Saturday, September 15, 2018

Viola Davis Takes a Bow with Beloved Teddy Bear, Corduroy


This is exciting!

The charming children's book Corduroy by Don Freeman was originally published in 1968.  I discovered this cuddly bear when I started teaching and since then Corduroy and its sequel, A Pocket for Corduroy, have become permanent, cherished editions to my classroom library.

A few days ago I read that Emmy, Tony and Academy Award Winning actress Viola Davis had written a "beautifully illustrated tale with a classic feel". I ordered a copy of Corduroy Takes a Bow that day and it does indeed have that "classic feel".

I am particularly excited about this title because it is perfect for introducing the theater to the young children involved with Broadway Books First Class. At the start of each year - the program is entering Year Four - I use children's books to promote discussions about the theater.

The book Backstage Cat has been my anchor text because it highlights the many, many people who must come together to make a show happen.

As the cat wanders around the stage he encounters dressers, stage managers, lighting guys, prop masters and his own leading lady. Children learn everyone's role and come to understand the importance of each member of the production team.

Corduroy Takes a Bow offers a slightly different perspective than Backstage Cat. Instead of starting backstage, Corduroy enters the theater as an audience member. This allows children to feel the excitement of seeing the marquee, exploring the magnificent lobby, being ushered to a seat, and  reading the Playbill.

It also lets us glimpse into the orchestra pit, in the wings with props, costumes and scenery, dressing rooms, and ultimately, on the stage in front of an audience. Corduroy Takes a Bow ends with Corduroy's owner, Lisa, putting on a play for Corduroy in her bedroom. It is here, once again, that the imagination is free to soar. That may be the greatest gift of live theater. It is magical because we are free to take flight together.

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

Year 23!

Good Lord!

Today is the start of my 23rd year as a teacher.  It's thrilling and exhausting but the light has never dimmed, the passion remains. Although the NYC Department of Education didn't make life easy today.  We were given half a day to set up our rooms.

That includes moving all of my stuff from my old classroom into a new classroom, which is a lot after 22 years. It is setting up, cleaning up, cleaning out, SHAMPOOING OUR OWN RUGS (or rather the rugs I inherited, which are a filthy, stained atrocity), hauling out large pieces of unwanted furniture, contacting parents, planning for the week, and making things presentable to welcome the children tomorrow.  All without air conditioning or windows that opened on a hot city day that saw temperatures rise to above 90 degrees.

The good news is...the room is huge and I have a very big closet. Today we got the basic layout in place and in the coming days will add those special touches that say, "Magic happens here".






Saturday, August 11, 2018

Story Time in American Sign Language

Photo Credit: Keren Messer
"WHO'S THAT TRIPPING OVER MY BRIDGE?" roared the Troll

Every so often I find myself benefiting from the kindness of providence, wherein she allows most of the elements of my happy place to converge. This happened on the morning of July 28, 2018 as an exquisite blend of friendship, children's books, American Sign Language (ASL), and teaching came together on The High Line.

The High Line is a beautiful garden trail that spans 1.45 miles of the old elevated railway tracks on Manhattan's West Side. This public park often offers exciting cultural events and family programs to build community, support the Arts, and inspire the imagination.

I'd heard people talk about it over the years but it seemed more of a distant fantasy land than a real place. It was "somewhere over there" (motioning westward), a conjecture I wasn't sure I was buying. But, it exists! And I am fortunate that I find myself woven into its magical tapestry.

My first experience performing on the High Line was during the Culture Shock Festival in 2016.  An homage to that endeavor can be found in the artwork for the poster promoting Sing! It's a Family Festival (my likeness is sitting cross-legged between the letters N and G above the word SING with Oni and Mylo beside me).

I was contacted by the good folks in the programming department to create a story telling event in ASL for young children. As I fashion myself a somewhat hyper, modern day Mister Rogers I jumped at the opportunity. I enlisted my friend and former team teacher, Oni, to join me in the 30-minute program.

We used the story of The Three Billy Goats Gruff to teach some basic signs, showcase elements of ASL that must be conveyed through repeated movement and emphasis (e.g., the difference between how each of the Billy Goats Gruff eats), and show how to incorporate sound and vibration into ASL story telling.

Photo Credit: Rachel Watkinson
"First the youngest Billy Goat Gruff decided to cross the bridge."

We began by reading the Paul Galdone version of the story and followed it up by welcoming audience members to participate in the action. Our adorable family of hungry goats and the unwelcoming troll had no problems using their new sign language skills to reenact the tale.

Afterwards, we all bowed together with arms raised and hands waiving in applause for a job well done.

UPDATE: I did not know it at the time but we got a mention in The New York Times with an article entitled 8 Things to Do With Your Kids in N.Y.C. This Weekend!

Monday, July 23, 2018

A Broadway Books First Class Visit From Julie Halston

Julie Halston with children in Pre-K, First and Second Grades

So...

"Do you want to see a video of the actress playing Martha Stewart?"

We were already a few cocktails into the evening when my friend Winston asked me this and although I was feeling "a little torchy... a little chanteusey" (i.e. hoping to gather around the piano) I went with the flow. Winston was rehearsing a show he created for the Connecticut Gay Men's Chorus called A CONNECTICUT CHRISTMAS. It allowed the audience a satirical peek inside a Christmas Eve fête at the Stewart compound where all manner of hilarity and hijinks ensues. For the comedy to land Winston needed a comedic actress who could pull off a bedazzled, bewitching, and ultimately bedraggled Martha.

