Bull Theater with another Broadway Books First Class guest artist, Mary Testa. The show is a silly romp of mistaken identity with Michael cast as a vain ne'er do well pulling the wool over the eyes of a gullible town.  It is an over-the-top, giddy, joyful performance.  I attended one evening after school and returned to class eager to share his antics with my students.

We got a lot of play with Michael's opening bit. His character, Ivan Alexandreyevich Hlestakov, is bemoaning his sad state and attempts to end it all when he spots his reflection in the mirror and is quickly enamored by what he sees.  A series of poses and sly smiles follow until a twist of fate occurs and things start looking up.

That moment, in Michael's hands, was deliciously enchanting so I acted it all out for the children. They responded in kind and when Michael visited he recreated the moment and gave a little lesson on the finer points of self-admiration.

In addition to theater - we also found out his favorite show to perform in on Broadway thus far was How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying where he played the role of Bud Frump opposite Nick Jonas - we talked about books!

He told us his favorite book is Oh, the Places You'll Go! by Dr. Seuss because it is a book that resonates differently for him at various times throughout his life. We made the connection to our classroom lessons here by stressing the point that you can read something more than once and each time you do there is an opportunity to catch something you didn't notice previously.

Emerging readers know this. A two-to-four-year-old will ask a parent to read the same book again and again but it's a slightly different story with beginning readers. This has to do with the shift that takes place between listening to books and actually doing the work of lifting the words off the page themselves. It is more complicated than that, obviously, but little reminders of the joys of literary discovery are always a good and welcome message.

To that end, students were given copies of SNAPPSY, signed by Michael.  The mission of Broadway Books Fist Class is to celebrate the Arts and promote literacy. Providing books for the children to read at home after a guest artist visit encourages interaction and excitement for reading. Parents tell me it works! Books are shared and read aloud and given a place of honor on bookshelves and nightstands. Establishing enjoyment around literacy events and good memories of time spent with the written word promotes a love of reading.

Michael Urie signs books for each child

Thank you Michael Urie for ushering out Year Two with a story, a laugh, and a well-mannered pose!

*Michael Urie visited on June 23, 2017.

Sunday, April 29, 2018

A Broadway Books First Class Visit From Aaron Mark

Playwright/Director Aaron Mark surrounded by his Pre-K and Second Grade fans

"SQUEAMISH, SQUEAMISH, SQUEAMISH..."

Setting the stage: Imagine 30 children chanting SQUEAMISH as Alison Fraser settled into her chair for her Broadway Books First Class guest artist visit last month.  The Pre-K and Second Grade students were eager to hear all about her latest theatrical triumph - Alison is currently nominated for several awards recognizing her work, including the Outer Critics Circle Award - in Aaron Mark's one-person horror play SQUEAMISH. During her visit Alison walked them through the overarching themes of the show in child-friendly terms, topping it off with "You actually can have too much of a good thing".

The little ones were fascinated and throughout the conversation brought Alison back to the dark, frightening, exhilarating, heart-pounding mystery evoked by the bloody handprint shown on the poster. She masterfully led the discussion, spending over 10 minutes on the ideas presented in SQUEAMISH.

Children have a desire to be safely scared. They want to push the boundaries, face their fears and know it'll all turn out okay in the end.  We all do. Well, except me.  I lose my shit in a haunted house but even I realize the benefits of fear.

After Alison's visit they still wanted to talk about the show.  They drew SQUEAMISH-inspired pictures and came up with some of their own eye-popping stories. So, I was over the moon when Alison introduced me to Aaron Mark on Opening Night of CHILDREN OF A LESSER GOD.  At the after party I talked with Aaron about the children's reaction to his play and he was intrigued. I extended an invitation to him to come and talk to them about his work. He accepted on the spot!

Snip! Snap! Snip!
Aaron Mark reading THE STORY OF LITTLE SUCK-A-THUMB with ASL interpreter Stephanie Feyne

We decided it would be too challenging to find an appropriate snippet from one of his plays to read aloud so we found the next best thing. He would read three German cautionary tales - THE STORY OF LITTLE SUCK-A-THUMB, THE DREADFUL STORY ABOUT HARRIET AND THE MATCHES and THE STORY OF AUGUSTUS WHO WOULD NOT HAVE ANY SOUP - from STRUWWELPETER (Shockheaded Peter). The second graders were already familiar with suck-a-thumb and the great tall tailor so I knew they could handle them (it turns out they thought the stories were either funny or terribly sad).  After Aaron's reading of poor Harriet (who is reduced to ashes after playing with matches) we had to take a break for a fire drill.  Coincidence?

I couldn't wait to go back to school to tell the young horror show fans that AARON MARK himself was coming to visit them. And their reactions when I did? A gasp, wide eyes, open-mouthed smiles and words of happy disbelief.  A week-long study of Aaron and his work followed as we prepared for his visit.

The children decided on three questions...
1.  How do you come up with your plays without scaring yourself?
2.  How many shows have you written and what was your favorite?
3.  When did you start directing and why?

Photo Credit: Eileen Lograno
Leo asks Aaron a follow-up question, "How do you know it's going to scare people"
Aaron answers, "I've been wrong sometimes." 

We were ready but I sensed that although the students were excited it was tinged with a bit of trepidation. Some children expressed that they thought he might be "creepy" or scary. The dark side of me wanted to tell him to arrive in costume and run into the room laughing BWAHAHAHAHA! But alas, he did not.

As a matter of fact, after he settled into his chair - as Alison did the month prior - we showed them a picture of Aaron in Second Grade. This was a genius move for who could be frightened by adorable little Aaron? The picture set the friendly tone, "He's just like us".  And off we went!

So, how does he come up with plays without scaring himself?  He doesn't! He writes about things that frighten him. After all, we are generally frightened by things we don't understand so facing them head-on is one way to take away their power over us. And when another student asked, "How do you know it's going to scare people?" Aaron said he sometimes gets it wrong. Things he thinks will make the audience cringe in fear is seen as hilariously funny OR something he thinks is funny and no big deal at all has the audience covering their eyes.

This led into a discussion of the writing process. A writer keeps writing, trying out different things, getting feedback from others, seeing what works and what doesn't work and learning from it all. This understanding is something we are trying to instill in our students. As Aaron said, "Writing is rewriting".

Next, Aaron talked a bit about his play EMPANADA LOCA. It was inspired by THE LEGEND OF SWEENEY TODD so once again he had to tread carefully.  Those who could read between the lines caught on to the ingredients of the empanadas but it went over the heads of most of the children (I think).  We even touched upon Greek Mythology with his play ANOTHER MEDEA. His fourth offering in the "scary one-person play" series is on the way!

Photo Credit: Eileen Lograno
A show of gratitude to Aaron Mark

We wrapped up the Q&A by talking a bit about his directing experience and discovering there were five people in the room who have a twin. We ended the visit, as always, with gifts. The children signed a copy of STRUWWELPETER for him and Aaron was the first recipient of a black Broadway Books First Class t-shirt.

Thank you Aaron for spending the morning with us (and for bringing Abby).  And thank you Alison Fraser for the introduction.

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