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The SPARC Grant: Part Two

8 Sep
These hands
Pain and joy
These hands
Changing my grandson’s diaper for the first time
These hands
Feeling my father’s stubble
These hands
My family
These hands
My dreams, touching the lions
These hands
Feeling strong
 

 “These Hands” was created by my students using a visualization exercise that guides participants to focus on their hands—where their hands have been, what their hands have touched, and who their hands have cared for—throughout their lives. Each week the group would reminisce on a different subject: superstition, holidays, and life lessons, for example. Sharing memories generated a palpable sense of community in class, but I couldn’t figure out how to turn these reminiscences into content suitable for a performance. Should the stories be scripted? Turned in to poems like “These Hands” and read? Made into songs?  In the meantime, I worked with the group on basic acting and long-form improvisational skills (despite my prior difficulties with Syd and his cohort, I couldn’t abandon the genre entirely) and we continued delving into the past.

Terry, one of my savviest students, suggested that the group develop an “immigration office” scene and with little effort they improvised a funny and moving story  of a poor widow, a skilled  tradesman, and a rich lady who interact with an immigration agent and police officer in Ellis Island.

Doris and Terry

The standout performance is Blanca’s portrayal of a rich lady who avoids the perils of Ellis Island due to her social standing. With nothing but a borrowed cane, she is transformed into an elegant  and wealthy woman from the 1920s. She doesn’t overplay it, she just lifts her chin and assesses the other characters—this is a woman who knows what she’s worth. Inexplicably, Blanca understands that controlled stillness is the key to capturing an audience’s attention. Watching her perform makes me want to keep trying, it reminds me of the reason why I feel in love with theater when I was six years old. The ability to transform into someone else is the only magic I’ve ever known.

In addition to the Ellis Island scene, it was decided that the students would share their American stories for the final performance.  There would be no forced theatrics, no songs or dances, it would just be them. It would be enough. Blanca’s story focused on her admiration for John F. Kennedy, Doris theatrically described her great love for the American flag: both her birthday and the anniversary of the day she became an American citizen fall on Flag Day.

Doris and the Flag

Andre discussed his many blessings in this country, while Ann and Terry shared their long and rich family histories.

Ann and her Dad

There was just one problem, at the end of our final dress rehearsal we’d never been through the show without stopping.  I (like many directors before) accepted this and hoped for the best.

The week before our final performance I received a cryptic email from my most dedicated student, Ann.

The subject line read: EMERGENCY! Call me immediately.

I raced to the phone to call Ann at home.  Luckily I caught her on the first ring.

“Everyone is fine, it’s not medical. Robin, our props have been sold.”

“What?”

“They took our props and sold them.”

Our props and costumes, stored in a locked closet in the senior center, were mistaken as a donation to be sold “garage sale style ” at the center. Thankfully, Terry was there to rescue most of the goods, but a few things went renegade. Apparently posters of Ellis Island and unmarked CDs are hot items in Sunnyside,Queens. I arrived at the center on Sunday for the final performance to discover that only a few essential items were missing. Poor Blanca had to run to the store to buy a new skirt, but we made it through.

I went backstage to lead the students through a final warm up and felt myself swell with pride when I realized that we made it, this show was really happening. Ann asked if she could lead us in a prayer and my eyes welled up with tears when I realized that this would be the last day of my class. The performance was perfect, the audience laughed, cried, and were right there with us.  Words can’t express how proud I am of my students and their accomplishment.  Their validation.  There is a heaven for has-been acting teachers like me.  And this is what it will be like.

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The SPARC Grant, Part One.

4 Sep

In September of last year, an email from Queens Council on the Arts landed in my inbox to announce SPARC: Seniors Partnering with Artists Citywide, a community arts engagement program that pairs teaching artists with senior centers across the five boroughs of New York City.  As I scrolled through the email I thought, there is a grant program for artists who want to work with seniors? Why haven’t I heard of this? The answer was simple, it was a brand new program and this was the very first round of grants. I nervously applied, wondering if it was the right choice for a washed-up, has-been, failed acting teacher like me.

