Who Run The World?: In Headtrick Theatre’s The Assembly Women, girls

If you didn’t catch Headtrick Theatre’s production of The Assembly Women, my condolences that you missed this tremendously entertaining and thought-provoking piece. 

The Assembly Women is written by Aristophanes, but Headtrick’s adaptation was adapted and directed by Rebecca Maxfield, and wow does she do an incredible job! Greek theater is hard, and as an English teacher who has been tasked for more than half of her career to bring Greek theater to life, I can see now after watching this show I have failed miserably, and I just wish I was able to bring this production into the classroom. (Although here’s my teacher warning- there is some language in here which would prohibit me from bringing it into the classroom, so be warned this is not a show to bring your tween to.)

In a nutshell, the show’s premise is that everything in Athens would be better if women ran the government, something our narrator, Aristophanes, finds hilarious. Led by Praxoga, the women of Athens manage to wrestle power from the men, resulting in several reforms, including a sexual liberation. 

Is there more to this show? Absolutely. Am I going to ruin the show by detailing everything that happens? No not at all. The discussions brought forth in this piece will have you talking far longer than the hour it takes to see the production. 

In an ensemble piece it really is difficult to highlight only a few actors, and this talented ensemble makes that even more difficult. Ezra Jordan’s Aristophanes was so hilarious I could literally watch him take on this character as a one man show. Sarah Dunn commands your attention as Praxagora, and her leading man, Blepyrus, played by Ryk McIntyre had the audience in stitches. BYOI’s Audrey Dubois’ comedic chops were on full display throughout the evening. The ensemble also consisted of Tracy Coffey, Cherylee Dumas, JT Cunha, and Sammie Jackson. They were all tremendously talented, and a joy to watch.

I love love love outdoor, minimalist theater. Throw away the fourth wall as this production gleefully has, and I was in theater heaven for the evening. We saw the production at Riff Raff, mainly because I’ve been looking for a reason to visit the bookstore/bar/cafe. (Although now that I’ve been, the Lavender Lemonade should have been all the reason I needed to go!)

Bravo to Maxfield for adapting this piece of ancient theater, and making it relevant to today. An endeavor like this isn’t one that is done overnight, and producing this piece after Roe v. Wade was overturned makes this evening of theater a timeless one indeed. Let this be your reminder to RUN NOT WALK to see their next production, because of its halfway as timeless and entertaining as The Assembly Women was, you’ll be in for a real treat!

The Assembly Women performed at Riffraff Bookstore, the Providence Pedestrian Bridge, and the RISD Museum Gallery. Check out Headtrick’s Facebook page for upcoming productions. 

Take a Break: Schools should give contact tracers time to catch up

I’m a teacher in Providence, and since the beginning of this pandemic I’ve been asked by the Rhode Island Department of Health to quarantine twice. Once in July, the same day my name was mentioned to a contact tracer, and a second time the first week of school this year, two days after contact. Not bad. I had faith in the contact tracing system, even after being quarantined so early in the school year. 

We now have had two full months in school. Gone are the days of a quick turnaround by RIDOH. Now, if you’re lucky to even get a call, teachers and students are being told about quarantining a week after contact. Sometimes ten days. 

Look at that timeline. We went from being told the day of, to 48 hours, to seven to 10 days. Think of what you do in seven days. It’s  seven to 10 days of going about your daily business, maybe the grocery store, possibly a restaurant. It’s certainly not isolating from your family in your own home, which is what you’re asked to do while quarantining. It’s sending your child to school or your partner to work, all the while not knowing you could be positive. And if you are, now your family could be spreading it to their schools or workplaces. 

RIDOH appears to be so backed up now, that I feel guilt if I have to go to Dave’s Market to grab bread. To say that school being in session hasn’t put a burden on RIDOH, many of whom are brand new to the job, would be a logical fallacy.

If you’ve ever read something I’ve written before you know I love and mainly talk about two things; live theater and education. I love being a teacher. In fact I often say it’s not a job, it really feels like a calling. I love nothing more than that moment when a student “gets it.” Generally in my classroom that moment is followed by me jumping up and down and using my best Rhode Island accent to exclaim that they are “wicked smaht.” I love the days where we move all the desks, “circle up” and discuss the novel we’re reading, or the collaborative lesson on the power of words where the entire class has to put together something they collectively “destroyed,” all the while I’m counting/singing  down to  add suspense (and because quite frankly it’s just way more fun that way). 

