Sunday, July 13, 2014

New York Style Professional Development

Today was the last day of being in New York City as the chaperone for this amazing group of Columbia Ivy League Connection students. Many of you who have been following their blogs, may be wondering; what does the chaperone do while the students are in classes? For me, as the theater arts teacher in Hercules, it’s professional development, New York style!

Between meetings with the students, taking in the sites of NYC on the weekends, and setting up those wonderful dinners with admissions people, students and alum, I have seen 8 Broadway shows! The four musicals I saw could not be more different—Pippin, Matilda, Cabaret, Kinky Boots and Once.

Pippin is a musical I first became a fan of back in my own high school days. I remember listening to the original cast recording on my 8-track in my first car and singing along at the top of my lungs. Since then, I have only seen a high school production that left me thinking Pippen had an unbearably weak plotline.  This production demonstrated how one can make a Broadway hit out of a less than perfect script—add circus acts! The show was like seeing a Cirque du Soleil show with terrific singers!

Matilda is a show I wanted to see since it open in the West End. I am a big fan of the songwriter Tim Minchin and have fond memories of reading the Roald Dahl book to my own children when they were small. Plus, it seems like the perfect musical to do one day at my own school. It did not disappoint me! The production captured the extreme characterizations of the book and the score echoed Dahl’s quirky humor.

Cabaret was one of the first musicals I fell in love with. I was in middle school when I watched the movie with Liza Minnelli over and over. I have since seen several productions, but none compared to this one staring Alan Cumming and Michelle Williams. Cumming was incredibly expressive and funny. Williams was so vulnerable, yet bold and sassy. The ending was staged in such a way that all the characters, except the American Cliff,  end up in a concentration camp. In fact, the ending makes it almost seem as if the Emcee is telling the story from a concentration camp—wishing he, like the rest, had listened to Cliff. If I ever do Cabaret at my school I will do it with this ending.

Kinky Boots is a musical about prejudice. A son inherits his Dad’s failing shoes business and turns it around by selling shoes to drag queens. Yet, the son, the workers and even the drag queens, must all over come preconceptions about each other.

Once is based on one of my favorite movies of the same name. It is a simple, yet powerful, love story between two Irish street musicians. The chorus and supporting players are also the musicians for the show, so the entire production incorporates the perspective of the struggling musician. Their love is a struggle, too. It is about a love that might have been and that in it’s self is bittersweet. It’s about lost connections and moments, and also about how seeing yourself from someone else’s point of view can be healing.

Musicals tend to dominate the Broadway scene, but I took in 3 outstanding plays as well—The Cripple of Inishmaan, Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill, and The Realistic Jones.
Daniel Radcliff and Sarah Greene in
The Cripple of Inishmaan
The Cripple of Inishmaan starred Daniel Radcliff in a show that started in the West End. Radcliff is well known for his role as Harry Potter and has since performed in two different Broadway shows—Equus and How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. I was excited to catch his performance as well as check out another play by Martin McDonagh. I became a fan of McDonagh when I saw The Lt. Inishmore a very dark comedy produced by the Berkeley Rep. Radcliff surrounded himself with an excellent cast, and the play has some terrific character roles. This is a play I might do one day at my school.

Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill is about Billie Holiday at the end of her life. It is a one-woman show starring Audra McDonald who now, with her latest Tony for this role, has won the most Tony’s of anyone in Broadway history. It was an honor to get to see her and the play is surprisingly moving. It takes place only a few months before Holiday’s death when she is performing at a run-down club in North Philadelphia. The banter she has with the audience goes from humorous to dark during the course of the show, demonstrating how her run-ins with Jim Crow laws and the police destroyed her chances to continue as a star performer.

The Realistic Jones was the most star-studded show! It featured 4 actors—Michael C. Hall, Toni Collet, Marisa Tomei and Tracy Letts. Some of you might not recognize Tracy Letts, but he won a Pulitzer for his play August: Osage County.  The play was about two couples who were struggling to cope with a life and death disease.  Reality was too painful, so they often avoid talking directly about what was happening.

She looks like she's getting a text....
Inspiration for theatrical sets and costumes do not just come from watching other theater. Visiting some of the best museums in the world was another way to think about theater. In the African art section of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, I remember thinking; this must be where Julie Taymor came up with her designs for the Lion King! To have a resource like the Met to do research for design concepts is an amazing asset for theater artists in Manhattan.  The play I am producing this fall, The Visit, has a German Expressionist setting, so going to the Museum of  Modern art allowed me to see some of the actual paintings I used for the design concept.

Theater People
Some of the best way to learn anything is through personal contacts. While in NYC, I met with people I knew from my undergraduate days, someone I did a play with,  2 people I did my graduate work with, and a former student who is now a playwright. Whenever I socialize with other theater artists I learn so much.  We discuss plays that we are working on or ones we want to do. They will often peak my interest in new works or help me figure out a technical challenge. Most importantly, they provide that support needed to work hard and stay inspired.

More to do…
It was at one of these meetings that I found out that the NY Public Library has a performing arts archive located at the Lincoln Center. All the Broadway shows are filmed and stored there. One can just go in and ask to see any production since shows could be filmed and watch them.  It breaks my heart to think that I only found out about it on the last day of my trip and was not able to take advantage of it.  

The three weeks I spent in New York were a fabulous time for me to grow as a theater educator. It allowed me to see fantastic theater, great museums and wonderful artists. I also grew attached to some amazing students, and share my love for education with them. I am so grateful that I was chosen to go, and I would love to go again next year!


  1. Look at all those playbills! I'm glad you saw those shows. Will definitely stop by Hercules to watch a show this year!

  2. It is a shame you didn't get to explore the archives at the Lincoln center! You did get to do plenty of other fun stuff though! Thanks for sharing all your experiences of New York with us!

  3. You're going to bring so much culture and knowledge back to the WCCUSD! All these show must have been amazing and I can't wait to see what the Hercules whips up in the theater. Let's stay in touch, the East Coast was a blast with you!