After dinner I refilled my Manhattan, grabbed a large throw pillow, and sat on the hardwood floor in front of the television. I popped in the VHS tape and with somewhat dubious expectations, pressed play. A woman stepped into the spotlight, took the microphone and said, "So...".  It was as if she were already in the middle of a conversation and I thought, "If I want to keep up I had better pay attention". For the next hour I didn't take my eyes off of her.

That was my introduction to Julie Halston!

(Photo Credit: Eileen Lograno)
A second grade student introduces herself to the Divine Miss Julie

That was in 1996. Twenty years would go by before we'd meet face-to-face. By that time Julie had appeared on Broadway in a slew of shows including HAIRSPRAY, GYPSY, THE MAN WHO CAME TO DINNERON THE TOWN, TWENTIETH CENTURY, THE WOMEN, ANYTHING GOES, and YOU CAN'T TAKE IT WITH YOU.  She earned Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle Award nominations, received four MAC (Manhattan Association of Cabarets & Clubs) Awards for her solo comedy performances, wrote a book entitled MONOLOGUES FOR SHOW-OFFS, stole the show with her hilarious performance as Bitsy von Muffling on SEX AND THE CITY, appeared in feature films (ADDAMS FAMILY VALUES, A VERY SERIOUS PERSON), and founded THEATRE-IN-LIMBO with Tony Award nominated playwright and drag legend Charles Busch.

I was fortunate to see Julie - who Charles Busch calls his muse - perform in several of his plays including THE DIVINE SISTERTIMES SQUARE ANGEL, and a reading of RED SCARE ON SUNSET. It was after a performance of THE DIVINE SISTER at Bucks County Playhouse in August 2016 that Charles and Alison Fraser (Tony Award nominee for ROMANCE/ROMANCE and THE SECRET GARDEN) introduced us. They had both been guest artists with Broadway Books First Class and talked it up to Julie. I was thrilled to welcome her aboard but it was almost 2 years before we were able to schedule her visit (it was definitely worth the wait).

(Photo Credit: Eileen Lograno)
Students pass around Julie Halston's Second Grade class picture

Miss Halston may be adept at broad, bawdy comedy but boy, oh boy, is she ever a class act! She arrived for her visit with the preschool, first and second grade students dressed elegantly in a smart sweater/skirt combo. She brought along a photograph of herself in second grade and the children had a great time chatting with her about her elementary school experience.

Believe it or not she was terribly shy as a youngster. Eventually her mother enrolled her in a summer acting program to help break her out of her shell and that was the beginning of a new trajectory. Growing up brings changes. In time, the issues that haunt us in elementary school become simply memories.

This is a good thing for a somewhat shy, somewhat awkward first or second grader to know.

(Photo credit: Eileen Lograno)
Julie Halston reading THE BAD MOOD AND THE STICK alongside ASL interpreter extraordinaire Cathy Markland

Julie has a very engaging comedic delivery that I knew would be a terrific match with Lemony Snicket's writing style in THE BAD MOOD AND THE STICK. The book shows how we can all easily fall into a disagreeable state and how that cloud of irritation lingers for a bit before descending upon another unsuspecting soul. It is told with humor (there is a large man, named Lou, in his underpants) and old-school illustrations by Matthew Forsythe.

After the reading she continued the conversation by asking the children what puts them in a bad mood. They said, "Fighting with my sister, taking a bath, when people steal from me, and when someone doesn't let me play with them." Conversely, she also asked, "What puts you in a good mood?" The little charmers responded with, "Being at school, being with my teachers, being in a play, being with friends, the beach, and going crazy!"

It is exceedingly brilliant watching the guest artists interacting with the students. The children all want to be heard and seen so things can become very lively. Julie joyfully kept them on track while keeping the conversation moving to favorite foods. I think all of the adults were surprised to learn sushi was number one. When Julie said sushi wasn't an option when she was growing up one student good-naturedly called out, "Curse the old days!" (Everyone's a comedian!)

(Photo Credit: Eileen Lograno)
A student asks Julie, "How do you know people are going to laugh and how do you know its funny?"

Speaking of comedy...

The children wanted to know how she knows a joke will land. The truth is, you don't. You put it out there, finesse it, rework, and tweak until it either gets a laugh or you scrap it. And sometimes laughs come in unexpected places. Obviously not all of them can be winners like this gem shared by a second grader, "What does a volcano eat for lunch?" Answer: "Ash potatoes!" (I'm here all week - Don't forget to tip your server.)

Julie Halston signs copies of THE BAD MOOD AND THE STICK

In the end, it is the things we say yes to that make a difference. For Julie it was saying yes to acting classes when she was 11 years old. It was saying yes to leaving behind a well paying job on Wall Street to pursue a dream. It was saying yes to forging a partnership with Charles Busch. It was saying yes to inspiration, laughter and hard work. And it was saying yes to my invitation to come share a morning with an extraordinary group of children that made a difference in their lives.

For me, it was saying yes all those years ago to Winston's question, "Do you want to see a video of the actress playing Martha Stewart?" And I am so glad I did!

(Photo Credit: Eileen Lograno)
These faces are too happy to be in a Bad Mood!

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