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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.”


“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.


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.

Lunch Break Creative: Tourist Edition

11 Jun

Working in an office environment can be stimulating and challenging: the day flies by when solving expense report mysteries like a corporate Nancy Drew. Sometimes though, I feel a tad stifled and in need of a little creative stimulation.  In my last post, I shared my personal mission statement, “live to create and serve” and resolved that I would find ways to incorporate creativity into my working life.

What could be more inspiring than a visit to the New York Public Library’s Sue and Edgar Wachenheim III, Gallery?

The current exhibition is Shelley’s Ghost:  The Afterlife of a Poet which focuses on writer Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822) and his second wife Mary, best known as the author of Frankenstein. The gallery is tiny, perhaps 200 square feet, making it the perfect size to tackle in less than 20 minutes.  Particularly enjoyable were Shelly’s notebooks, a necklace made of P.B. and Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s hair, and a copy of “A Cat in Distress,” Percy Shelly’s earliest known poem.

The thoughtful design of the exhibition was another highlight, evoking a creepy, gothic feeling.

In addition to the ephemera locked behind the cases, are small takeaway note cards with various quotes from Shelley.

One card reads:

MUSIC when soft voices die,

Vibrates in the memory –

ODOURS, when sweet violtes sicken,

Live within the sense they quicken.

Shelly’s Ghost:  The Afterlife of a Poet
Now through Sunday, June 24, 2012
Stephen A. Schwarzman Building, Sue and Edgar Wachenheim III Gallery
Fifth Avenue at 42nd Street
Cost:  Free

After enjoying the exhibition, I took some time to lollygag through Bryant Park, located directly behind the library on Sixth Avenue between 40th and 42nd Streets.

Bryant Park boasts many wonders, one being an outdoor Reading Room with various books to borrow while sitting in the park.

Near the Reading Room, Istumbled upon a discussion of Jen Lancaster’s new book, Jeneration X hosted by In Her Shoes author Jennifer Weiner.

I thought, wait a second – there must be more events where this one came from!  And as soon as the thought popped into my head, a copy of the Bryant Park spring guide manifested before my eyes.  I snatched the precious pamphlet from the bored, teenaged attendant and realized that there is an author’s discussion every Wednesday at 12:30!  The series is titled, “Word for Word Author” and its purpose (according to the guide) is for “Bestselling authors [to] share tricks of the trade, answer questions, and sign copies of their latest books.” There is a similar program for poetry on Tuesdays at dusk (of course the poets have to be dramatic about it and have their program at sundown). On select Tuesdays at 12:30, the Reading Room hosts a book club of favorite Oxford University Press classics.  If you sign up early enough, a free copy of the book club selection can be yours.

Folks, this is just the tip of the iceberg.  There are also writer’s workshops, nonfiction discussions, and classic movie groups; and those are just the literary activities.  Other Bryant Park events include Yoga, Tai Chi, fencing, birding, juggling, beginner and intermediate language classes, and (be still my heart) knitting lessons. Not to be missed are both the world-famous HBO Bryant Park Summer Film Festival, beginning on June 18th and my personal favorite, Broadway in Bryant Park, beginning on July 12th.  Did I mention that every single event is free?

Who could have known that so many engaging activities are waiting for us just outside the doors of our climate controlled, sterile offices?  Let’s try something inspiring and new.  Let’s get lunch break creative.

Lunch Break Creative

25 May

After reading The 7 Habits for Highly Successful People, I took Stephen Covey’s advice and drafted a personal mission statement.  I felt sheepish about this endeavor and wasn’t sure if it was prudent to spend so much time focused on ME, GLORIOUS ME.  Despite my hesitations, the exercise was immensely helpful.  For instance, if I don’t feel clear about something—or need to take a mental shower—I turn to my mission statement. I feel muddled all of the time, so this has been a big help in boosting my happiness. Here’s what I came up with:

Live to create and serve.

Make time every day for creative activity and welcome challenges.  Don’t give up because it’s hard.  Take pride in mistakes and learn from them.

Put first things first: if you are hungry eat, if its cold, put on a sweater and so on—this can also be applied to matters of work and spirit.

My home will be a comfortable, orderly place of beauty.  It is a reflection of my inner, creative spirit.

In all times and in all places, establish a culture of peace.  (This means work, too).

Family comes first.  Call family multiple times during the week—while walking home, waiting, doing dishes, preparing meals, etc.

Engage in positive, uplifting, and creative activities.

I’ve recently left the comfort of my Foundation job for the wild, unkempt garden of a law firm. This was a tough decision: working at a law firm doesn’t sound like me at all. Would this position lead to nothing but long hours and cranky lawyers in suits? I imagined running out at midnight to pick up another case of diet coke for the haughty attorneys while my children (currently unborn) sat at home crying for their lost mother. Despite my negative fantasies, I felt compelled to accept this unexpected position because it offered me something that my beloved Foundation could not: an opportunity for growth. Someday maybe, if I play my cards right, I won’t be an assistant.  If I work hard and put in my long hours (yes, the hours are longer than what I was used to) there is hope for something more substantive. In the meantime—while slogging through expense reports—how can I remain creative? How can I inject bits of creativity into my day?

