On December 14, 2012, twenty year-old Adam Lanza fatally shot 20 children between six and seven years old and six adult staff members at Sandy Hook Elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut. Someone flipped the PA switch at the time. Everyone heard what was happening. Lanza then committed suicide.
How do wails of local community rise above the cacophony of international human need? How does one begin to offer more than temporary balm?
“The country is …wounded, bleeding, hurt…the country needs to be healed…Art is the healing force.” Robert Redford- National Arts Policy Roundtable
Prologue: From Broadway with Love
BROADWAY WITH LOVE Poster
Shortly after the tragedy, producer Van Dean reached out on Facebook to his community-theater people. Michael Unger was asked to direct what became FROM BROADWAY WITH LOVE, A Benefit Concert for Newtown. Twenty Broadway stars the caliber of Brian Stokes Mitchell and Christine Ebersole volunteered time and talent. Innumerable volunteers managed busing, catering, lighting, sound…
Feeling it imperative that local kids be involved, Unger arranged with Sandy Hook Music Teacher Maryrose Kristopik to videotape three hundred elementary school students singing their school song. Area dance schools contributed seventy kids who performed to Mark Shaiman’s “Can’t Stop the Beat” from Hairspray, with the songwriter himself at the piano. Six young dancers had been working on “Good Morning Baltimore” from that musical. One was killed. The other five performed as Shaiman played and the film’s Tracy Turnblad, Nikki Blonsky, sang.
“Kids from Newtown made it special, not the stars. Sesame Street folks who have done more than anyone in the universe to help kids, said it was the most moving thing they’d ever done. It was about showing support, giving the community two hours of joy.” Michael Unger.
To Encourage and Enhance
Dr. Michael Baroody heard news reports of the shooting in real time on the 14th. He telephoned his wife to pick up their daughter at a neighboring school. When she arrived, the building was already in lockdown. One of the kids at Sandy Hook who didn’t make it had appeared in a piano recital with his daughter the week before. Her father, a state trooper, stood unknowingly in front with an assault rifle. Another child lost was a patient Dr. Baroody had operated on several times. I asked how he explained to his daughter what occurred. “We said there was a bad person with a gun who shot her friend at school. The police came and everyone was safe now.”
Sandy Hook School Gifts (Photo from Shutterstock)
Teddy bears and toys poured in. These were, at best, appropriate Band-Aids. Recognizing this might “victimize” children and that people would write them off, Dr. Baroody wondered how to empower survivors. A few months later, he founded the nonprofit 1214 Foundation. “…I’m a plastic surgeon. I see a problem and try to make it better…when a 6 year-old kid looks up at you with silent trust…The things I do for a living I couldn’t implement.”
The concerned parent of young girls decided on a two pronged approach. A division called NewArts would establish an ongoing summer theater program providing a cathartic way for those affected to express themselves, while character workshops he eventually called ARC would offer life tools. Dr. Baroody had no background in either field, just unerring instinct.
In theater, this architect of potential envisioned a way the community could come together with the people they were assisting. His premise was that the kids needed to push themselves to prove they could still deal with a challenge; to believe it, not just be told; to be able to say look what I did. Participating in shows would provide a communal context. Dr. Baroody asked Michael Unger to be the Producing Artistic Director of NewArts, The Theater Division of the foundation.
Having worked with children many times during his multifaceted career and a father himself, Unger was not only enthusiastic but experienced. “We wanted to give these kids an environment where they could trust everything as well as opportunity to get cheered by an audience and their peers. Love puts everything back into balance.”
“They were the stars, I was just a lucky guest.” Actor John Tartaglia
Michael Unger Leading Seussical Rehearsal
Unger chose Lynn Ahrens/Stephen Flaherty’s Seussical for their first production because it’s about protecting the community. The show centers on a big-hearted elephant named Horton hearing tiny voices cry out from a dust speck that turns out to be Whoville. Moved by its vulnerability, he vows to protect the community: “Don’t give up! I believe in you all. A person’s a person, no matter how small!” Because no one else can hear them, Horton is criticized and ridiculed; the speck is stolen and must be rescued. In order to prove they exist, every Who in Whoville must make a loud enough noise.
Auditions were held. Dozens of untrained children came in quaking, often accompanied by an older sibling or parent. Some had never been in a show. Though initially uncomfortable onstage, Unger had faith that ultimately the experience would be good for them. “I was honored to be their leader, their friend, and part of a family.”
Two NewArts Students Building Egg Nest & Tree for Seussical
Opening an astonishing ten weeks after Unger met D. Baroody, NewArts’ Seussical featured eighty-four nonprofessional Newtown performers ages five through high school. It starred Broadway veteran John Tartaglia. Lynn Ahrens rewrote a few lyrics and the creative team sensitively cut an army section. Otherwise the musical played as if created for the occasion. Twenty design professionals, stage manager, choreographer, etc. worked for a pittance. The orchestra was comprised of professional theater musicians, parents and even a few students.