Of course with COVID, these things can’t happen. I’ve had to adjust my lessons to be socially distant, and adaptable for online work. And that’s okay because I am up for the challenge, and more importantly, my students are up for the challenge. We do, however, expect the state to hold up their end of the bargain, and that includes contact tracing. And here’s the thing: It’s not the state’s fault that they’re this backed up; between the new contact tracers and the growing numbers, it’s no wonder that they’re backed up. It is that state’s fault if they keep their blinders on. 

The Department of Health needs a break. They need to breathe. Schools need to switch to distance learning while the contact tracers are trained, and have time to catch up. And it’s not like schools aren’t already doing this. Some private schools have been switching to distance learning when they get one case to give contact tracers time to notify all contacts. (Don’t hold your breath waiting for the governor to call them out on it, especially when she sends tuition to a private school that has temporarily switched to distance learning already this year.) There are charter schools that have made the decision to choose distance learning for their students, and there are some public school communities that have decided from time to time to switch to distance learning while things calm down. These are rational and appropriate decisions to make. It gives custodians the extra time for deep cleans, and it gives RIDOH time to catch up with the ever important contact tracing. Yet when the public schools make these choices, Governor Raimondo bullies them from her press conferences and maligns them in the media. (The fact that she remains quiet when private schools and public charter schools do the same illustrates her disdain of unionized teachers.  But the vast inequities in Rhode Island education could fill an entire book.)

I am a highly effective teacher, and I love being in the classroom. But because of my job I feel like the only thing I can do without unintentionally harming others is go to work and come straight home. I’m too nervous to see my friends or my family. I’m not taking the governor’s advice and going out to eat in restaurants. I’m not out shopping. For the most part I go to school and go home. But am I harming the people in my own home by not wearing a mask in my house? 

Without confidence in the contact tracing system, what choice is the governor giving educators, and the additional staff members in schools? I love teaching, I often joke around with the saying #teacherlife when speaking of grading and the silly things that happen throughout a day, but is the state of Rhode Island trying to force teachers into #hermitlife? I’m also speaking as a parent here. If I don’t know for seven to ten days that I’ve been exposed, how do I protect my family? Teachers don’t live in a bubble, but this serious lapse in contact tracing is asking us to.    

I beg the state of Rhode Island to take a breath, pause and give the contact tracers the time to do their job. We have a statewide calendar, and Thanksgiving week is only two school days. Switch to distance learning through the Thanksgiving break, give the contact tracers that time to catch up and give families what they really want this holiday season: peace of mind.

See You in September: One local teacher argues against in-person learning

A lot has been said lately about reopening our schools. And there should be a healthy discussion about it — after all education is the single most important aspect of a functioning society. It is the only industry that literally makes every other industry possible. I’m not being hyperbolic; without education we wouldn’t have lawyers, doctors, even Presidents … although after his last tweet on the issue, it’s clear he could use a day or two in my English class to learn how to effectively communicate. But I digress. 

As a society we need education to educate. Of course now that we’re living through a pandemic, we also hear that we need education so parents can get back to work. (And let me tell you, nothing is more frustrating as an educator than when our profession is held up as a holding den for kids while their parents are at work.) We shouldn’t be pushing for school to reopen to save jobs, we should be pushing for school to reopen so we can educate our future leaders.

But here’s the thing: We need to do this safely for all parties involved. What happens if a student comes down with COVID-19? Every student in that class quarantines? Now maybe that sounds feasible to you, but my high school students have six classes they go to a day. So in that scenario, we’re quarantining six classes full of students as well as the six educators that hold everything together. What about siblings? Do they also have to quarantine? How about the children of teachers? Every hour we’re hearing about camps that have had to close after infections; today it came out that a district in California simply had a meeting about reopening, and now dozens of administrators are quarantined. Now picture this happening in October. What happens to kids then? Even with some districts saying that they’re going to give families a choice, how does that work with the teacher? Is every lesson to be designed as an online lesson so you can simultaneously teach students at home and online?  

Before any naysayer can attempt to claim this is just a plea for more “at home time,” let me stop you right there. I’m an educator. I’m also a mom.  Distance learning was not a walk in the park as a working parent. I had to set up a classroom that didn’t interrupt my son’s learning or my husband’s job because I don’t run a quiet classroom. I found myself answering emails and checking papers at all hours of the day, which isn’t too far off from the norm, but it also felt like I was never leaving work. With only a week’s notice I had to think of ways to engage my students and not turn class into a digital “chalk and talk.” I also had to do what every other parent in our state had to do: Make sure my own child had what he needed, stepped in as IT support occasionally, made sure he got up every now and then, took a break, had something to eat. I learned that working from home is not for me. One of my happiest places on Earth is room 304. In my classroom I witness greatness on a daily basis. Being with my students is inspiring, intellectually stimulating, and just plain fun. (My students have a great sense of humor. And who doesn’t like to laugh at work?) It broke my heart ending 2019-2020 at home, and I don’t want to be away from my students anymore. I also don’t want to see any more of my students lose family members. Or witness students trying to work on school work (and in one case take an AP exam) while struck with COVID.  

