Monday, June 18, 2007

Queens School of Inquiry

Just when I feared teaching for the test had driven creative thought from all public schools, I
ran head long into QSI, Queens School of Inquiry. My friend and colleague from Brooklyn College, Illana Block, had directed me to the school, encouraging me to submit a proposal for a
college immersion program. Being immersed myself in Sophocles these days, having written a one act adaptation of ANTIGONE, I proposed that I introduce a class of 80 vivacious (and sometimes loquacious) seventh graders to my all time favorite angry teen. Not only did the kids
take to Antigone immediately, they enjoyed meeting her ill fated family, as well as raising
provocative questions about the nature of fate and free will.

If any of my College Immersion students or their equally vivacious teachers stop by, I do hope you blog back!

This is an excerpt of an article by one of the program's masterminds, Mary Beth Schaeffer-- for any of my academic friends who balked at the idea of integrating 7th graders into college life!



It was not only summer session at Queens College—it was also College Immersion week for the seventh grade at the QSI. On Monday, nervous and excited students kept close to their teachers’ elbows and bumped into each other as they consulted maps and schedules. By Friday, the maps were gone and QSI students were kings of the campus, chatting on their way to class, laughing with friends, finding their way to bathrooms and classrooms with practiced ease.
There were some courses that all three QSI classes shared: Greek Drama, Library, Physical Education and Classroom. The daily two-hour college courses were much smaller, with 8-12 students in each: these classes will be discussed in next week’s update. I will have a better understanding of how students fared in their smaller classes after they present their projects to the sixth grade on Monday and I read their reflections and tally up the results of the course surveys.

Antigone: Fate or Free Will?
Award-winning playwright Eileen Ressler opened up our week with a stunning hour and a half introduction to the Greek theater, Oedipus, Antigone, and the concepts of Fate, Destiny and Free Will. Using a combination of lecture, question/answer, writing, performance, quizzes and a showing of scenes from Jean Anouilh’s rendition of Antigone, Professor Ressler captured students’ interest and generated questions from them that stunned even their teachers: for example, our students wondered, “How can you change your destiny if you don’t know the actions that might lead to it?” and “Why do authority figures [in Greek Drama] attract trouble?” and “Can you change destiny?”
Thanks again QSI!

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Review of Cemetery Club

When Jennifer Howard told me that she was performing in Cememtery Club with the Valley Players of Waitsfield, Vermont, a drama about 3 widows who regularly visit, and sometimes polish the tombstones, of their dead husbands at a Jewish cemetery in Queens, I was struck by the irony. Here I would be traveling a full 8 hours from the tiny house where we crash in Queens, the house where our backyard looks out on those very graves! (One of whose otherworldly Jewish residents is no less than the great Harry Houdini.)

Yuhp, all of life's a stage.

Here's a review of last Sunday's matinee performance.

Cemetery Club
by Ivan Meschell
Directed by Tom Badowski

The sameness of Vermont accounts for its beauty. The same green mountains, giving way to the same green fields giving way to the cookie cutter cows and the picture postcard barns, some standing, some slouching, but all distinctively Vermont.
Living in Vermont, I've come to count on the regularity of long winters that run a month or so too long, giving way to mud season and then the long awaited lush green summers, berry picking, giving way to apples and the storage of a few bushels to get us at least through September and the mad headlong rush back into brief autumn and another too long winter, but much beloved (by skiers, snowboarders, writers and recluses alike) winter.
But it's the sameness that makes the sudden surprises so unexpected.
Yes, I had traveled from our home in Castelton to Burlington and beyond many times, but never having strayed off the main roads, I was exhilerated by the dips and curves of Route 17, where a ride I anticipated would take ten to fifteen minutes, verged on an hour as we twisted and turned our way to Waitsfield.
That's where the surprise occurred.
In a squat brick building circa 1850 three actresses defied their own Vermont accents to reproduce a New York City twang, and spoke with the rapid fire one-liners that author Ivan Meschell had invented for the three Jewish widows kibitzing and kvetching on an overstuffed sofa.
Who knew?
Dramatically another surprise stalked the audience when this quick witted repartee turned serious, and the actresses portrayed the poignancy, frustrations and rage of aging.
So unexpected was the shift that the audience was still laughing as Lucille, an aging femme fatale ( or so she likes to pretend) delivers the harsh truth of aging, lonliness and lies as way a method acting approach to survival.
From the wisecracking Lucille, actress Joyce Crabtree, wrings out genuine pathos, and when at the end of the play she leaves the graveside of her diminishing social circle, one feels deeply the heaviness of the solitude we all must face.
In the same unexpected way, Doris played by Andrea Kisler also took the audience by surprise with her own fit of anger when with a drink splashed in Lucille's face, she defies any image of her as a hand wringing widow to be ignored. Similiarly Ida, played by Jennifer Howard, does not allow the audience to dismiss her as one more over the hill old lady, when poignantlyshe reveals her own deep needs as a woman who chooses not old age, but ongoing life.
(Sam the butcher, has a tough job fending off the advances of the widows, but played by the shuffling Kirk Lilley, one can imagine the charm of his vulnerability. )
So much for sameness.
(And so I do plan to return to the home of the Valley Players for more of the same, vital community theater that both entertains and provokes.)