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New Victory Blog

The New Victory Blog is a place to learn more about New York's theater for families and the shows we produce. Find out what we do and what we're passionate about—exploring the arts as a family.
October 5, 2015

History Brought to Life


A great many historical tales have been brought to life onstage, from the historical plays of Shakespeare to tales of folk history, like ROBIN HOOD! With that in mind, and in honor of World Teachers Day this week, we asked our staff to recall moments from their childhoods when history was brought to life in theatrical ways. Here are a few of their stories.
 
 
Christopher Ritz-Totten, in 7th grade and now   Christopher Ritz-Totten
Public Relations Associate

I remember quite vividly the way my 7th grade history teacher, Mr. Miller, spoke about historical figures, and the various ways he would engage our class with through interactive storytelling. He approached every lesson with a passion that I loved, but in the moment I wasn’t sure how to outwardly convey my appreciation. All I knew was that I was having fun while learning! In hindsight, I can say that Mr. Miller was one of the most influential teachers I ever had.

I distinctly remember the week that Mr. Miller prepared our class for a visit from Mary Todd Lincoln. He kept telling us that the late president’s wife would be coming in to tell us about her life as the First Lady. He was right. We were in class one day when all the lights went out. The door opened, and in walked a lady in period dress carrying a flickering lantern. I was captivated, hanging on her every word. She spoke about her life, Abraham Lincoln’s life, the world in which they lived and how it differed from the world as it is now. It was in that moment that I knew learning could truly be engaging. It is this memory that I often reference as being the inspiration for my love of theater, and perhaps my commitment to educational theater.
 
Courtney Boddie, in 5th grade and now   Courtney Boddie
Director of Education / School Engagement

When I was in 5th grade, Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty were undergoing a huge renovation. Our classes worked in small groups to research the history of them both. We also recycled bottles and cans for the 5¢ deposit for months to help fundraise for the renovation. The culmination of the project was a field trip to Liberty Island, where still under renovation the old torch lay on the ground! I recall taking a class picture in front of it. 

When we landed on the island, there were people there to escort us from the ferry to the pedestal of the statue. The peculiar thing was that they were speaking gibberish, or perhaps a language that just wasn't known to us. They physically moved us into different lines, examining us (somewhat respectfully) and seemingly asking us questions and expecting answers. But none of us understood. As they continued to switch my classmates between different lines, each student was given a card that was a specific color and had more gibberish written on it. Some kids were shepherded away, while those of us left behind were confused, even a little scared, and I remember being slightly angry!

Eventually, the other students returned, happy and with lollipops, but the rest of us were still confused! Then, for the first time, the leader spoke in English and said that we had just been led through a simulation of what it was like to enter Ellis Island. What we had just experienced was what many immigrants experienced when they first immigrated to this country in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. We proceeded to have a rich conversation about what we had been thinking and feeling during the activity, and we made meaningful connections to that part of history. 

I often think back to that experience I had as a 10-year-old and it never fails to amaze me that the adults who worked there were, in essence, teaching artists! They acted in roles, and placed me and my classmates in roles, to help us better understand and empathize with the people who had entered this country through Ellis Island. They will never know how much that specific experience has impacted me.
 
Zack Ramadan, in 8th grade and now   Zack Ramadan
Digital Content Producer

I fondly recall Mr. Switzler, my knit tie-wearing 8th grade social studies teacher, who encouraged us to perform original theatrical pieces set during post-Civil War Reconstruction. In small groups over the course of three weeks, we wrote and directed short plays that brought to life the conflict between freedmen and insurgent klansmen, and the relationships between sharecroppers and landowners. In addition to being a freeing creative exercise, this project also helped us forge stronger connections with the stories of Reconstruction-era African Americans—empathy and understanding beyond what a textbook could ever have engendered.

None of this was an accident. Mr. Switzler placed a special emphasis on history being little more than the collected stories of individual people. He taught us to appreciate the value of primary source material and to seek it out whenever possible. Later in the year, he mobilized us—all 100 of us in all his classes—to create a multimedia time capsule of our community. We interviewed long-time citizens and local historians. We photographed historical places and local wildlife. We even spoke to municipal government officials—and their rivals—to gain perspective on local politics. We may not have fully grasped it at the time, but by capturing these stories and moments and recording them all in one place, we were literally making history.
 
