Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Create Your Own Character this Halloween

Shelley Wollert creates modern pop music for kids and families. Her character, Elska, is a modern pioneer who discovered a newly formed volcanic island off the coast of Iceland. Shelley, and the team behind Elska, were selected as one of our 2014-15 New Victory LabWorks Artists in Residence and will develop a new work for kids and families as part of the program this year. 

By Shelley Wollert

I'm a musician and actress whose job it is to dress up and pretend. A few years ago, after taking a trip to Iceland, I was inspired to create a unique character that no one had ever heard of before. I heard a true story about a little island named Surtsey that bubbled up off the coast of Iceland in 1963. It was made by a volcanic eruption deep down on the ocean floor. As I stared out into the frigid ocean, looking past icebergs along the South coast, I thought to myself, who might live on the newest landform on Earth? What would they look like? What would they do on this tiny island?

Soon, I started thinking about a girl who was a pioneer. She loved to sing and she loved adventure. She was sometimes scared, sometimes brave and usually both at once. She loved animals and loved to hike in the snow.

I thought about what she would need to wear to live on a tiny island near the Arctic Circle. It was cold there, so she'd need some good boots, a warm hat, socks and gloves. And she'd need a cape, and the cape would have to be colorful, so her friends could see her in the snow.

Before I knew it, I had dreamed up someone who no one had heard of before. She needed a name of course, and we gave her one: Elska. I chose a name that I liked very much and had meaning to me. Elska means "love" in Icelandic.

Perhaps you are thinking about who YOU might be this time of year? Halloween is here and you might be thinking of doing something a teeny weeny bit different for this year's costume. Last year you were a vampire, the year before a ghost. You've been pumpkins and bumblebees and princesses. So, what about coming up with something completely different this year? Maybe you could be someone or something no one has ever heard of before! Maybe you could be someone weird, strange, and wonderful. If you are interested in making this Halloween a bit of an adventure -- here are my tips and tricks for creating a character and costume that is truly unique:

When there's a whole world out there of things to be, it helps to narrow down your choices! You might want to begin by asking yourself, "am I a person? An animal? An object?"

If you think about it, everyone and everything lives somewhere, so pick a place for your character to live! Here's some ideas on choosing a place:

  • Choose a place you love to visit (Central Park! the beach!)
  • Choose a place you wish you could visit (the moon! Antarctica!)
  • Imagine a new and imaginary place that doesn't even exist!

Add a few details to bring your character to life. You can perform these on Halloween night!

  • What is you character's name?
  • How does your character walk?
  • What language do they speak? How do they say hello? (Elska says "Hiddi Hiddi")

It's time to think about what your character will wear. Try drawing a quick picture and ask yourself:

  • Do they wear clothes? Your animal might like to wear a top hat!
  • What colors does your character wear? Are they wacky or are they realistic?
  • Peek in your closet. Is there something in there that your character would wear?

Here's a few examples of unique characters that I created by answering the questions above:

Carl, the Pencil who lives in Hawaii.
Ned, the ant pilot.
Rita, a veterinarian who treats aliens on the moon.

Look around for ideas. Often times the most simple things that are lying around can make a great costume or character. For example, this green coffee warmer that we bought in Iceland was made by a wonderful designer named Sigríður Ásta Árnadóttir. When it came time to make Elska's costume, we contacted her and she designed and produced it! Can you see the similarity between the coffee warmer and Elska's hat?

Use your "favorites!" Your favorite song might be your character's favorite song. Your favorite name might be your character's name. Your favorite yellow pants might be a great starting point for creating a banana character. This little white toy is a music box that I bought while traveling in Iceland. It is one of my favorite things. He became the inspiration for a character named "Shooshi" who lives on the Island of Elska. Shooshi is a musician who plays bell music in a mossy valley.

Most importantly, HAVE FUN! There is no right or wrong when creating your own character. You can be as goofy or as serious as you want to be. What is most important is having fun and playing, not how "perfect" your costume is. A great character could be dressed in something very simple. What makes a character unique is not necessarily their clothes, but often how they feel, how they act, and how they live.

Go for it, and have a very happy, wild and weird Halloween!

We'd love to see your fantastic costumes this Halloween! Tweet (@newvictory) or Instagram (@newvictorytheater) using the hashtag #newvic so that we can see your characters. We'll even share our favorites with our online audience!

Learn more about Elska, or buy some of Elska's costume pieces for your little one. 

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

The Power of Travel for Educators

By Shelah Marie

As an educator, I am lucky to live in New York; it’s a city that has extremely high standards for Arts Education and the field of teaching artistry. What I love most about being a teaching artist for The New Victory Theater is that I get to take my skills as a performer into the classroom and give students a powerful experience that is both artistically rewarding and educationally sound. That said, it’s those moments when I leave New York that my teaching and artistry are informed the most.

I believe that educators who travel are the best kind. We don't just teach out of books alone, but from a very textured, nuanced experience. Throughout my life, I've worked in a variety of communities, each time learning about new languages, cultures and worldviews. It's made me a better critical thinker and generally more open-minded.

