Saturday, November 29, 2008

Teaching An Old Dog – Arf

by Norman Scott
From the Wave, Nov. 28, 2008, www.rockawave.cok

A clue that your brain is still functioning despite years of stuffing it full of unidentified flying objects is when you find yourself still learning lots of stuff, especially when it is from a range of people from the early 20’s to the 80’s. I’ve had to have my skull raised to hold all the incoming info, especially over the last few weeks. Here are just a few of the things I have learned recently.

I have been working with a group of retirees who produce a TV show for Manhattan Neighborhood Network, public access. Active Aging focuses on older people who have continued to work with a passion or have retired, only to take on tasks that are in many ways more challenging than their original jobs. We did a story on a tour bus guide in her late 70’s, an 80+ furrier in Greenpoint, and a 90-something woman still teaching yoga. So I suggested Howie Schwach, the esteemed managing editor of the Wave, for a story. Howie spent his career as a teacher and wrote the School Scope column and other features for the Wave. (I started buying the Wave just to read Howie’s stuff, a nice irony when I took over the column.) When the opportunity came, Howie leaped out of the Board of Ed and into the fire full-time. “I was told not all that much happens in Rockaway in June 2001,” Howie told us. Three months later – 9/11. And two months after that, the Wave was the epicenter of international coverage of the plane crash.

My partner in NorMark Productions, Mark Rosenhaft, and I shot an interview with Howie and showed it to the Active Aging people, who loved it. Many of the people involved are themselves retired from the industry, so we were working with real pros. Rita Satz, former Today Show/New Channel 4 producer (mostly for Consumer reporter Betty Furness) was very excited to be working on a Rockaway story because she used to come out here all the time as a child and met her future husband on the beach when she was 14. (She is now 84.) Rita looked at the footage and wrote a script for Mark and I to follow in editing. The skill with which she did this so clarified the entire process of creating a piece for TV, that I am going to try some of it on my own.

When the rest of the Active Aging crew saw the B-role footage (another expression I learned) of the beach, boardwalk, the open spaces, they said, “More. More Rockaway stories.” So I told them of my work as a videographer with the Rockaway Theatre Company and about retired teachers John Gilleece (Artistic Director) and Susan Jasper (Producer). A crew that included Rita and John S., a retired ABC director came out to do the story. Joan Arkin, who ran a Parisian fashion house in New York, joined them. Joan did the interviews and is producing the segment. (Both Joan and John are in their 70’s and seem busier than ever.)

It was dress rehearsal, the night before the opening of Rockaway Café ‘08, known in RTC lore as “Hell Night” and it was very kind of John and Susan to give us the time amidst the chaos of the band practicing and masses of kids and adults getting sound checks and making final adjustments. We watched and taped the dress rehearsal and these sophisticated Manhattanites were absolutely charmed. Joan proclaimed, “I want to move to Rockaway and get involved in this theater.” “Come on down,” John told her.

I don’t only learn from people senior to me. Last year I wrote about how much I learned in the improvisational acting class I took with RTC mainstay Frank Caiati, a 22-year-old college student. Frank, now 23, has graduated and is teaching a more structured acting class at the RTC. With much trepidation, since I can’t remember where I put my keys let alone memorize lines,
I decided to dip my toe in the water once again. “Why,” I ask myself, since I have no intention of doing any acting? I think it comes from a sense that parts of the personality I developed as a teacher for 35 years has been shrinking and I wanted to recapture it.

So far, in three weeks of class, I have had enormous insights into acting and the entire theater scene. Frank is not just a great actor but also a great director (he may be directing a play next season at the RTC.) Getting up on stage with the lights in your eyes and your fellow classmates in the audience is a very different experience than speaking in front of large audiences, which I often do at union meetings. “Think of a wall between you and the audience,” is one of the things he tells us. Frank has managed to make those of us who have not acted before (about half the class) feel extremely comfortable. We’ve learned how to work our way into a character as Frank prods us with questions that are beyond the script. After our first class I went to see the great English/French actress Kristen Scott Thomas in I’ve Loved You So Long (don’t miss it) and found myself applying the insights I learned from Frank into her amazing performance. So not only am I doing things I never thought I would but am also getting a richer experience as an audience due to Frank's coaching. How does someone so young know so much?

This week I learned something else at the RTC. An “all hands on deck” call went out to assist with replacing the covers on the 240 seats at the theater. An assembly line was set up with a crew removing the seats, another getting the old covers off and a third putting on the new covers. I was part of the middle crew. Have you seen under the cover of a 70 year old seat full of stuffing and horsehair? Cough, cough. I was working with Frank, RTC choreographer and actress Catherine Leib and Nancy Sturgis, who has starred in so many RTC productions. Nancy was joined by her husband and kids. Janna Sturgis recently starred in Annie. At the RTC, I learned, everyone is expected to pitch in. And they do.

I learned lots of other stuff recently. About how the UFT can try to dampen a rally for ATRs, the 1400 hundred teachers without assignments. And how Randi Weingarten gets very nervous when you try to videotape her. How there are people who try to tell us none of what’s happened is really George Bush’s fault. And how the people who were bashing Obama for his supposed terrorist connections are deciding whether they want their crow barbecued or broiled.

Read all about it daily at Norm’s blog:
Look for Norm’s political column, Politically Unstable, appearing occasionally in The Wave.
Norm’s email:

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