Monday, December 31, 2018

Aladdin on Broadway!

"You ain't never had a friend like me!"

A few weeks ago I sat in Broadway's beautiful New Amsterdam Theater surrounded by my former students watching an ASL interpreted performance of Disney's ALADDIN. As the show unfolded on the stage, my gaze often fell upon the smiling, rapturous faces of the children enveloped in theater magic. Each child sitting comfortably beside Mom or Dad with expressions of open-mouthed awe or playful giggles as they bopped along in their seats to the thump, thump, thump of the orchestra.

For most of them - children and adults - this was the first time experiencing the color, energy, and razzle-dazzle that is the "spectacular spectacular" of Broadway. At intermission the children ran up to give me hugs and thanks because the evening would never have happened without Broadway Books First Class. We all gathered for this performance as an extension of Jonathan Freeman's guest artist visit back in October 2017.

Students gather around Jonathan Freeman in October 2017

Jonathan plays Jafar in the Broadway musical. He also voiced the role in Disney's 1992 animated blockbuster. He worked with me to help realize one of my dreams for the program, which was getting the children to a Broadway theater to fully make the connection between the classroom visits and the work our guests do. The children watched in wonder at Jonathan's transformation as Jafar and felt great pride when he shot us a smile and a wave during the curtain call. We all are indebted to this thoughtful man for making the evening possible.

Students gather in front of the stage curtain at ALADDIN in December 2018

My teaching philosophy has always begun with the belief that my first priority is ensuring that my students look forward to coming to school every day. From that starting point we can create a positive learning environment that incorporates mutual respect and trust. It is from there that lasting memories are made. I have no doubt that this experience will live on in the minds of these children and I cannot wait to see where the program takes us all in 2019.

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

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


"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 fĂȘte 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!

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

A Broadway Books First Class Visit From Jeremiah Maestas

Jeremiah Maestas shares laughs and Shakespeare with First Grade

I don't remember Shakespeare making an appearance in my childhood.

I vividly remember Piglet and Pooh, Laura and Mary Ingalls, and Curious George and the Man with the Yellow Hat but I have no recollection of Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet and Ophelia or Beatrice and Benedick. They didn't appear in my consciousness until I started acting in my teenage years.

Does that matter? Is that important? I guess that depends of your perspective.

Linda Ronstadt says she cannot sing anything with authenticity that she hadn't heard before the age of ten. It was the varied musical influences of her youth that fueled her interests as a professional singer. If it wasn't played - or playing - in the family living room all those years ago there was a disconnect that left no space for comfortable familiarity, so music outside of those parameters felt false if attempted.

I felt that way about the Bard. In college I was cast in Shakespearean roles but found no joy in them.  I hated the overwrought overacting of my fellow fledgling performers as they attempted to sound exactly like their idea of Shakespeare. To me, they sounded phony, pretentious, and boring - acting students full of themselves with a "look at me" attitude that was disconnected from feeling or urgency.

For my part, I felt the fool because I'm not British! And I thought the only folks with any claim on these roles were the blokes across the pond (I had a lot to learn). I never lasted. I dropped out of Henry V and Romeo and Juliet (although I would have stayed if cast as Paris, the only Shakespearean role with which I felt an affinity).

In retrospect, there must have been quite a large number of young actors who were unacquainted with Will in their childhoods - either that or they were just terrible actors. It took Shakespeare in Central Park, love affairs with Sir Laurence Olivier and Kenneth Branagh, and lots of exposure to finally let me see the joy and ease of the plays for the people.

So, to answer the question above, not meeting Shakespeare in my childhood did matter.  It was important in my case. Childhood introductions to the Arts, in all forms, is always important.

A first grade student fingerspells his name for Jeremiah Maestas

I had all of this in mind as I prepared my first graders for a Broadway Books First Class guest artist visit from actor Jeremiah Maestas. Jeremiah's resume is chock full of Shakespearean roles. He's performed in Macbeth, Much Ado About Nothing, Romeo and Juliet, and As You Like It (among others). He has a comfort and connection to the material that welcomed my young students into the words and works of Shakespeare. Jeremiah introduced my first graders to William Shakespeare and therefore, set the stage for them to find comfort and a sense of ownership in his words.

He also introduced the children to a book he loved when he was a child entitled "There are Rocks in my Socks!" Said the Ox to the Fox written by Patricia Thomas. This was another first for the program. It marked the only time a performer has suggested reading a book (other than one that he or she has written themselves). Although I always ask, I usually - and happily - select them.

