A Visit with Jessica Hecht
Exploring the work of an artist is an interesting and contemplative endeavor when you are viewing it with an eye toward sharing your musings with a group of young students. In preparation for our Broadway Books First Class (BBFC) guest artist visit with Tony Award nominee Jessica Hecht, I first let the scope of her work wash over me. I charted the timeline of her Broadway shows and wondered what themes would emerge. What kinds of shows spoke to her? What connections could be made across shows that might give a glimpse into what she is passionate about based on the projects she's selected?
Jessica made her Broadway debut in 1997 in Alfred Uhry's The Last Night of Ballyhoo. The play takes place in Atlanta, Georgia in 1939 within an upper class German-Jewish community. Hitler recently conquered Poland and Gone with the Wind is about to premiere - both provide a backdrop for the action. The plot centers around a Jewish family struggling with their identity in the face of the tumultuous manifestations of racism and prejudice swirling around them.
I could easily connect this play to her 2015 foray into musical theater with the Broadway revival of Fiddler on the Roof. This is a well-known and beloved story of a Jewish family steeped in tradition while navigating the inevitable tide of change. Both shows deal with conflict, oppression, struggle, and family. That connection gave me a great place to start.
Then, there were other shows by heavy hitters like Arthur Miller (The Price, After the Fall, and her Tony nominated performance in A View from the Bridge), Neil Simon (Brighton Beach Memoirs, Broadway Bound), and William Shakespeare (Julius Caesar). Here, too, were dramatic offerings dealing with themes of conflict, struggle, and family. I began to see that Jessica was an actress unafraid to roll up her sleeves and tackle some, often uncomfortable, universal truths.
I brought all this to the children and slowly laid it out over the course of several weeks. They soaked it all up. They asked probing questions to clarify the weighty themes. I showed them the sign for "CONFLICT" and we discussed its meaning. One student said it is like two trains crashing into each other. We made connections with Disney's Frozen, a show performed by our former guest artist Jelani Alladin. Students more readily understood conflict, oppression, and the importance of family, through Elsa's struggle to fit in because she was different.
The parallels were easy to make between The Last Night of Ballyhoo and Fiddler on the Roof. We talked about inner conflict and outer conflict, self-esteem, pride, and what it feels like to be made small.
I worked with the kindergarten and second grade students each morning for two weeks in separate sessions. I started the day with the second graders where our conversations gave credence to their ability to grapple with the serious themes. It was evident in their questions and in the silence brought about by thought. I try never to rush through the quiet moments of processing during a lesson. I'd leave the second graders and return to my own kindergarten class to cover the same material, ever mindful of the modifications in approach and language necessary to engage my younger ones.
Jessica Hecht's work gave us so much to explore! Together we developed questions that showed me how far the second graders have come over the years in their language development and understanding of formulating open-ended questions to promote discussions with our guest artists. (Note: The second graders were my students in kindergarten and first grade.) The first two questions, "How did you feel when you went on stage for the first time?" and the follow-up, "Did that feeling change as you continued to do more shows?" proved to be very insightful. Jessica comes across as very articulate, deliberate, centered, aware, and open in her responses.
She is also unafraid of sharing her vulnerability and that is where the magic happens. I first saw the power of this when Mary Testa cried during her guest artist visit as she described the healing nature of theater in response to student questions. Jessica's response to the children's questions held the same honesty.
It started with her sharing how she deals with nerves related to performance and continued as she led us in some of the vocal exercises she did to prepare for her role as Golde in Fiddler on the Roof. She invited the students to join in and they happily accepted. Then, she played a recording of "Do You Love Me?" from the musical. It is a duet between Golde and her husband, Tevye. As the recording played, ASL interpreter Lynnette Taylor stepped into spotlight to work her considerable magic. Her impromptu interpretation - she did not know the song would be played beforehand - was truly mesmerizing. Lynnette captured every nuance hidden in the words and we all watched in awe. Students attentively watched and some copied Lynnette to bring the feeling into their own bodies, which deepened their understanding. It's brilliant to see people shine in their element.
That brilliance was evident in Jessica's reading of the children's book Sylvester and the Magic Pebble by William Steig. Jessica chose this book because it was a favorite of her own children. It's a beautiful story that reminds us of what is truly important in life - the relationships we build, the love we share, and the moments we spend together. This was a message we could apply to Jessica's work as well - conflict, struggle, and the importance of family to get us through it all.
Our visit was fast approaching the time when each student would have an opportunity to meet with Jessica individually to receive a personalized, hardcover copy of the book. We had such a full morning we didn't even get to talk about her work in Friends, Breaking Bad, The Sinner, or her Emmy nominated performance in Special.
As Jessica signed books and chatted with each child, the rest of the students were busy either reading their copies of the book or writing thank you cards. There are a lot of moving pieces to coordinate to make these guest artist visits happen. I want to thank the following folks for their support. First, Bryan Andes, an incredible NYC Public School educator, for connecting me with Jessica. Second, Andrew Fletcher for purchasing 36 copies of Sylvester and the Magic Pebble in honor of our mentor, Dr. Joanna Uhry. Third, the teachers and ASL interpreters I work with to ensure more students can take part in the program and have equal access to them (with a special nod to my BBFC documentarian, Eileen Lograno). And finally, Jessica Hecht for being the reason we all came together to celebrate literacy and the arts.
Broadway Books First Class