There are far too many questions, and although Rhode Island has done an extraordinary job handling this pandemic, there are too many variables to ensure every stakeholder’s safety. And let’s not forget: Rhode Island led the country in distance learning. We know we can do this and offer rigorous lessons for our students. Let’s lead again. Let’s invest in hotspots so students can access school from home. To say that this is a difficult time for the world would be a gross understatement; however, if we can continue to navigate through this safely use this time to really plan for distance learning for the health and safety of everyone in our state, we will once again come out as leaders. Let’s teach the rest of the country how this can be done, and continue distance learning.

A Letter to the Graduating Class of 2020: From your high school English teacher

Dear Students of the Class of 2020, 

I write this as we got the news. News that we all knew was inevitable, but didn’t want to admit to ourselves. The school buildings in RI are closed for the rest of the year. This means we’ll be continuing with our distance learning classes. Your prom won’t look the same, and of course neither will graduation. But we, your teachers, know you’ll be okay. We know this more than anyone because we’ve witnessed you persevere and come back stronger than ever time and time again. We see it every day in our classrooms from the calculus problems you conquer to the Shakespeare you discover. Not only that, but as educators we’ve witnessed the waves in education through your class. Common Core State Standards were rolled out when you were in the 2nd grade; parents freaked out (new math ack!) and you grew with it. You took the tests given to you, from NECAPP to PARCC, RICASS, to the SATs. You were in our classrooms when tragic national news broke out, and you were in our classrooms during aftermaths of such events sharing your thoughts, ideas and fears. You made memes their own language, (daaamn Daniel), flipped bottles to new heights, made SnapChat and TikTok a thing, and flossed your way in and out of Fortnite.

More importantly, you made friends. Friends who will lead this country with you one day. And yeah let’s say it out loud. This sucks. You are absolutely entitled to feel upset, you can cry, (God knows I already have a few times!) and feel that it’s unfair. You may not give up. Not now, not ever.  Because we know, Class of 2020, that although this moment in time seems dark, the light you are going to bring to this world will outshine this darkness for years. Despite this moment in time, you’re going to give our society so much more than we could give you. Dear Class of 2020, you’ll run our government, build our buildings, teach younger generations, design the next big thing in technology, solve crimes, create art so fantastic we can’t even imagine it yet, cure our diseases. We know you’ll accomplish all of these things, because we’ve witnessed your accomplishments every day in our classrooms.

So today, and tomorrow, and the next, as you return to your computers to attend class, it’s okay to do so with a sinking heart. But we’re throwing out the life preserver to you. Grab it, hang on and finish strong. You it owe it to yourself and all the hard work it took you to get here. You deserve to be celebrated in any way we can right now.

And yeah, when this is all a memory, let’s have those celebrations loudly and proudly.

With love and admiration, 

Your teachers

Zooming into a New Normal: One teacher’s reflection on educating from afar

I love teaching. I love the time I spend every August getting my class together, from hanging the bulletin board paper and borders for my walls, to decorating my desk and wall with the mementos students have left me each year. It feels like Christmas when I’m going through my department’s inventory of novels, unpacking all of my school supplies. I honestly still get that thrill when I go school supply shopping! And then there’s the thrill about a week before classes start when I get my roster. The list of students who are now my students. The students who will groan over the homework I assign, who will undoubtedly laugh when I try, and fail, to reach the top of my SmartBoard, students who will message me “Thank you!” after receiving a grade on an essay … who will then of course be told by me that I don’t give grades, I just tally the score of their hard work. Those five minutes between classes where I set myself at the door so I can not only greet my kids coming into my room, but also to shout encouraging (and admittedly nerdy) phrases in the hall. From “T.G.I.M. Thank God it’s Monday!” to song parodies about summer reading, you can’t walk by Mrs. McLoud’s room on your way to class without hearing some type of shenanigans. I work all year to ensure that my classroom is a safe place not only to learning, but where my students can express themselves and grow into amazing adults. My colleagues and I work to ensure that same feeling of safety runs throughout our building. We feel it as adults, and more importantly, our students feel it.

This has been my day-to-day life since becoming a teacher — until Friday, March 13, when Governor Gina Raimondo announced school buildings would be closed for two weeks. 