Again, it was those childhood connections that created a space from which Jeremiah was able to invite the children into his memories of when he first heard the book. He described himself as a Colorado farm boy at a school book fair listening to the librarian skillfully play with language - the rhymes, the silly words.

Students move in closer to get a better look

He was drawn into the rhythm of her storytelling that seemed so relatable to his own experiences with animals. That feeling of laughter and familiarity wrapped in a straightforward message about "not making things too complicated when you have problems in your life" was one he wanted to share. And those happy memories had the desired effect of drawing the children into this adventure - such is the power of setting the stage for reading with honesty, love and delicious anticipation.

It didn't take long - the first page, in fact - before the children were on their feet to get a closer look at the book. This read aloud quickly became a dialogue as Jeremiah stopped to highlight the illustrations or ask questions to push their thinking. Several times he even had them recount the events, which works well with our first grade learning objectives.

Typically, I steer clear of rhyming books because it always seems something gets lost in the translation from English to ASL. Through the years though I am learning that it is a mistake to eschew authors like Dr. Seuss and others who play with language in inventive ways. I was once again reminded of this as I watched the ASL interpreters create parallel explanations of each sentence through visual referencing in space. Even without the rhyme you can retain the whimsy and the message. And I was reminded again that it is not my right to edit or remove anything from the eyes of my students simply based on hearing status.

Jeremiah Maestas surrounded by inquisitive first graders

After the reading we returned to Shakespeare. The children asked, "What was your favorite Shakespeare play to perform and why?" Jeremiah told them one of his favorites is Macbeth ("a little bit of a scary one"), which he performed at Lincoln Center. That, along with A Midsummer's Night Dream, for its magical elements, are nearest and dearest to his heart. He had them at scary and magical! One student asked if he could subscribe to Shakespeare on YouTube!

Jeremiah told us that he wanted to become an actor because his first grade teacher took him to see plays and he was hooked. He wanted to become a storyteller on the stage where anything can happen.

His visit brought home to me the great privilege and responsibility educators and parents have to introduce art, music, theater, dance and stories to our children. Creative expression, individuality, and magic reside there - places that become harder to reach as we grow up.

Thank you Jeremiah for a wonderful visit!

Saturday, June 30, 2018

A Broadway Books First Class Visit From Lauren Ridloff and Joshua Jackson

Stars from the Broadway Revival of CHILDREN OF A LESSER GOD celebrate language, literacy and learning with students in Pre-K and Second Grade 

I never imagined when I started Broadway Books First Class three years ago that I would be welcoming my former team teacher and friend, Lauren Ridloff, as a guest artist. And I certainly could never have imagined she would be accompanied by the handsome, affable star of The Mighty DucksDawson's Creek, and The Affair, Joshua Jackson! Yet, here we are.

2018 Broadway Revival
Lauren made a huge splash on Broadway this season in Children of a Lesser God. She earned Outer Critics Circle, Drama League and TONY AWARD! nominations for her performance as Sarah Norman Leeds and became the darling of publications like The New York Times. Everyone was enthralled with this woman who, as Variety put it, "comes out of nowhere to knock us off our feet".

But, she did have a life before all the attention and accolades. Once upon a time Lauren used to dwell in that proverbial land of "nowhere" with me. Together we taught kindergarten and first grade at PS347 in Room 201 for 9 years and, as I have written in many blog posts, she has always been fabulous.

So, you see, she was really never "nowhere" after all. She was contributing to the development of young minds as an outstanding educator, a fierce defender of young children and a perfect partner - first as a teacher and then as a wife and mother. However, this new chapter allows her to leave a lasting impact and serve as a positive role model on a vastly broader scale.

Of course, Joshua Jackson has been a role model since he stepped on the scene in 1992 with The Mighty Ducks. His character, Charlie Conway, is the kid every parent wants to call their own. He is ethical, empathetic and kind. I know this because we watched the movie in preparation for his visit and I've laughed my way through a lot of quacking ever since. When Josh stepped into my classroom it was to a chanting chorus of, "QUACK! QUACK! QUACK!"

We also watched a scene from Dawson's Creek involving a tearful goodbye on the beach between Joshua's character, Pacey Witter, and his teacher. It may or may not have been an appropriate relationship and the mention of it in front of our young audience made Josh laugh disbelievingly and blush a little (rest assured, the 2-minute scene out of context is quite innocuous).