“You can’t bring back what we had beforehand, but the ability to cope with it, we can help with that… you can choose how you respond.” A Newtown parent
During rehearsal, when Horton loses, then regains the dust spec on which Whoville is situated, the teenager playing him didn’t convey how upset and determined the character was feeling. “So I said, we all failed to protect this community in December 2012. Your job right now is to make that dust spec Newtown. You have a second chance to commit to protect those who survived and to honor those that were lost… He did the scene again and I’ve never seen a connection between performer and material so locked in. We had a big cry fest.”
Willem Sandercox as Horton in Seussical (Photo: T. Charles Erickson )
“I told them to let Seussical be THEIR story, if even for 75 minutes, four times in the next week. We all had a new understanding of how we must fight to protect each other and embrace what makes us different so that fear doesn’t divide us.” Michael Unger
For many years a cast member of Sesame Street, then Avenue Q, Tartaglia’s empathy with children is highly developed. “Also I’m a wacky performer who can do voices…My go-to when I walk into a room is to do or say something funny because it breaks the ice. (Pitch perfect for the kids.) I want them to know that I’m one of them, just there to help keep everything moving.” The actor wondered whether these particular amateurs would be “super introverted or cry”, but instead found fellow thespians completely focused under Unger’s benign but demanding direction. Not a line was forgotten at any performance.
Occasionally a parent or teacher would take Tartaglia aside to explain the way a child might behave because of what happened. The company was warned in advance about sudden loud sounds or bright lights. Still, “in many ways, you just wouldn’t know the tragedy had occurred, some of those initially most shy shone brightest onstage.”
Opening of Seussical (Photo: Charles T. Erickson)
“Theater is a healing art form. Sometimes the only way you can learn to express yourself is through the arts, getting things out on stage in secure surroundings. These kids showed you just gotta keep moving on. They don’t know a right or wrong way to deal with tragedy. It’s like- Yup, we’re all just here doin’ a show. The wall of healing energy was viscerally overwhelming. I left with hope for humankind. They were the stars, I was just a lucky guest”
Midsummer in Newtown
The next year Unger decided on two shows in repertory. The first was a sympathetic version of 101 Dalmatians by Styx member Dennis DeYoung and B. T. McNicholl (Unger had permission to eliminate killing the puppies and Cruela de Vil’s death). One child was too frightened to go on. The director said, that’s ok, whenever you’re ready…She joined the company for a number at the end of the show. Closing night, the girl told him she wanted a bigger part next year.
The second show was an original pop music version of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. “The play starts in a world of imbalance and disorder…it’s about finding harmony.”
Unger approached composer Eric Svejcar about collaborating on what became A Rockin’ Midsummer Night’s Dream: 85% verbatim lyrics by Shakespeare, adaptation by Unger and Svejcar. Not only was the young cast learning dialogue, blocking, and choreography, they were now tasked with delivering Shakespeare. If a young person didn’t understand something, meaning was explained in modern terms. Svejcar’s lively music structured phrasing to help the bard sound natural.
Marla Mindelle as Titania in A Rockin’ Midsummer Night’s Dream (Photo: Richard Termine)
Around this time, the NewArts director met filmmaker Tom Yellin of The Documentary Group on a bench outside their respective daughters’ ballet class. Yellin became interested in the project and enlisted Director Lloyd Kramer who spent about four months in Newtown with a crew.
Kramer found the children knew much more than assumed. He spoke with parents first asking whether there was anything he shouldn’t talk about, but in any case, never brought up the event. If someone showed signs of upset, he moved on. A parent was always present during interviews. “Kids were tentative at first. The undercurrent was always there. No one wants to be branded…”The filmmaker watched kids he initially perceived as “lost souls” evolve.
“I feel like I have my before-the-incident child back.” A NewArts child’s parent
Curtain Call: A Rockin Midsummer Night’s Dream (Photo Richard Termine)
“Participating gave them courage. Bonding with people in the town, creating something positive, reminded them about the warmth of community. They all understood what they were doing was a shared experience.” Lloyd Kramer
“The average adult will have trouble understanding Newton even if he’s lost someone. We get to be 37. My son was 8. His heart was broken when he lost his sister. We wanted to wrap him in a bubble and lock him in the house, but we let ourselves be lead by him.” A Newtown parent from the documentary Midsummer in Newtown
The splendid Midsummer in Newtown particularly tracks kids from three families starting with auditions. It includes children talking to the camera, candid parents, rehearsal, and performance footage through a triumphant opening night. You won’t find more stirring affirmation to the transformative power of the arts. It’s poignant, honest, respectful and immensely uplifting. Sometimes heroism is just getting on with it.
