Indie Theatre Makes a Difference for Children & Families hit by Sandy 

Shay Gines 
11/19/2012 


“The food and supplies are important” says a NYCHA worker, “but the kind of relief that your team brought is just as important, and sometimes more important.”



I am standing on a corner of Beach Channel Drive in the Far Rockaways. There is a crispness in the air and the sun is bright. A mother crosses the street toward me, pushing a cart with one hand and pulling a 6 year old boy along with the other. A girl, a little older than her brother, follows behind dragging her feet as they cue up with the other families waiting for hot food, water, blankets and other supplies. “Would you like to color?” I ask the girl. She looks at me shyly and shakes her head “yes.” “We have markers and crayons inside. Or you could paint.” Her eyes light up and she looks at her mother expectantly. “We’re doing some workshops for the kids, teaching them to juggle,” I explain “and there’s arts and crafts.” The little girl grabs her mother’s arm and hops up and down. The mom smiles and says, “go ahead.”  Before she can even finish her sentence the two kids are running ahead of me as I point to the arts and crafts room. 

20 minutes later the mother pokes her head around the corner and watches her children as they enthusiastically sculpt with playdough. “It’s a fish” the girl says. “No, it’s a snail” her brother corrects her. The mother looks at one of the volunteer artists, “That’s the first time I’ve seen her smile in weeks” she says. Across the hall artists from the New Victory Theatre are teaching a group of children to balance feathers and juggle with colored scarves. Squeals of laughter and excitement echo through the building. The atmosphere at the whole center seems cheerier somehow as the staff look at each other and chuckle at the sounds of unfettered joy.

What brought these artists and other theatre volunteers to a NYCHA community center in the most remote area of the Far Rockaways?

Since Hurricane Sandy struck on October 29th, the Center has served as a food and clothing distribution hub, a FEMA field office and an essential resource for the neighborhood. For the last couple of weeks, the Children’s Health Fund has parked a mobile medical unit at this location to provide vital medical services to the children and families of one of the communities hardest hit by Hurricane Sandy. While stationed here, the CHF staff noted that the children were also in critical need of a morale boost. Since the storm they have been without power or running water. They have been cooped up, displaced and dealing with the uncertainties of this disaster. While listening to the medical providers relate this information at a staff meeting last week I started to think about the Indie Theatre community.

Like many New Yorkers, after the storm, Indie Theatre artists jumped in to help their neighbors, volunteering their time and donating money and resources to many worthy organizations. And while we contributed to the recovery efforts of the city at large, we also looked to the OOB community and those theatres that were damaged and the productions that had to cancel rehearsals or performances. Sean Williams began to coordinate the Indie Theatre Sandy Relief effort to help companies negatively affected by the hurricane. Amanda Feldman began to organize volunteers to help clean up theatres that had been flooded or damaged. Everyone has had a “how can I help” attitude.

“On one hand,” I thought, “there is a community of children who need a creative outlet and activities. On the other hand, there is a community of talented artists who are eager to help - some of whom do children’s theatre or have been trained in theatre education. This is a perfect marriage of using the creative capital of Indie Theatre to contribute in a meaningful way to the needs of a community in crisis.” Thus, the seed of the Indie Theatre USO: Sandy Relief Effort was formed. Once we got approval to accompany the medical unit, we had 3 days to organize the endeavor.

It was a community-wide effort. Heather Cunningham and Jennifer Gordon Thomas jumped in bringing their expertise and connections. Heather had volunteered with the Parks Department helping clean up debris. Their on-the-ground insight, organization and resources were essential. Sean Williams took on the herculean effort of coordinating the performers. Amanda Feldman sourced a vehicle to transport artists and volunteers to and from the location.

A call was put out for coloring books, crayons, art supplies and games and the community responded. Hillary Cohen, Robert Gore, Michael Criscuolo, Deborah Oppenheim, Sharon Tai, Sarah James, apparently Sean Williams’ entire neighborhood, The Ohmies and many other artists donated supplies. Black Rock, Inc. loaned us folding tables. TDF, United Stages, Ralph Lewis and the IT Foundation board contributed funds and the Carnival Girls Productions donated all the proceeds from their Friday merchandise sales to the endeavor. Leah Bonvissuto miraculously created a banner ad in like 15 minutes and Martin Denton posted it at NYTheatre.com.