Photo Credit: Eileen Lograno
Joshua Jackson fingerspells his name for the Pre-K and Second Grade students

It was a bit surreal to welcome Lauren back into the classroom after 6 years, but it ultimately felt like a true homecoming. As with all guest artists, I spent the week prior to her visit preparing the children by discussing her work. Only once, when I welcomed former student Eden Duncan-Smith, have I ever known so much about a performer or felt as though I were welcoming family.

My words were filled with love, pride, and tremendous joy as I explained her journey to the Great White Way. Lauren's trajectory from ASL tutor to the lead in a Broadway show is the stuff of fairy tales. It is almost unheard of and yet, proves to even the most skeptical that anything is possible.

I seized upon this theme by selecting the children's book Happy Dreamer by Peter H. Reynolds for Lauren and Josh to read. It is a beautiful story encouraging children to embrace their creativity, nurture their dreams, and celebrate all the ways they are unique. The illustrations are colorful, imaginative and sometimes, even shiny! The timbre of the book speaks to my aesthetic of encouraging creative chaos and cherishing the dreamers.

Lauren Ridloff and Joshua Jackson reading HAPPY DREAMER by Peter H. Reynolds.
(What Kind of Dreamer Are You?)

The reading was conducted in both American Sign Language (ASL) and spoken English with the teacher in Lauren on full display as she engaged the children in a dialogue and guided Josh to highlight various elements in the illustrations. The majority of the students in attendance have parents who are deaf, while some are deaf or hard of hearing themselves. Inviting guest artists who can communicate using the children's first language is an important consideration for me and a valuable experience for the students. Congratulations are in order for Josh, whose ASL development continues to grow since I first met him in the Berkshires last summer.

Near the end of the book the author asks, "What kind of dreamer are you?" and offers up a bunch of options. Students and teachers alike raised their hands in response to each choice. This informal poll showed conclusively that the adults in the room were mostly "Nap Happy" dreamers, while the children favored more active manifestations.

Photo Credit: Eileen Lograno
A student asks, "How did you become an actor and why?"

The reading was followed by a question and answer session. We learned that Josh started acting when he was 10-years-old because his mother was in the business. He liked playing so much that he stuck with it (and rather successfully too!).

Lauren shared some challenges associated with the role of Sarah. One was that it required her to use her voice, which she decided not to use when she was 13-years-old. There were both physical and emotional considerations surrounding this stipulation, but in time she found power in reclaiming her voice on the stage.

Josh also shared his challenge with learning a new language, ASL. Their supportive relationship showed the children that difficulties can be overcome with a little help from your friends - an important message for the young ones to embrace.

My favorite picture - Lauren and Josh signing books for the students

The visit concluded with Josh and Lauren hunkering down into preschool-sized chairs and autographing 30 books and chatting briefly with each student. It was also the time that many teachers swept into the room to say hello to their former coworker, Lauren, and catch a glimpse of Joshua Jackson.

Photo Credit: Eileen Lograno
"You get a book! And you get a book!"
It is a very special thing that amidst all the hubbub, the demands for their time, an exhausting schedule, and just a little more than a week before the Tony Awards, Lauren and Josh made visiting a class of young children a priority. That, to me, speaks of character worthy of Charlie Conway and tells the children in no uncertain terms that they are dreamers worthy of attention. It's a beautiful message. Thank you both for making me a Happy Dreamer!

You can watch some highlights from Josh and Lauren's visit in this short clip created by Jamie Kirkpatrick (with additional footage from Eileen Lograno).

Wednesday, June 27, 2018


Ready for some fun in the sun!

As they look ahead to kindergarten, the cool cats of preschool offer some wisdom to their successors.
"You might be sad to say goodbye to Mommy and Daddy but they will pick you up later.  You will like choice time.  You can play blocks and light table.  And gym!" 
"Don't eat too much candy or you will get a stomachache.  And you have to be the boss of your body. Don't burst your friends bubble and touch them too much."
Music with Esther Kim of Tokyo and the Boy
"You have to learn balance.  You can learn to write your name.  I like music.  You should learn music and learn how to dance.  And you can try new foods at lunch.  I like fruits and strawberries.  Apples are good for you.  And go to sleep.  When you wake up it will be time to go home."
"Something I like was the books and reading the news.  If you get a class job you can sign the names of the kids and learn their names in ASL.  You can play at the light table and run at gym.  Be a gentle friend and don't be rough.  And no hitting."
Learning Concept of Word through Shared Reading
"You should play with blocks.  They are fun.  House is fun.  You should draw every day.  And tell the teachers if you need to use the bathroom.  Don't break toys if you want to play with them again."
"Please don't touch the dragon we made. And be careful with other people's artwork because they worked hard on it.  You will like to draw self-portraits and make cards for your Daddy and draw your house or draw yourself instead."
Creating at the Writing Center
 "You should share and play nicely with others."
"In a fire drill there is no time for talking.  We just go fast outside.  It's just practice if you have a fire. And fire can start if you want to make fire with chopsticks and flint.  But you shouldn't."
"Drink water!"
"Play with your friends and HAVE FUN!" 
Playing at The New Victory Theater