Besides the mad rush my colleagues and I handled distributing Chromebooks to every student who needed one, the shift of education felt different. This wasn’t the school department handing down a directive. This wasn’t even the commissioner who has taken over my district. This was the government telling us our school buildings were no longer safe. Our safe havens for our students, the place where we converge to learn and grow, was going to be empty for the foreseeable future. Well empty except for the custodial staff who deserve a standing ovation for sanitizing every inch of the building, and administration tying up loose ends and ensuring each last student receives technology.

As part of the governor’s executive order, April vacation was moved to the week of March 16. At the time, I naively thought we’d be back by our regularly scheduled April vacation, which is what I believe most of us thought. Instead of the family vacation we planned touring NYC and Philly, my vacation quickly filled with meetings, setting up two classrooms in my house — one for my son and one for myself — research and planning. It was filled with calls from fellow teachers, nervous about the transition to new tech tools. And yeah, it was filled with anxiety-Netflix-binge-eating, a task I truly feel I could take the gold medal in.  

My classroom went from the nerdy Star Wars, Dr. Who and Harry Potter  memorabilia-filled room 304 to my “She Shed” — my enclosed porch that isn’t quite yet a sunroom, complete with space heater that, of course, broke the first day of online classes. Luckily my students are well accustomed to using Google Classroom to hand in essays or to take reading comprehension assessments, but prior to March I had only used Zoom for after school meetings or professional development sessions. The thought of using that tool for my students never crossed my mind. And mind you, I’m not anti technology. In fact I went to school online (shout out to SNHU) and the ability to do so was literally life changing for me.

So what does teaching look like now?

My classes are now filled with tiny Brady Bunch-esque boxes as we Zoom for direct instruction. My seniors were about to begin watching Hamlet, but now we do it over Zoom together. My juniors were in the middle of Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild, which we now read and discuss over Zoom.  Instead of marking a student absent if they’re not in class, if I don’t see that a student has either joined my Zoom meeting or handed in any work, I’ll shoot out a text. And then a text to their parents. Then an email. If I don’t get in touch with the family, the message goes up to my administration who then spends time tracking down the few students we haven’t heard from.  Contrary to popular belief, our students are showing up. And they’re working.

I no longer stand at the door of my classroom, rather I wait for the tell tale “ding dong” of a student entering the virtual waiting room on Zoom. In lieu of singing summer reading parodies, I’m making iMovie trailers about virtual learning that always have the same message: “I’m proud of you; you rock.” Instead of having drama club meetings in the auditorium or my classroom, we meet virtually on Zoom to watch local performances together. (Taking suggestions! Please send them my way!) Because Shakespeare in the City can’t go on, we’re trying to think of some way to virtually celebrate the Bard.

Prior to March 13, students complained to me that we scheduled Senior Seminar presentations the day before the prom. Now students admit they were looking forward to their fieldwork and presenting it. I no longer scarf down a lunch under 30 minutes, with students filtering in to watch a movie while they eat their lunch, I now have a two-hour mid-day break where I can make lunch, catch up on grading, even laundry some days. And as productive as a two-hour break is, I would exchange it in a flash for those days where lunch was wolfed down behind my desk.

I’m not callous. I fully understand how absolutely wonderful it is that I’m still able to work, that I’m still able to connect in some way with my students. And some students have really flourished with online learning. If you have to juggle helping your family while working and going to school, having a little freedom with handing in assignments is freeing. I’m literally receiving work around the clock from some students. In addition, if you’re a shy student, having the keyboard in front of you is a liberating tool. And I feel that the distance has even made me closer with some colleagues. We’re not together, but we have daily whole school check-ins, we check in on one another more.

But this isn’t how I wanted this school year to end, or any school year to end. We are in the middle of a pandemic and as an educator, I have had to explain to students that the school building isn’t safe right now because there is something out there that if brought home could severely impact their loved ones, possibly kill them. It’s a traumatic experience for them. And if you don’t believe this is traumatic for young people, you are grossly mistaken. The late night work that is handed in, the late night texts all tell me otherwise. Are my students successfully handling virtual learning? For the majority of them, absolutely. Are there students who aren’t holding up their end of the bargain? Yes. But then again that’s the norm when working with students. Some give their all, and some count the days until the next break. 

And this is particularly hard on our graduating seniors. They’ve put so much time and work into their education, and now they don’t know if those rites of passage will happen for them. And if I’m being totally honest here, the class of 2020 has always had a special spot in my heart. When this class was in the eighth grade and made the transition to high school, I made it with them moving from 8th grade ELA to 9th grade ELA. Yes, some of my seniors have had me as their ELA teacher in 8th grade, 10th grade, senior year. I have literally witnessed the Class of 2020 growing up in front of my eyes. And now I’m watching them have to grow up a little faster than other graduating classes have had to. 

