Sunday, January 14, 2018

Theatre Lab


It's been a busy time with some fantastic, unexpected developments sprouting from Broadway Books First Class.

The latest news is that Ali Stroker (Spring Awakening, Glee) is leading a Theatre Lab for the children in third, fourth and fifth grades. We met with all of them on Friday to explain the program and gauge student interest.

Ali shared her idea for the 6-week workshop and sang/signed The Song of Purple Summer from Spring Awakening, which hooked them.

Ali's decision to sign was a conscious one, designed to honor the background of the students (most are Children of Deaf Adults) and show respect for Deaf culture. The mission of Theatre Lab incorporates those aims while providing a professional atmosphere for the children to explore emotions, learn about theater and have fun.

It's an incredible opportunity and before we left almost all of the students signed up to participate.

We begin Tuesday.

Language Arts Journal


An article I cowrote with Dr. Molly Ness for the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) journal Language Arts is now available!

The article, entitled PERSPECTIVES ON PRACTICE: Books and Theater Arts Take Center Stage for Deaf and Hearing Children in the Early Grades, describes my program Broadway Books First Class.

It also highlights and includes input from guest artists Gregory Jbara, Charles Busch, Alison Fraser, Hollie Wright, Eden Duncan Smith, Devlin Elliott, Julianne Moore, Stockard Channing and Nathan Lane.

It is exciting to spread the word about the program and hopefully inspire other educators to use their available resources to promote things they are passionate about, which for me is literacy development, children's books and theater.

Sunday, December 31, 2017

A Broadway Books First Class Visit From Charles Busch

The Divine Charles Busch brings some Old School GLAMOUR to BBFC
There are a few things I've come to learn about playwright, performer and Drag Legend Charles Busch.

He is terribly clever. He delivers a line like nobody's business. He can command a room with the slightest movement. And his heart is as big as Susan Hayward's performance in I'll Cry Tomorrow.

All of this makes him a perfect fit to entertain and enlighten a classroom of elementary school children. The juxtaposition of bravado and tenderness plays well with young children who are required to navigate the complex social structures of school. This is when they build friendships, not always based on commonalities but predicated on necessity, proximity or boredom.

Charles understands that childhood can be tricky and that sometimes it takes a while to come to terms with who we are and what life has placed at our feet. These are not always things we speak about directly but this is where the term "being a role model" comes into play. We teach by example. We listen. We see. We acknowledge. We let children know they'll find their way through it all because we are living proof.

Charles Busch reading UNLOVABLE by Dan Yacarrino alongside ASL interpreter Stephanie Feyne 

This is the second time Charles joined Broadway Books First Class as a guest artist. The first time he read the cautionary tale The Spider and The Fly and shared stories with my first graders. This time he visited with some pre-k and second grade students to read Unlovable by Dan Yaccarino. Unlovable tells the story of a pug named Alfred who is teased mercilessly and called "unlovable" until, one day, he finds someone just like him. In the book it is another pug but the message, of course, goes deeper. The book selection was inspired by the question-and-answer session Charles had with the students during his first visit.

Charles wrote about that visit on Facebook and has graciously given permission for me to include a bit of it here.
One of the children asked me when I started acting and writing. I explained that it was around their age. I told them I had a rather lonely childhood and always felt different from the other kids and when I was grown up I found a group of friends who also felt alone and different and we formed our own group.  Each person was so interesting and unique that I was inspired to write parts for them to show how wonderful they were and we put on plays together. For the first time in my life, I truly had friends who wanted to play with me and people came from all over to see us. They got it.
The children got it this time as well. I am always curious how the reverberations of these visits will play out in a child's life.

And like last time, the children were fascinated to learn how Charles uses makeup to create the look of his female characters, such as Irish O'Flanagan in Times Square Angel.

Having fun with false eyelashes!

At the children's request, Charles brought along some false eyelashes, a bangle and a boa. Charles performed a little mini-transformation right before our eyes and afterwards got down on the floor with the children and shared the goods. 

Before long there were giggles and guffaws as the false eyelashes became a mustache, a beard and even a third eye. The children seemed to understand his explanation about why he performs the female roles in his plays - it is a way to step outside of himself to find freedom of expression (although these days he is becoming more comfortable performing the male roles). 

After all, how is it any different from the boy in my class who comes in every morning and puts on the police uniform? Children understand the need to step into other roles, to become someone other than themselves for a time whether it be to work out their place within familial power dynamics (e.g. playing mommy and telling others what to do), societal power dynamics (e.g. a cop giving a ticket or arresting someone) or playing out relationships they want to be true (e.g. "You are my sister").  

All of these manifestations show us to be like musicians playing the same song but with different pitches and chords. And that is where we learn to embrace diversity and play in harmony with one another. We are more alike than we are different but our differences should be celebrated. 

A second grade student asks Charles to reread his favorite page
"Squawk, Unlovable!"

As we handed out copies of Unlovable - signed by Charles - the children sat on the rug to read alone, in pairs or in small groups. Some mimicked the way Charles gave life to the characters and even asked him to read parts again.

Others had more questions or wanted to practice his name sign. Charles describes it as such, "For Charles I make a C with my hand and cup the side of my face and for Busch I pat the bottom of my hair like I'm styling it." (In Deaf culture name signs are given by someone who is Deaf or hard of hearing and, for someone who is hearing, a name sign signals acceptance into the Deaf community. Name signs are unique to each individual and relate to an aspect of your appearance or personality. Charles has an amazing name sign!)

