"Careful the things you say /Children will listen/ Careful you do it too/ Children will see /And learn....."
Those lyrics, from Stephen Sondheim's Into the Woods come to life in Bryan Andes and Miranda Critz's first-grade classes in New York City's Midtown West Public School 212. Eight years ago Andes and colleague Karl Heist initiated a family studies program for their kindergarten classes. The following year those students, now first graders, embarked upon a curriculum in which they explored a thriving industry in their neighborhood restaurant row. Then, in 2005, Andes and Heist had a revelation. Why not add another curriculum geared toward the other industry that is a prominent part of the school's midtown Manhattan neighborhood: the theater.
Ever since, students have been learning about theater almost as soon as they're learning the alphabet. The school's theater study begins with fairy tales: what they've meant to families and artists alike. And the children get their lessons from the pros: almost 80 theater actors, directors, writers, musicians and other theater people have made guest appearances. Vanessa Redgrave read from Snow White, portraying the witch and explaining to the class how she came to know the story as a child in her native England, when her mother gave her a book during wartime. Producer Scott Rudin told of of how he came to bring his friend Joan Didion's book The Year of Magical Thinking to Broadway. (The kids know that their "new" friend, Ms. Redgrave, was the star of his play.) Rudin tries to translate the profound emotions from that play into language the children can comprehend, comparing the main character's grief at the death of her husband to the pain children feel at the death of a pet. "Nothing is done at random," says Andes. "All our guest have significant ties to each other. We make connections."
A 10-piece orchestra from the Broadway musical The Little Mermaid visited the class and orchestrator Danny Troob explained which instruments convey water, waves, swells of emotions and sparkling lights. Stephen Sondheim instructed the kids on how to make sounds scary and rhyme words. The students were enthralled when choreographer Bob Avian coached them as dragons for the "Morning of the Dragon" number in Miss Saigon. Wonderful Town costume designer Martin Pakledinaz explained which costume colors connote sadness and hopefulness.
Through the latter half of kindergarten and first grade, the classes make about eight trips to the theater; Kevin Kline offered tips on how to fence as he did in Cyrano de Bergerac, and the cast from Spring Awakening have shared their vocal warm-up techniques. The wardrobe mistress from Wicked showed the kids where the nooks and crannies are hidden in the show's lavish costumes to allow the leading ladies to hang from ropes.
The program works because of Andes' passion for theater and teaching, and his persistence in pursuing his famous guests and helping them devise their lesson plans. After learning from these theater professionals about the various jobs, the children then pick a job for themselves. By the end of first grade, they will have created their own musical fairy tale. This year's show, an original production called Waking Beauty (using songs from some of the musicals the kids have been introduced to), will be performed in June with 54 first graders playing various parts, directing, designing the costumes, acting as stagehands, making posters and selling tickets. Any profits from their performances will be given back to the theater community donated to the Actors Fund.
"It's not about celebrity," says Andes of his innovative program. "It's about work. It's not about turning out the next dancer or orchestra leader. Each job is significant for a child to be an usher is just as valuable as being an actor. How we learn to write, to read, to think, to collaborate, how we engage in a creative process, allows everyone to participate." Or as Sondheim might have put it: "Glide them but step away, Children will glisten!"