A Visit with David Staller
"No! No, No, No, No, No! Oh, No! Ugh!"
That was my over-the-top reaction when I was told Broadway Books First Class guest artist David Staller was in my classroom. It wasn't that I wasn't thrilled to have him there. I was. It's just that I was down the hall, standing outside the preschool bathroom waiting on my students and unable to make the proper fuss. Welcoming a guest is a big deal. There is fanfare and applause when a guest arrives. David was being robbed of the entrance he deserved.
I anxiously encouraged the children not to dawdle and we made our way back. Upon turning into the doorway of our room I was immediately charmed. Here was David Staller - the celebrated founding artistic director of New York's Gingold Theatrical Group and premier interpreter of the works of George Bernard Shaw - sitting crossed-legged on the floor chatting with ASL interpreter Stephanie Feyne! The bright yellow socks visibly peeking out from beneath his pant legs seemed to reflect the glow and warmth of the man himself. His beautiful, open smile welcomed US into the space and set the tone. All was going to unfold exactly as it should.
I joined David and Stephanie on the floor as the preschool children settled in to face us. And then right on cue, the second graders arrived. At this point the children typically introduce themselves, but David had another surprise in store for us. He used ASL (without voice) to say HI, MY NAME IS DAVID. He even has a sign name! The children were visibly impressed, but one child could be heard over the others saying, "I'm so confused. Is he deaf?" Without missing a beat David responded (in sign) NO, I'M HEARING.
He also shared that he was a very shy, nonverbal child. He said a feeling of invisibility sometimes came upon him in his early years. Later in his life he understood and could articulate the importance of being seen and heard. Then he paused and deliberately looked at each child. His purpose shone through - he wanted them to know he saw them. He told us that as he grew older he decided it was time to take off that cloak of invisibility (nod to Harry Potter) and be seen. It was that determination, coupled with fortitude, that brought him into the wonderful world of theater.
We shared a photograph of David from when he was 4-years-old to highlight not only the fact that, like all adults, he was once a child - a notion young ones always find shocking - but to put a spotlight on possibility. Who would have thought the quiet, curly haired boy in the picture would go on to become a celebrated artist? Yet, it happened. And the children in the room could likewise create their own life stories.
"Everything is wonderful if you enjoy it and you feel creative and you can communicate and you can collaborate and you can be a part of other people being happy and making other people happy." David Staller
David made a bold move when he was just 15-years-old. He left Chicago and traveled to Manhattan to join the prestigious Joffrey Ballet Company. From there he went on to study the cello and perform with one of the greatest cellists of the 20th century, Mstislav Rostropovich. He later tackled Broadway as a singer and actor in the original Broadway production of Evita with Patti LuPone and Mandy Patinkin. Roles in Cabaret and Hello, Dolly! followed, as well as parts in various off-Broadway and regional theater productions. Our cozy chat helped set the stage for his reading.
I asked David to read The Bear and the Piano by David Litchfield. It is a beautiful story about a bear cub who discovers a piano in the forest. He learns to play it and by the time he grows into a big, strong, grizzly his friends have gathered many nights to hear his magical melodies. Eventually, the bear is discovered and whisked away to share his gifts with the world. But applause and adoration are meaningless without friends. He missed home. So, he returns. There is a bit of worry. Had he been forgotten? Of course not! He is greeted with love and welcomed home by his proud friends in an emotional reunion.
It's emotional for me too. I think anyone who leaves the comfort of home to pursue a dream can relate to this story. It also has the added bonus of showing Broadway in the illustrations. The children always take joy in making that connection to our guest artists. Note - This book was also read aloud in the second year of the program by the magnificent Elizabeth Ward Land.
Throughout the reading David stopped to clarify, ask questions, and interact with the students. And as always, I was taken with the beautiful ASL interpretation by Stephanie Feyne, who can often be found interpreting for Broadway shows and Shakespeare in the Park. Together, David and Stephanie made their own magic.
As we arrived at the question and answer portion of the visit we realized many of our questions had already been answered quite naturally throughout the morning. When asked why he formed Gingold Theatrical Group his answer reflected his previous responses and mirrored the message of the book...
"I started my own theater company to present plays that would encourage everybody to find their voice...We need to be strong together and to support each other."
Our visit was brought to a close with a show of gratitude. We gave him a copy of the book signed by all of the children and he then signed copies of the book to give to each student.
David really understood what I hope to achieve with this program and supported it wholeheartedly in word and deed. His visit was a wonderful way to end Year Four of the program. As I look ahead to working with kindergarteners next school year, I embrace David's message of support and community. I look forward to what Year Five will bring.
Broadway Books First Class