I love teaching, and I am grateful I’m able to continue in these times, but I can’t wait for the day I’m back where I belong; outside my classroom door ready to welcome my students in.

Therapeutic Theater: COAAST tackles addiction from the stage

As an educator, I can tell you a plethora of things about education today; cell phones are a battle, students still cheer when Bob Ewell meets his end, and nacho day is the best day in the cafeteria. Kids groan when you excitedly announce that they’re going to study Shakespeare, but after watching a production of Macbeth they’re hooked.

As an English teacher I’m fortunate that my content calls upon the theater from time to time, and I’ve witnessed its power in my classroom. So when I heard that the nonprofit organization COAAST was tackling addiction through original plays, I was intrigued. COAAST, which stands for Creating outreach About Addiction Support Together, was founded by Ana Bess Moyer Bell, a drama therapist who also runs her own private practice in Southern RI. As the executive director and playwright for COAAST, Moyer Bell’s two shows Four Legs to Stand on Act 1 and Four Legs to Stand On Act II tour to between 10 and 15 schools per year. And although most shows are done in Rhode Island, they have traveled to Massachusetts, New Jersey and Washington DC.  

When COAAST comes to a school, it’s not the assemblies my generation sat through where students are checked out while they’re being spoken to.  Theater isn’t something you accept passively, but something you’re engaged with as an audience member. By bringing a production — a story — kids are automatically engaged. Humans thrive on storytelling; a story or play by its nature draws you in.

Instead of a “free period” for students, COAAST brings a healing period through the world of drama. Students are then invited to share their thoughts and experiences in a talk back session.

“The talk back is important,” Moyer Bell explains. “It’s therapeutic. Giving them a space to tell their own story is important, it’s integral.” Having a space to talk about anything that weighs on your mind, especially something as serious and traumatic as addiction, is vital for the healing process. Even being a professional in the field, Moyer Bell has found that things surprise her when touring the schools.

“My biggest surprise is how many kids in schools have addiction {in their lives} or their brothers, their uncles have died.” By bringing COAAST into a school, school communities are normalizing the conversation around addiction. In my opinion, the most natural way to change the conversation in society, and normalize a the topic, is to begin with our youth. In my teaching, I am amazed by this generation and the topics they will bring up and discuss in a classroom where they feel safe. COAAST is doing this with a wider audience. And like in a classroom where a teacher has cultivated a sense of safety, COAAST has put this feeling of safety together in an authentic manner. As the saying goes, write what you know, all plays are taken from real life. From the writing to the performers, “All the actors have a connection to addiction. They share their stories, it makes them credible.” This authenticity and credibility help open the doors to these important discussions. Having performers who are knowledgeable when it comes to addiction makes their character all the more real to the students. “Kids connect with a character, they’ll go to that actor and tell that story,”  Moyer Bell explained.

I interviewed Moyer Bell pre-long distance learning and hoped to experience a show in order to complete this story. Now after three weeks home and away from my students, I can see the need for COAAST’s programming now more than ever. One of the things we have either witnessed as teachers, or parents acting as teachers, or even as anyone who follows the news, school might be continuing, but all invested parties miss the face-to-face interaction. The fact that Rhode Islanders have this program right here in our backyard is not only an immensely wonderful thing, but will become increasingly more vital once schools are allowed to operate in-person classes.

The day Governor Raimondo announced that schools would be closed for two weeks, COAAST announced that all in-person rehearsals, performances and drama therapy groups were suspended. “All staff, interns, board members and volunteers have been asked to work remotely during this period. All meetings and drama therapy groups are being held virtually.” In these new times it’s vitally important that we make programs work within the confines of social distancing, and COAAST, like so many of us, has a plan and is still doing this vital work.

For more information about COAAST’s virtual plan, or to book a show or workshop please email COAAST’s office manager Jay Are at officemanager@coaast.org

For clinical support, or any other question, please contact executive director Ana Bess at annabess@coaast.org. Their website (coaast.org) has information regarding their programs and their yearly Gala, which helps fund these necessary programs.

Mamma Mia! What a Show!

I am going to admit something here, and once it’s in print, it is here forever — I really like Mamma Mia! And no, I’m not a closet ABBA fan. In fact, I turn ABBA off if it happens to find its way to whatever station I’m listening to. And, as a general rule I don’t like jukebox musicals. But give me the Mamma Mia! soundtrack and I’m in. It’s just one of those joyous musicals you can’t help but sing along to, and although this is categorized as a jukebox musical, I take issue with that because this show has heart. Academy Players brings that heart front and center with their current production, running through November 24.