Midsummer in Newtown
“All the kids said Seussical changed their lives. What was important was for experiences to affect the way they approach problems off stage, to enrich values and life skills.” Dr. Baroody turned his thoughts towards character development. The arts, he reflected, touch people in ways that make them human. Continuing to explore outside the box, convinced we underestimate kids, he solicited participation by The Yale School of Management normally hired by enlightened businesses.
ARC Workshop L to R (back) Nicole Kolitsas, Marina Kolitsas, Kat Wolff, Kyle Mangold, Olyvia Shaw, Kirsten Liniger, Claire Alexander, Lexi Tobin; L to R (front) Sammy Vertucci, Victoria Madden, Abbi Winter
Ted Kolditz, the director of the program wrote that 70% of leadership is learned and that he wished he had more time with students. Dr. Baroody proposed giving him ten years with ten year-olds. Kolditz responded the same night. “I drove up. He didn’t say, Oh my God, you’re from Newtown. He said, let’s make this happen.” Dr. Baroody. The second division of 1214 Foundation synergistically meshes with NewArts. It’s acronym is ARC: Aspire, Reach, Confidence.
Kolditz found fifteen willing practitioners. The now monthly program, free to kids five and up, has greatly expanded. Dr. Baroody has been trained to lead groups between visiting experts. “When my patients go to sleep, I hold their hands. They relax and smile. I transfer my confidence to them…” He looks at ARC’s process the same way.
The four aims of ARC are:
- Develop personal strength and the ability to recognize strength in others
- Develop confidence and transfer confidence to other people
- Develop emotional agility and intelligence
- Recognize fear and anxiety when it appears and use it to push yourself forward
A program is being developed with teachers for kindergartners. Dr. Baroody and his team are writing a workbook to take home and a guidebook for other communities. “The tragedy needs to have an exponential benefit to the world. These are universal concepts that may be implemented in other communities…”
“I kind of need it to survive.” A Newtown/NewArts student
Kids who personally experienced the tragedy are now in 5th grade; some have transferred to another school. (Sandy Hook itself was torn down and rebuilt) Many have appeared in a NewArts production or two every summer. (Most attend ARC workshops.) Rehearsal to performance of both shows lasts six to seven weeks. In so0me productions leads are double cast to give actors a taste of the spotlight.
“One boy had survivor guilt. He didn’t know why he was alive and thought if he was an angel, he’d be safer. Processing seemed impossible. Diving into this creative environment gave him a haven, a place to have fun and make new friends.” Michael Unger
ARC Workshop Power Tools
“If I wasn’t here, I would still be the broken person I was…”
“After the tragedy, we felt that nothing would ever be the same until NewArts came…”
“If NewArts were not here, a lot of kids would be lost”
“NewArts means renewal”
“I kind of need it to survive.”
Testimonials from Newtown NewArts students
Newtown NewArts students
Apprentices are taken on to work with Scenic, Light and Sound designers. Two have moved on to higher education, but return to Newton for the season. This year, Unger is reaching out to local college students offering intern opportunities.
A wide roster of professionals are enlisted for every show. Those that don’t commute often sleep in the private homes of participants. Costumes and props are stored in people’s basements. Productions look so good, many people don’t realize the organization needs funding. “We had 38 wireless mikes for Midsummer. I beg, borrow, or steal.” Michael Unger. NewArts’ goal is to create a bricks and mortar Center for Creativity. Until such time as monies are accrued, the organization is hosted by a local church theater.
Much of the foundation’s start up endowment came directly out of Dr. Baroody’s pocket. Shows break even with tickets currently ranging from $18-$26, program sales, and donations. There is now a sliding scale tuition to participate in the summer program (and scholarships.) The 1214 Foundation is actively researching grants.
Banners Made by the Children
The further away we are from a tragedy, the less sensitive people are to it. 1214 Foundation was created to help a suffering community. It now offers life tools to all kids, attempts to help them connect and collaborate, encourages confidence, supports courage, and celebrates perseverance. With the value of Arts programs being challenged, 2014’s NewArts stands out as a prime example of their value and potency. This is what the reach of compassionate creative thinking looks like.
“Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot/Nothing is going to get better. It’s not. Dr. Seuss from The Lorax
Shows for summer 2017 include: Roald Dahl’s Willy Wonka (Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley) July 28-30 (not to be confused with a version of Charlie and The Chocolate Factory currently on Broadway) and Joseph and The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat (Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber) August 11-13
Opening Photo: John Tartaglia as the Cat in the Hat and Nicole Kolitsas as Jojo (Photo: T. Charles Ericsson)
All unattributed photos courtesy of NewArts