Hornets Swarm The Big City

The Best 23-Hour Work Day of the Year!

In the early morning of April 26th 2018, 20 students from Herndon High School, along with me, a school counselor, and a parent volunteer, ventured up I-95 on a chartered bus for a one-day educational adventure in New York City. The itinerary included a morning theatre workshop in Bryant Park, lunch at Ben’s Deli, a tour of the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Battery Park, a couple slices of genuine NYC pizza, and a ticket to see Broadway’s smash hit of the season, SpongeBob Squarepants the Musical. Then we all got back on the bus and returned home in the wee hours of the next day. Below are some of my thoughts and commentaries on an incredible pilgrimage which will no doubt be a yearly tradition.

The Director Comes Home

I’m a New Yorker, through and through, and it’s not just because I eat pizza folded in half, either at home or hustling to an evening show. I feel at home on a crowded subway car full of hope, grit, ambition, and energy. Growing up in New York City has also shaped my worldview to include people of all countries and cultures. During a time in which diversity is a label that gets used a lot, New York City is still a true melting pot/meat grinder of cultural, economic, and social diversity. I now bring that world view with me every day to my work as the theatre teacher and director at Herndon High School.

The best thing about New Jersey is the view it affords of New York. 🙂

Last year was my first year at Herndon High, and I was always looking for opportunities to get back to “The City” any chance I got; I just wasn’t able to bring my students with me. This year, I put bringing a group of Hornets to my home town on the agenda from day one. Would it be cool to show off my old stomping grounds to my current students? Of course it would. But from a teaching and directing standpoint, there’s also so much to learn from a place where people from all over to world flock to apply their talents in pursuit of a dream. Even if the trip would  only be for a day, perhaps some of my students would soak up some of that vibrant, ambitious, and diverse energy like sponges and then bring it back to Herndon High School theatre.

Making a Difficult Call

On the eve of the original date of our trip (March 22nd), there was a projected 8-12 inches of snow hitting the Northeast, and I had a very difficult decision to make. Go for it? Cancel? Reschedule? Normally as a New Yorker, a foot of snow means I’d just wear warm clothes, pack an extra pair of socks, and get on the road early. But in the DC area, schools are closed for much less snowfall, and the roads are simply too treacherous during inclement weather to maneuver school buses safely to school. As the organizer of a school trip from Virginia (and not as a New Yorker), I couldn’t take a cavalier approach (no pun intended). While I was given broad discretion by our fantastic principal to launch the trip despite the weather, I ultimately decided to reschedule. That decision was made a lot easier by the fact that the box office at SpongeBob offered to move our entire non-refundable block of tickets to another date. At this point, with the trip now a few weeks behind us, I have zero doubt that I made the right decision.

Instead of taking a group of students to NYC on March 22nd, this young person hit me with snowballs.

Great Friends Make Great Teachers

My original plan for the New York trip was supposed to feature our group seeing a production of Pippin at Repertory Company High School in Times Square. This production was directed by Keeshon Morrow, who is a friend of mine, and someone from whom I learned much of my classroom management skills during my student teaching placement at “RepCo” High School. I was looking forward to bringing my current students to meet my former students, plus this particular production of Pippin was reportedly amazing. Unfortunately, the weather dashed our hopes of seeing the RepCo production, and I was forced to scramble to fill the void and make the New York experience just as special for my students.

With friends like these, who needs teachers?

Luckily, there’s no shortage of incredible educators, actors, and arts administrators, some of whom happen to be friends of mine. One such friend is known actor and fellow graduate of the Moscow Art Theatre School, Nicole Kontolefa. Nicole gained recognition for her innovative and unforgettable “site unspecific” staging of the monodrama I am Me which I wrote about back in 2014. Since then, Nicole is pursuing her Masters Degree in Applied Theatre from the City University of New York. On short notice, Nicole agreed to conduct an educational “workshop” in Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed technique on the streets of Manhattan in Bryant Park.

Theatre of the Oppressed (which may also be referred to as “Theatre of Liberation”) workshop led by Nicole Kontolefa.

Even though we were caught up in traffic inbound to New York City, we managed to start our day with active and insightful exercises that brought a new light on theatre and the use of city spaces as a theatre classroom.

Research the Past, Impact the Future

Post-tour group photo in front of the Museum of Jewish Heritage.

Our next major destination was to the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Battery Park in Lower Manhattan. This museum is a living memorial to the Holocaust, and it is one that I have performed at as an actor over the last several years. During that time, however, I did not have to opportunity to tour the museum. Now that I was bringing a group of students, and my afternoon opened up after rescheduling the trip, this museum made perfect sense. I won’t go into much detail, but next season will have some subject matter that deals in the time period and location surrounding the Holocaust. Therefore, I was conducting research with my future cast, and helping to educate students who live during a time in which the total number of living survivors of this horrific human catastrophe dwindle almost daily.

The tour covered the history of the Holocaust in three distinct time periods: before, during, and after World War II. There were quite a few very intense moments for my students, but also moments that afforded humor, reflection, and insight. After the tour concluded, we all needed our spirits lifted. Fortunately for us, the evening’s entertainment would prove to soak up our worries and help us squeeze every last drop of joy that Broadway has to offer.

It’s Not Just a Cartoon Sponge…

When I announced that we would be seeing SpongeBob Squarepants the Musical on Broadway as the culminating event of our New York trip, some people had a hard time taking my choice seriously. Clearly those people hadn’t seen the production. And how could they? At the time, the show’s Broadway run had just been announced. Now, with twelve (12!) Tony nominations, picking the biggest show of the year seemed like a no-brainer.

It’s Personal

But for me, seeing SpongeBob had more meaning than just seeing a show that I thought would be hilarious, weird, and brilliant. It would also be my first opportunity to see Lilli Cooper perform on Broadway in the role of Sandy Cheeks. I’ve known Lilli for over twenty years (I’m pretty sure she was in grade school when we first met), and she represents to me what Broadway is all about: taking the talents given to you through nature and nurture, and developing those talents into a vast array of skills, techniques, and abilities that can let that talent shine for everyone to see and enjoy on the biggest possible stage.

Go See SpongeBob. It’s Really, Really, Really Good.

If you can get to get to see SpongeBob on Broadway before the tickets become unaffordable, GO SEE IT! Seriously, we all had so much fun seeing this show. The acting, music, costumes, set, and the non-stop aquatic humor made for an evening we will never forget. And for me as a director, I saw ways in which the ensemble was used that made me nostalgic for our production of Into the Woods. I also saw a production that had so much heart, so many people’s dreams all banded together, that it revealed to me an insight that I will take with me into every subsequent play and musical I direct: creating amazing theatre isn’t some form of magic. It’s merely the result of many collective hours of blood, sweat, and tears all in pursuit of a common goal, and an unconquerable desire to see it through to the end.

Giving Back

Group photo with the amazing and gracious Lilli Cooper after the talkback with cast members from SpongeBob

After the show, Lilli Cooper and some of the other cast members agreed to share their time with us in a talkback. The actors let us in on their experiences individually, and their process working on SpongeBob. In exchange for their generosity of time, the Herndon Drama Theatre Boosters donated $500 to Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS. This wonderful organization uses the considerable reach of the Broadway community to help thousands people affected by AIDS.

Back to Reality

As the bus rolled out of Times Square, and hurdled back towards our regular lives, my heart was full of pride for my city and all that it had to offer. I also felt enormous pride that the group of young people who joined me seemed to enjoy it just as much as I did. Mission accomplished.

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