One of the reasons this show has remained on my theatrical bucket list is that it is just refreshing to see musicals where women in my age group have some great songs, and aren’t only relegated to bit parts. They have not only fun songs, but with Academy’s production they are celebrated and highlighted. While we’re talking about shows with some female power, I have to acknowledge the female power of Academy. On opening night, as director Rita Maron gave the preshow speech, she was joined by almost the entire board of Academy — all women. In a day and age where we, as a society, are always looking for the moments in entertainment where women are the ones making decisions, I think we forget that here in Rhode Island we do see this in our community, and notably with Academy Players. In addition, each Friday night a mom is nominated to be celebrated and honored. In a world where we always say we want to lift people up, Academy walks that walk.

But now for the show. The second you walk into the theater, you’re transported to the Mediterranean with a set by Maron Construction that is simply top notch, with stucco walls, inlets with lit candles and even a wall of ivy. Alexander Sprague’s lighting design sets the mood with disco-ish blue lights which, due to their color, can’t help but transport you to crystal clear waters. Before the orchestra even begins the entr’acte, you are already in a great mood and ready for a night of musical theater.

What a show. Immediately, we meet Sophie, played by Mariah Harrington, who is ready to meet her dad as she sends out three different invitations for her wedding. Why three? She discovers through some snooping that her mother Donna, played wonderfully by Donna Gorham, had two rebounds after breaking up with Sam, played sublimely by Bill Bullard. Of course, in true musical comedy fashion, the three men show up under the assumption that Donna herself has invited them, which gets the ball rolling for one unforgettable wedding weekend. One aspect of the show that I quite enjoy is the mirroring of friendships through the two generations as Sophie’s friends, Ali and Lisa, arrive (Brianna Bier and Brianna Geyer, respectively), and in the very next scene, Donna’s friends Tanya (Diane Mahoney) and Rosie (Allii Fontaine) follow suit. Maron did a particularly touching job directing this fleeting moment, and by the time Donna’s friends enter, you can’t stop smiling.

This production is filled with memorable moments, and I know I’m going to end up leaving some out, so I want to say here that there was not one moment I did not enjoy of this show. The ensemble, as always with an Academy show, was terrific. Harrington’s beautiful voice is the perfect beginning to the show, filling the theater, transfixing all from the first note until the very last. Her portrayal of Sophie was just phenomenal, shining in so many numbers, but particularly in “Under Attack,” an amazing number that also showcased Julia Gillis’s choreography. Gorham broke my heart more than once during this production, most notably during “The Winner Takes It All” and “Slipping Through My Fingers.” Tanya and Rosie, Donna’s friends (Diane Mahoney and Alli Fontaine), were hysterical, but also brought on one of the more tender moments with “Chiquita.” “Lay All Your Love on Me” was a fantastic number led by Sky, Sophie’s fiancé (Jack Bailey), and backed up by the male ensemble, most notably Pepper and Eddie (Mitch Bertolino and Michael Carnevale). The other prospective dads, Harry and Bill, played by Stephen Antonelli and John Morris, were very funny in their roles.

Julia Gillis’ choreography is fantastic from beginning to end. Outstanding, in particular, were “Voulez Vous” and “Dancing Queen.” The choreography in “Dancing Queen” was hysterical, an awesome moment that made the events on stage seem ever more real, and Ms. Gillis must be commended for putting together the funniest kick line I have ever seen in “Lay All Your Love on Me.” Overall, “Money Money Money” — between the choreography and Sprague’s lighting design — I didn’t want the number to end! Donna’s internal struggle was on full display for that piece and was just one moment out of many that gave this production its soul.  

Academy Players has as hit on their hands, and you do not want to miss out!

Mamma Mia! will run until November 24 at Academy Players, with shows at 7pm, and matinee offerings at 4pm. Visit academyplayersri.org for tickets and more information. The majority of the principals are co-studies, where the show dates rotate between the performances, so if you are going to see someone in particular, call ahead.

Opinion: The Inside Scoop on PVD Schools

I’ve written for Motif for a few years now, but this right here is by far the hardest piece I’ve ever tried to compose. You see when I’m not writing articles or reviewing theater, I’m teaching. I’m an English Language Arts teacher in a high school. A high school in Providence. And wow, do I love my job. Every moment of it. I love driving into the capitol city every day, a city full of the arts, good food, interesting shops, historical landmarks. The city where our laws are made! And I love nothing more than talking about teaching. Just ask my husband, or my mother-in-law, or my best friend, or the person who makes my iced coffee in the morning. I never stop talking about teaching. It’s a profession I came to later in life, and one I cannot imagine my life without. 

Clearly, when I was asked to write about the proposed state takeover I thought this would be a breeze. After all, those who know me know that I’m not shy about my opinions, especially my opinion about education today.  

