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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