A few years ago I spent some time teaching in a nursing home on the Upper West Side and—as rewarding as interacting with my students could be—I felt a little like a fraud. Acting is just so touchy-feely and weird.  Selling the merits of improv was especially challenging.

“Improvisational theater gives us the opportunity to write our own performance as we go. You’ll be stunned by how fun and engaging it is. Who’s ready to give it a try?”

Stan’s eyes glaze over. Lena breaks into a coughing fit as a nurse rolls her away. The rest just stare back at me, bewildered. The silence is broken by the BINGO caller next door, “B 93. 9-3.” I continue on, wishing I were a BINGO caller instead of an acting teacher.  At least I’d have more than five participants.  I continued the lesson.

“There is only one basic rule to start improvising, it is imperative that you keep the scene going by saying ‘yes, and…’ rather than saying ‘no’ to your scene partner.  That’s the only key: never say no.”

Syd, a former judge, chimes in,

“I’ll say no whenever I damn please”

“Of course that’s true in real life, but in improv its better to say ‘yes, and…’”

“But that’s not reality honey. What if we’d said, ‘yes and…’ to Hitler? Where would we be now?”

“I see your point”

My students quickly mastered “yes, and…” but I ultimately couldn’t shake this feeling of being miscast as an acting teacher. Something just wasn’t right. Eventually, I invited a talented colleauge to take my place.  I sighed to myself and thought, well that wasn’t for me…

Despite my initial hesitation, I decided to take a leap of faith and apply for the SPARC grant, resolving to make up for my shortcomings as an acting teacher by focusing what I am good at: theater production. In the grant narrative, I proposed to develop a play—written by and starring the students—that answers one question: what does it mean to be an American? The idea came to me while visiting Ft. Ticonderoga in upstate New York. Everything there felt so “American” the trees, the green-green grass, even the solemn reinactors manning the cannons. The air even smelled American. (In case you are wondering, America smells like cut grass, pine trees, and lake water.)  I thought, this is America to me, Robin Benson, but what is America to somebody else? Somebody who lived through WW2 or someone who emigrated here? As cannons blasted around me, I closed my eyes and wished that half of my students be old-school die-hard lifelong New Yorkers and the other half be new Americans, ready to share their stories with me.

On an icy December day, I found out that I received the grant. Not only that, but I was placed in Sunnyside Community Services in Queens, home to one of the nicest senior centers in New York City.  After the initial thrill, a felt a pang in my gut:  how am I, a known acting teacher hack, going to pull this one off?  Panicked, I dusted off my old senior theater and intergenerational theater books off and came up with a plan.  The class would broken up into three major components: a development segment (12 sessions), a rehearsal segment (8 sessions), and a technical or final rehearsal segment (2 sessions).  Instead of focusing heavily on improvisational exercises or acting games (as I had with Syd and the gang), I resolved to activate students’ memories through reminiscence exercises, visualization, and sense memory.  The resulting content would then be woven together to create the final performance.

The class met in a small classroom adjacent to a much larger multi-purpose room that housed Sunnyside’s daily BINGO game (also known as the hottest ticket in town). Sometimes living in BINGO’s shadow is the best one can hope for.  I came prepared with a laptop, my iPhone (to capture whatever needed recording), and pages of typed notes.  I quietly prayed, asking God to meet me halfway. I assumed that this would be the biggest failure of my life, that my students would hate me, that there would be no final performance.

“Good afternoon, everybody. The purpose of this class it to develop a performance piece by asking ourselves the question, what does it mean to be an American? I don’t know what the final performance will look like, but I do know that the content will come solely from you.”

Ann looked thoughtfully at her hands, remembering someone, something important.  Andre broke into a huge grin. Terry leaned forward in her chair and nodded. The rest smiled back at me.  Ready to engage.  Ready to remember.  Half were immigrants, half were old-school die-hard New Yorkers from Queens. I could feel my heart lifting out of my chest.