My solution – become a lunch break creative.

What I have: the New York Public Library, Bryant Park, the firm’s break room, an exciting location, one hour, my hands, my heart, and my ideas.

The library boasts free Wi-Fi, a stunning facility, and endless research opportunities. Why not bring my laptop or iPad to spend time writing or researching projects?

Bryant Park also has free Wi-Fi and can’t be beat for writing or researching on a sunny day.

The firm’s break room offers coffee, snacks, and an endless supply of diet coke.  There is also a TV and long tables.  Hmmm, could I start a scrapbooking group using these fantastic tables?  I haven’t met one crafty person at the firm yet, although I’m sure they are out there.  A sorority sister of mine is both a lawyer and one of the most prolific crafters I know. Hope springs eternal.

My new office is located in the crossroads of the world, Times Square. There have GOT to be some creative outlets right outside my window. I just need to open my eyes and find them. Why not take a mini-vacation on my lunch break by checking out historic and noteworthy places?  I’ve used Forgotten New York as a resource for this in the past. *Gasp* I should speak to my former Foundation colleague and travel blogger, Action JoJo for ideas.  Stay tuned!

Do you have any hints for staying creative during the workday?

Freebie Alert – Smithsonian Magazine Museum Day

21 Sep

Just a quick post to let you know about an excellent freebie. On Saturday, September 24th Smithsonian Magazine is offering free admission to museums all across the country.

To take advantage of this deal, simply visit Smithsonian Magazine’s Web site here, enter in your contact info, and choose the museum you wish to attend.

Last year,  I used my free admission while visiting cousin Krista in Indiana where she was performing in “Camelot” with her dear husband Tony. We decided to visit the Conner Prairie Interactive History Park  where we tried on children’s costumes, talked to kooky interpreters, and had a merry-old time.

What museum do you think you’ll check out on Saturday?

Stunt of the Year: Pin-Up Class

26 Aug


A new term has slipped into my everyday speech: “stunt.” A few months ago church lady partner-in-crime, Gretchen and I were visiting a second-hand store in her neighborhood and stumbled upon Let’s Have a Good Time: Parties, Games, and Stunts by Olive Cameron, copyright 1938.  This book is chock full of homespun activities, party ideas, church games, and nonsense. The following is from the preface:

A “good time” now and then is relished by all normal men.

Play activity develops the children, gives vent to the adolescents’ excess “pep,” and restores the nerves of over-worked adults.

Properly conducted play contributes to every phase of life.

This book is sent forth in the hope that it may promote in some small way the kind of “good time” which builds people physically, intellectually and spiritually.

A “stunt” in my mind is a “good time” that builds you up in some way—just nice, clean confidence building fun! It can be as elaborate as a trip to Canada for a conference on handicrafts, or as simple as making a special jell-o salad for somebody you love! Usually its a new activity that requires some preparation and planning but it doesn’t have to be.

On Sunday, a few of us stunt-loving dames participated in a long-awaited pin-up class with world-famous burlesque beauty Bettina May.  I’m here to testify that it was without a doubt the top-notch best stunt of the decade!  Honestly, I wish every day was pin-up class day!  Bettina May is one of the loveliest gals I’ve met in ages!  She puts her students at ease with a combination of charm, sweetness, and a clever wit. How can you not love a gal who advertises for one of her classes with the claim, “Come learn all the tricks grandma used to snag grandpa with easy fabulous hairdos that last all night!”?

Miss Robin as a Real Pin-Up!

Class began with a make-up tutorial in which Bettina walked us through the classic pin-up face: rosy cheeks, a strong red lip, lined lids, and fake eyelashes.  I’d consider myself advanced when it comes to make-up, since I spent so many years doing my own theatrical make-up for shows, even still there were plenty of new tips for my beauty arsenal!

Next, Bettina taught us how to set our hair using the ancient and now nearly forgotten wet-to-dry method consisting of a combination of wire and sponge rollers, setting spray, a head scarf, several hours of waiting (usually done while sleeping), and a wink and a prayer. Bettina’s claim: she virtually hasn’t had a bad hair day in years. Fascinating stuff.  She also introduced us to pin-up styling techniques including the famous victory roll.

After donning our dresses, Bettina gave the group a quick lesson in pin-up posing and shot each of us in our own private photo session!  Church lady Gretchen and I of course had to bring props.  What’s better than canned produce?  We also had a Swedish hymnal at the ready that *sigh* wasn’t used. I also sewed a sweet little apron.

Oh Golly!

The apron was easy to construct, consisting of three major pieces, a heart-shaped bodice with lace trimming, waistband, and gathered skirt.

Apron Pieces

I used a pattern from Tipnut as a reference point, while adding some little flourishes of my own.

Wishing you many enjoyable stunts this weekend!