That afternoon the children wrote out a bunch of thank you cards for Charles illustrated with eyelashes, pugs, flaming-haired chanteuses and words of encouragement and gratitude. I will end this post with one card written by Leo, "Dear Mr. Busch/Charles Busch: Thank you for everything that you did. And you can make a play out of all that.  THANK YOU!!"

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

A Glimpse into a Broadway Books First Class Event

Here it is, boys!

Here it is, world!

Here's a little glimpse into a Broadway Books First Class guest artist visit!

I've been wanting to create a short video to showcase the program for some time so that folks who are interested can see what takes place during one of these events.

Happily, I was fortunate enough to discuss this with professional film editor Jamie Kirkpatrick (My Friend Dahmer).  Jamie recorded Ali Stroker's visit this past November and edited together a short film capturing the excitement of the occasion. 

Our next collaboration hopes to showcase the professional theater artists who've visited thus far.  The roster of generous performers is growing and I celebrate each and every one.


Monday, December 11, 2017

A Broadway Books First Class Visit From Ali Stroker

"Make Your Limitations Your Opportunities"
Guest Artist Ali Stroker with the Pre-K and Second Grade students

Once upon a time, when Broadway Books First Class was merely a twinkle in my eye, I imagined facilitating simple, low-key guest visits for my students. Of course, that was never really the case as we welcomed administrators, guests and - most importantly - ASL interpreters from the start. Over time the visits have expanded to include more children and more adults, so that I now find myself playing the role of event planner.

Actress and singer Ali Stroker's visit was an event indeed! (We even had exquisite "pre-show" music from Esther Kim of Tokyo & the Boy!)

Ali Stroker made her Broadway debut in the 2015 Deaf West Theater revival of Spring Awakening.  She's also performed at Lincoln Center, the Kennedy Center and New York's Town Hall. Television audiences recognize her from the hit shows Glee and Glee Project. Her guiding principle of "Making Your Limitations Your Opportunities" helps educate, entertain and energize others.

Ali and I selected the book The Gold Leaf by Kirsten Hall and Matthew Forsythe for her reading. It is a story of longing, tranquility, beauty and loss told through descriptive language and muted color. In the book, forest animals discover "something most unusual" in a gold leaf that shines and sparkles.

Inspired by the richness of the illustrations and story setting we created an autumnal wonderland in our classroom to mirror the theme of the book.

This meant a trip for me to Michael's craft store to purchase leaves and branches and an outdoor excursion for the children to gather fallen foliage.

We painted the leaves with gold acrylic paint and coated them with Mod Podge. The idea was that we would all toss our leaves in the air before Ali read so that as the words of the book washed over us, we'd be surrounded by leaves of every color, including the eponymous gold ones.

                                             Photo Credit: Eileen Lograno

Joyously throwing autumn leaves on a count of 1, 2, 3!

Being a deliciously sneaky event planner, I also had a surprise up my sleeve for Ali. I arranged for the author of The Gold Leaf, Kirsten Hall, to attend the event. I introduced the two talents after Ali read, but just before I did the children had a surprise of their own. Kirsten wrote about what transpired...

"The kids threw leaves in the air to begin Ali's reading. Only a (lucky, envied) few caught gold leaves as they fell. When the story was over those few kids who had caught the gold leaves surprised us all by getting up and approaching Ali to give HER their gold leaves. All on their own volition, all in the spirit of the book. The entire experience was a golden reminder of the many things we all have vs don't have, what matters vs what doesn't, and how not having can sometimes be the bigger gift."

Students give gold leaves to Ali Stroker after she read The Gold Leaf

Afterwards, Ali shared how she fell in love with the theater as a 6-year-old girl because it allowed her to express herself in a way that was otherwise unavailable to her. The joy of performing offset the difficulties she endured after being hurt in a car accident at Age 2.

Ali is the first person in a wheelchair to perform on Broadway, which she said was a big reminder to her that we need to create more opportunities for people living with disabilities. It was a rather powerful thing to watch a restless, rowdy group of leaf-throwing children quietly focus on the message behind Ali's words. And it was even more impressive to witness them transfixed by her beautiful singing voice. (You can watch her singing "Be a Lion" by clicking the song title.)  

Ali sings Be a Lion from The Wiz alongside ASL interpreter Dylan Geil

Gifts and hugs and a bit of chaos followed as Ali and Kirsten autographed books for each child. Books were funded by my friends who supported a DonorsChoose project to ensure that each child gets a copy of the books read during the Broadway Books First Class visits.

It was heartwarming to see the preschool and second grade children sitting together on the rug to read and talk about the story or the illustrations. I heard from one parent the next day who shared that her son wanted her to read the book three times before he went to bed that night!

Ali Stroker and Kirsten Hall singing copies of The Gold Leaf

Farewell is not goodbye.  Ali is interested in setting up some theater classes or a workshop at our school. We are meeting later this month to discuss it.

"And then a mighty roar/Will start the sky/To cryin'/But not even light'ning/Will be frightening my lion/And with no fear inside/No need to run/No need to hide/You're standing strong and tall/You're the bravest of them all"

Ali is a lion!

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