We had an amazing team of teaching artists, story tellers, clowns and movement teachers who generously volunteered their time, skills and talents: No Tea Productions, Tasha Gordon-Solomon, Lindsay Torrey, Heidi Johnson, Carlos Martin, Brianne Blessitt, Corrine Woods, Aizzah Fatima, Stephanie Cox-Williams, Nikki Castle, Emily Edwards, Heather Cohn, Alix Gerstein,Tanya Solomon, Dana Rossi. Pete Boisvert, Marielle Duke, Becky Byers, and an entire crew of teaching artists from the New Victory Theatre: Jonathan Shmidt, WT McRae, Anne Zuerner, Billy Schultz, Jeremy Chapman, Margot Fitzsimmons, Penelope McCourty, Heather Nicolson, Margot Fitzsimmons, Sarah Petersiel, James Miles, Lindsey Buller Maliekel, and Rach Holmes.

And of course there was a chorus of well wishes from the community that fueled our drive.

We did not know what we would find upon our arrival. We did not know if we would be inside or out. We did not know if there were bathrooms or running water. We did not know how many children there would be. But we arrived on-site, energetic and happy to be there. The overworked community center staff greeted us with smiles and was available to help with whatever they could.

The kids in this community were ready for creative interaction. They were eager to play, stretch their talents and learn new skills. You could see the excitement in their faces when they realized what activities were available. They would sometimes run home and return with siblings or friends in tow.  

Drawing stations were set up outside to provide a distraction for the kids as they waited in line with their parents. Crayons and coloring books were distributed. Even children just walking by, often accompanying their parents on errands, were welcome to sign their name or draw a cat or a stick figure or just pick up some crayons.

Heather was moved by a boy who walked by the table and wanted to color, but whose mother was in a hurry. "Do you like to color?" Heather asked. "Yes," he replied. "Do you have crayons at home?" "No." "Would you like to have crayons at home?" "Yes." "Well then, I'd like to give you these crayons," she said handing him a box of brand new crayons. His eyes widened, his mother looked grateful and said "say thank you." He looked up and whispered “thank you” and they were on their way.

Inside, an arts and crafts room was set up with stations. The kids could choose to paint, draw, color, make puppets or sculpt. In the activities room they could learn to juggle, spin a plate on a stick, do an acrobatic routines or a clown routine.

A young man who was 13 or 14 years old curiously watched through the door of the activities room. “What’s going on?” he asked. “We’re teaching kids to juggle” the artist replied, “would you like to learn?” He watched for a minute and then decided to try juggling the scarves. Soon he was juggling silver balls and was so proud of his accomplishment that he ran around the building showing the volunteers, his neighbors, the other kids, anyone he could find that would give him an audience. By the end of the second day this young man could spin a plate on a stick while juggling with his other hand and spent much of the day helping teach the other children how to juggle. “I went from being a student to being a teacher in a day" he beamed.

"It's just joy” said one father “and that's what we haven't had for weeks. People don’t realize how stressful this is on the kids."

The parents were just as grateful for these activities. One mother asked Sean if it would be okay to leave her kids with us for a few minutes. "We'll be here until 2:30 and we have a lot of stuff for them to do" Sean answered. The mother started to say thank you but then just grabbed his arm and waved her hand in front of her face, trying not to cry. After about ten seconds, she said, "I'll be back before that."

At the end of each day the kids had a performance for their parents, neighbors and the NYCHA workers, showing off their new skills and art projects. The room was filled with applause and cheers as each child proudly took their turn.

“The food and supplies are important” says a NYCHA worker, “but the kind of relief that your team brought is just as important, and sometimes more important.”

While this experience was beneficial to the community, it was just as enriching for the artists. “Our entire group had such a fantastic experience,” said Jonathan Shmidt, Associate Director of Education for the New Victory Theatre “and it was clear how much the kids at the center needed a distraction, a laugh, and a chance to shine.”

"This is who we are. Every single thing we do is some variation of this - to tell stories and to inspire creation, especially when we need distraction" said Sean Williams. "This is the essence of theater in my mind, to alleviate pain and stress and to inspire self expression and creation. That's what we were doing."

Already we have had requests to visit more sites. It was a wonderful way to give back and especially before Thanksgiving. It was a very affirming experience that helps to bring into focus all the things we have to be thankful for.


As an addendum, we received a donation of a beginners’ juggling kit that will be sent to the young prodigy.

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If you are an artist or theatre company that was negatively affected by Hurricane Sandy, participate in the Indie Theatre Sandy Relief Festival.

If you would like to volunteer for future Indie Theatre Response efforts, please let us know.


 

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