But a week into the school year and I find myself staring at my third attempt at this, at a loss for words. What do I say?  

Do I talk about the success stories? In truth there are too many to count.  From the first generation high school graduates I see, to the students who come back after a semester in college to thank us, or the student who blossomed from a shy teen afraid to use their voice into a confident young adult, secure in the power of their words. Would you believe me that on the sixth day of school I encountered all of the above students before lunch?  

Should I talk about the vitriol spewed almost daily at Providence Public School teachers, from John Depetro who has not only gone after union leadership online, but tweeted to me that I’m an “overpaid babysitter” who should “give up the dream.” How about the dreaded comments section where we see frequent gems such as “fire the teachers” or “what do you expect from a sanctuary city.” Or more recently, the email that was sent out from a neighboring school district’s superintendent to parents that flat out disparaged the dedicated teachers of the PPSD? Did she think there would be no possible way the email would make its way around our district? That as Providence teachers we don’t live in the district she represents? Or has it become so commonplace now to point to the teachers of my district and say vile things because there are no repercussions?  

Should I talk about the fact that some buildings have been around since the New Deal was fresh ink, and their infrastructure is in bad shape? But renovations cost money and for some reason, as Rhode Islanders, we seem to accept the fact that we have large buildings that need repairs and consider air conditioned schools a luxury. Instead of talking about the huge financial gap we have to pay for clean, safe buildings, people attack teacher salaries and benefits, as if chipping away at our health coverage will miraculously grow a new roof.  

After a summer of anecdotal evidence given at public hearings, which stemmed from a report that was largely made of anecdotal evidence, does Rhode Island really need to read more of the same type of evidence? If you took a microscope to any profession today, couldn’t we find horrible things about all professions?   

In truth, I don’t know what this state takeover will look like. Despite my track record as an effective teacher, I don’t know if my job will be the same a year from now. Although I view myself as someone who keeps up with what is going on, I won’t be able to make the “show cause” hearing as it’s during business hours, which happen to be the same as school hours. I’m sure the takeover will happen. And although I may not have all the answers regarding the takeover, I know what I hope it’ll look like.

  • Teachers at the table.  Many of the problems in the district have been shouted by teachers for years.  We can help fix this with the right partner. The last thing teachers want is an ineffective system; it makes all of us look bad, and more importantly, it hurts our kids.  
  • School level administration, and school support staff at the table.  These two groups are in the trenches almost as much as classroom teachers, we shouldn’t overlook these treasure troves of data and skill.  
  • Families at the table.  With support from our families there is nothing our students can’t accomplish.
  • Students at the table.  Our students have a voice.  Students know when they’re in front of a teacher who is passionate about their content, and prepared to teach it.  Their future depends on us, they need to have a hand in advocating for that future.

There are a lot of unanswered questions because truthfully this is uncharted territory.  So what do I know? I do know what my classroom will look like; I’ll still greet my students at the door, most days with a joke I find hilarious, but they will say is corny.  As students pass by I know I’ll still be that dorky teacher yelling out greetings to former students, and giving directions to lost freshmen. Inside my classroom there will be large groups of teenagers asking for help on MLA formatting, homework, college essays, or for recommendation letters.  We’ll study Margaret Atwood, Zora Neale Hurston, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and of course Shakespeare. We’ll argue about Shelley and Bronte. We’ll write papers, analyze literature, dissect poetry, give presentations, grow as people. Although my students hear the news, we’ll focus on blocking it out.  As we frequently do we’ll laugh, many times at my expense when I try to use the top of the SmartBoard and find myself falling a few inches too short. We’ll discuss and prepare for next steps, either the next grade in school, or college, or careers. We’ll do what we do best, work hard and ignore the naysayers.  I’ll cheer when they succeed, which will be often, I’ll pick them up when they fall, and through it all I’ll not only teach them to advocate for themselves, but advocate for them because I love them. 

One of the greatest decisions I have made in life was to go back to school to become a teacher.  Greater than that was my decision to teach in Providence. I love this city, and I will tirelessly do my part to ensure we reach every student every day.

All My Sons — Classic Theater with a Standout Cast

Arthur Miller’s All My Sons is a classic piece of theater. This play showcases what Miller did best — bring sweeping epic dramas to American theater that dealt with “the regular guy.” Sons is a play about family, war and doing the right thing. In more recent years, the play has become a footnote in pop culture thanks to the band 21 Pilots, who derived their name from the play after a school assignment (their reason, reportedly, was that they would always remember to do the right thing). At first the audience believes they’re watching a family drama unfold that is dealing with the fallout of losing one son at war, however, if you’re familiar with the play, you know that more and more is discovered. Although I assumed that anyone sitting down to see this show was entirely familiar with it, the audience and my theater partner for the evening quickly showed me that I was wrong.  So, in that spirit, I will not go into too many plot details or spoilers. As someone well versed in this play, it was a real treat to see how other people reacted to watching the Kellers’ drama unfold for the first time.  

