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!


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