Sunday, June 24, 2018

"When I Grow Up..."

We bid a bittersweet farewell to the 2017-2018 school year last Thursday with a graduation ceremony for the adorable wee ones. These Pre-K graduations are no joke! I am in awe of how my coworkers coordinated all of the different elements from certificates, ASL videos, pictures, artwork, awards, food, programs, and performance.

I was particularly fond of the artwork the children created - using canvas and acrylic paint - to show what they are going to be when they grow up. The finished product was covered with Mod Podge, an all in one decoupage glue, sealer and finish, to keep them lovely and framable.  I envision these hanging in their offices or homes one day as they think back to a simpler time and realize how much they were loved and nurtured in their childhoods.

The Doctor

"I'm going to be a doctor.  A children doctor! I will need a magnifying glasses. And a Stethoscope.  And a uniform!  A white coat. I will have my own office. And the kids have to let you do what the doctors need to do.  They look where they got hurt and what is wrong with them and if they got sick.  And my doctor put a Q-Tip in my throat!"

The Ballerina

"I want to be a dancer!  I like to do ballet and other dances.  I will do my dances on a stage and all the people will come watch me and the girls dance on the stage.  I want to be like a black swan!  And wear a black dress!"

The Police Officer

"I want to be the policeman.  They catch monies and bad guys steal it and run away too far.  The bad guys are always hiding.  Then we caught them.  We take a police helicopter and the police car help them.  The kids in the school bus.  We have to rescue the superheroes.  We stopped the road.  Then we blocked the road.  And we saved Superman, Batman, the Hulk, and Wonder Woman.  And we saved the day!  A policeman Hulk would be big and strong and green.  Police men need flashlight and a badge."

The Firefighter

"When I grow up, I want to be a fireman.  They spray water at the fire.  And I am going to drive the fire engine.  I need a ladder so that they could get up high."

The Construction Worker

"I want to be a builder.  I want to build a house. They will be brown and white.  I already have my own, but I will build one for some other people.  I like to play in the living room, so I will build a big living room for the kids.  But not too big.  I will need to hammer. But if I do too hard, the wall will break.  And I will build a kitchen. I can build a table too.  And stairs.  I like my real floor.  And I have a room and my sister has a room.  And a window.  I don't want to break the windows.  And I need a wrench, a saw, and an axe.  I don't want nothing to get inside the house!"

The Mommy

"I am going to be a mommy when I grow up.  I am going to have a baby boy and a baby girl.  Just 2, that's it!  They have to drink some milk.  And they eat baby food, like cereal.  I have to change the poopy diaper.  And then we'll play in the park.  And I will push the baby in the swing!  Then they sleep, then they wake up and play with their toys.  I have to bring the babies to the doctor if they feel sick.  And I will give them a present and Hello Kitty!  And I will work with computers."

The Helicopter Pilot

"When I grow up, I want to be a helicopter pilot.  They watch people and have to save people because they are in a boat sinking.  I will need to hook and a rope or a strap.  You have to pull them up with the rope.  And those floating things - life preservers for a rescue helicopter.  I don't know they know it's an emergency, but they do! Maybe it comes out on a printer.  Or a walkie talkie.  Maybe they keep their walkie talkies on their suit because they have no shelves in a helicopter.  They have seats in front.  And a lot of controls and turning wheels.  And you need a helmet."

The Police Officer

"I am going to be a policeman.  I will have to put people in jail.  If someone hurts another guy, and I will tell them, "FREEZE, YOU'RE UNDER ARREST!"  And click, click, I put on handcuffs.  And I will drive the police car with blue and red lighting and sirens.  I can even hear the siren from the 36th Floor in my building!  I heard it when I was 2 years old."

The 3-Year-Old Metaphysicist 

"I want to be Maggie" 

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!


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!


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.



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