Director Tony Annicone has assembled a tremendously talented cast for this production in each and every role. The setting is a backyard in a neighborhood, and, as in real life, people flit in and out as the time passes. There’s the busy doctor next door played wonderfully by Russ Smith, whose wife is annoyed with his house calls (but enjoys the level of security it gives her), played by the always outstanding Denise Izzi. Newcomer, and youngest cast member, Caden W. Oates, was absolutely endearing as Bert, the precocious boy who enjoys telling on the other children. This is not an easy show for such a young one, and Caden did a great job! The married couple next door, Frank and Lydia Lubey, played by Jeffrey Massery and Jennifer Mensel, provided necessary moments of light-heartedness.  Massery’s earnestness and desire to help shone through her performance, and Mensel sparkled as she flitted in and out of the Kellers’ backyard.

As for the Kellers, Lynda DiStefano was a tour de force as Kate Keller. Her performance will literally have you on the edge of your seat; she was absolutely magnificent. Ron Martin’s portrayal of Joe Keller was especially strong when he feels life unravelling in Act One. The “little man” monologue was an especially strong moment. Their surviving son, Chris (Christopher Ferreira), has invited his brother’s former girlfriend, Ann Deaver (Carolyn Coughlin), home in the hopes of marriage. Their scenes together were fantastic; you could see their internal struggles clearly.  Ferreira in particular has some standout moments in the second and third acts. Ferreira and DiStefano absolutely broke my heart at one point. When George (Michael Pugliese) walked in, the air in the theater changed. He’s haunted, despondent and Pugliese’s portrayal was just incredible.  

Although parts of Miller’s script now seem outdated (there’s only so many lines I can bear about “her legs” and “she looks intelligent”), the guts of the play still resonate. And the light-heartedness shone through when needed (although my research hasn’t proven this, I stand by my assertion that Joe’s Labor Day joke was Broadway’s first ever dad joke). In the end, the Kellers could be seen as a lesson in gaslighting, something we see unfold frequently today – a lesson in doing what is right, even if it hurts you, and leaves you questioning everything.

All My Sons is running at the Arctic Playhouse until Sep 27. Tickets can be purchased online at thearcticplayhouse.com 

Yes! And…: The Providence Improv Fest takes the stage at AS220

During the last lazy days of summer, Providence Improv Fest arrives on the scene and it’s anything but lazy. The event runs September 12 through 14 at AS220, and both stages at the venue will be used for this year’s event, keeping patrons and performers in close proximity — good news for anyone who wants to see more than one show and for any performer who wants to catch other acts.

The word “improv” often is associated with phrases like “made up” or “on the fly;” however, this giant undertaking is anything but. Tim Thibodeau, artistic director of Improv Fest, walked me through the lengthy planning process, which started in January.

“A main objective is to showcase local improv in the state of Rhode Island, with the big point to try to get everyone involved,” Thibodeau explained while describing the way he brings acts to the fest. And nothing gets everyone involved quite like local favorite Bring Your Own Improv, which offers pay-what-you-can, family-friendly improv. The proceeds from the BYOI performance will benefit the Manton Avenue Project, which gives students from Olneyville the opportunity to create original theater with professional artists.

In addition to BYOI, festivalgoers will have the opportunity to see fest sponsors Wage House from Pawtucket and the Providence Improv Guild (recipients of the 2019 Motif Magazine Improv/Audience Participation Award) perform.    

Of course the festival does not only feature our fabulous local talents. It is chock full of talented artists from around the country as well, including Anděl Sudik, who was worked with Second City in Chicago; Nnmandi Ngwe, who is part of the improv group 3Peat, which features “Saturday Night Live” cast member Chris Redd; T.J. Mannix, who founded the New York Musical Improv Festival; Frédéric Barbusci, founder of Les Productions de L’Instable; and Rachel Rosenthal, who, with her partner Sam DeRoest, make up the long form improv team RaeRoest.

After watching these acts on stage, people who want to take the stage themselves will be able to take part in one of several affordable workshops offered. Fesival performer Frédéric Barbusci will lead a workshop that should culminate in a large showcase to close out the festival.  

The 16th Annual ImprovFest will run September 12-14 at AS220 Black Box (95 Empire Street) and AS220 Main Stage (115 Empire Street).  For more information, go to facebook.com/providenceimprovfest or providenceimprovfest.com