 
Robin Hood icon   Seattle Children's Theatre's ROBIN HOOD is bringing the familiar tale of merry men, shifty sherrifs and pompous princes and to life on our stage right now. Don't miss it!
Posted by Zack Ramadan

Written by Lindsey Buller Maliekel, Director of Education / Public Engagement

Whether in the classroom or at home, the New Vic encourages kids to discuss their theatergoing experiences with their peers and the adults in their lives so that they can make personal connections to a show's artistry and themes. We've received many comments from audiences who attended LUV: AMERICAN STYLE this past weekend. Some told us that the show gave them that chance to start authentic and interesting conversations with their kids, while others expressed that they felt unprepared for the show's plot and content. Given the range of responses, I'm hopeful that this blog post can help prepare audiences to explore and discuss their reactions to the show.

Still from LUV: AMERICAN-STYLE

In LUV: AMERICAN-STYLE, choreographer Rennie Harris uses hip hop dance and dialogue to tell a story about how one young man becomes mired in a case of mistaken identity. The loose plot portrays several breakdancing schoolkids who are arrested and wrongfully incarcerated for disturbing the peace. After the kids experience how tough prison can be, the mistake is discovered and they are released. The show touches on issues of prison violence, social justice and law enforcement and community relations.

New York City families are familiar with these issues, if not from their own lives, then certainly from current events featured in the news, on television, and in movies and music. Discussing these topics with young people can be challenging, but I invite you to consider how LUV: AMERICAN-STYLE can be a spark for authentic conversations with your family. The performance is something you experience together, and it can be a useful springboard for talking about topics your kids might have heard a lot about this year, including conflicts between teens and the police. Whether you have already seen the show or are planning to come this weekend, here are some tips to start, extend, and deepen those conversations.

Start with Questions

This is an opportunity for you to learn what your kid thinks, what they understand, what they have questions about and what connections they might be making to real-life issues and events in the news. Here are some prompts that can get you started:

Before you see the show:
  • How does the outside world view you as a kid/young adult? What do they understand? What don't they understand?
  • Do you ever feel that the world is unjust? How? If you had to create a dance piece about justice, what style of dance would you use?
  • Have you ever witnessed or been part of an unjust situation? What happened?
After the show:
  • What real-life issues were explored in LUV: AMERICAN-STYLE? How did Rennie Harris use dance and spoken word to address these issues? 
  • Can you think of any other pieces of art (dance, visual art, music, theater, etc.) that address real-life issues? Why do people create this kind of art? Do you think it's important to make this kind of art? Why or why not?
  • What questions do you have about the show? What did the show make you think about or wonder?
  • If you were to create a dance that addressed real-life topics, what topic would you choose? What style of dance would you use? What music would you choose?

Extend the Conversation

Once you've gauged your kid's curiosity and level of understanding, you can continue the conversation in an age-appropriate way. This could be a chance for you to correct misconceptions, answer questions that come up, and help your kid make sense of the world they are living in. Here are some suggestions:
  • Try not to over-explain. If your kid saw the show and had a different experience than you did while watching, meet your kid at the developmental stage where they are at. Don't feel the need to link the show to every event you've read about in the news over the last year.
  • Acknowledge that these are complicated issues that can be challenging to have conversations about—don't feel the need to be an expert. Include your own beliefs and values in the conversation, but don't feel obligated to have all the answers. You can always say, "I don’t know," or, "I want to learn more about that before we talk about it further."
  • Don't forget the art part! LUV: AMERICAN-STYLE has content and a storyline that feels related to current events, but it is foremost a dance performance! Talk about how RHAW used movement, music, space, lighting, tempo and relationships to tell the story. 

Deepen the Learning
Now that you and your kid have begun this conversation, here are some resources that can help you continue and deepen the experience.

Prepare yourself to continue the conversation:
Learn more about the artist:
Read books and go to see more art together that addresses related issues: 
Still from LUV: AMERICAN-STYLE

Art doesn't need to be a thing held apart from the world—rather, it provides a platform for artists to explore the world more deeply, and for audiences to do the same through ongoing conversation. In the case of LUV: AMERICAN-STYLE, Rennie Harris's intent is to provide "a greater understanding of how I personally choose to find the light during dark times." He created LUV with his son, Brandyn, who also performs as the main character in the show; this work is their family's contribution to the conversation. We hope it inspires you artistically, and perhaps gives you a springboard for meaningful conversations.
 

Lindsey Buller-Maliekel Lindsey Buller Maliekel is the Director of Education / Public Engagement for The New Victory Theater and has worked here since 2004.  She oversees the New Vic/New 42 Youth Corps program, as well as all enrichment activities for New Vic families. If you've ever stayed for a Talk-Back with the artists or hula-hooped with Teaching Artists before a show, Lindsey hopes that you had a great time! She has two sons who she hopes will always enjoy going to the theater with her.
Posted by Zack Ramadan
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