I've always been a person who likes to move. I thrive off of movement, new experiences and growing as an artist and educator. I spent most of my college career abroad—studying Spanish in Costa Rica, working for the army in Germany and studying theater in London. Those rich experiences cultivated my skills as an artist and an international educator. I enjoy the fluidity and movement that allows me to consistently make micro-communities and artistic spaces for connection.

Last March, I was leading a version of The Sustainable Theater Workshop at The United Nations Headquarters in NYC with students from Senegal, Jamaica and Guinea, Africa. There was one girl from Senegal who was so insecure about her English skills that she barely spoke above a whisper. During our session, I was constantly reminding her to speak up, “Louder, Khadijah. Remember the audience is going to be really far away from you and I want them to hear your words.”

Khadijah was friends with some of the other girls in the workshop and one day I noticed they really liked dancing. They showed me some dances they learned together with another dance instructor. It was a special moment to see the girls light up in their element.

My whole goal with The Sustainable Theater Workshop and as a Teaching Artist in general is to empower students with skills and tools to better express themselves. Sitting here watching them giggle and shake their hips in unison, I realized that I needed to be more flexible. I was really focused on them delivering spoken text in the piece and spent a lot of time trying to get them to speak—when in reality they were speaking clearly, I just needed to do a better job at listening.

So I let the girls work together and they choreographed a beautiful dance segment for the performance and in a curious turn of events, the dancing gave them more confidence as actresses too. Especially Khadijah. In one week, she went from a noticeably shy and reclusive young girl, nervous about her English skills, to a proud, exuberant performer who volunteered to perform and speak lines alone in front of 700 high school students at The United Nations.

The students did so well that some folks in the audience took notice. Particularly Malick Kane, who at the time worked at The African Burial Ground National Monument. Malick has since returned to Senegal as a Cultural Administrator at the Senegalese Ministry of Culture. Kane also has a sister with Down syndrome who is a student at ESTEL. Malick felt so strongly that this workshop would benefit some of ESTEL’s students that he spoke to the school and they invited me to teach The Sustainable Theater Workshop in Dakar, Senegal from October 27th through Nov 1st, 2014. The hosting school, ESTEL, is one of the few schools in Senegal that caters to students with disabilities. I'll be leading a group of ten students through their first performance ever!

This may be my most challenging workshop yet, as I’ll be tackling cultural, developmental and linguistic barriers -- but I am always grateful for these experiences, as they mold me into a more informed and skilled Teaching Artist. I can’t wait to see what new tools I get for my toolbox this time, so I can share them with you, back at The New Victory.


Shelah Marie is a Brooklyn-based actress, educator, playwright and dancer. Graduate of Tisch School of the Arts at NYU, Shelah has workshopped with The Elevator Repair Service, she completed the artist/activist workshop EMERGE through The Hemispheric Institute of Performance and Politics and she trains regularly in African Dance at The Djoniba Dance Center. She has performed in South Florida at The Mosaic Theatre, AAPACT and The M Ensemble in Miami, and at well-known NYC venues such as LaMaMa, The Brooklyn Lyceum and Tisch School of the Arts. She has worked all over New York City and has facilitated international arts education work, The Sustainable Theater Workshop in Haiti, Jamaica and at The United Nations Headquarters in NYC. Currently, she works as a teaching artist at two of the most prestigious organizations in New York City: The Theater Development Fund and The New Victory Theater.

Friday, October 10, 2014

The Ten Commandments of Watching Opera

Confession: I love opera. I try often (and embarrassingly) to perfect my rendition of "O Mio Babbino Caro" when no one's listening. I have pajamas with a Wagner aria printed on them. I tidy up my house to Bizet every weekend. Phew. That felt good to get off my chest.

It can be tough to find a fellow opera fan! When I invite friends to join me at the Met, they usually turn down the invitation, saying that they don't understand opera, or that it's a highfalutin' art form that feels irrelevant. To that, I could offer many recommendations for contemporary operas, or invigorating re-interpretations of classics (Isango Esemble's The Magic Flute is a shining example of just that!). But there are also a number of ways to make traditional opera feel fun, exciting and accessible.

If you and your family will be attending your first opera at the New Vic next month, but are feeling trepidatious about your ten-year-old's reaction to Papageno, read my Ten Commandments for Watching Opera below. A little preparation will help you to get the most out of your experience!

Remember that you might already be a fan
Opera pops up everywhere—from Skittles commercials to internet memes, so there's really no reason to feel intimidated!

Honor the music
The great part about opera is that the music says it all! Even if the set design, costuming or lighting is gorgeous, opera is first and foremost about the music, and painstakingly composed works communicate emotions and story through music alone (the rest is just extra!). As The New York Times put it, "in opera, music is the driving force; in musical theater, words come first."

Thou shalt not worry about hearing every word
Many operas are in foreign languages, but even those sung in your native tongue can be tough to understand. Opera singers do their best when it comes to diction, but part of opera singing technique requires singers to modify spoken pronunciation in order to sound their best (especially on the high notes). Let the music tell the story if you're feeling lost.

Thou shalt not listen to stereotypes
"It ain't over til the fat lady sings." Ugh... When you become a fan, you'll realize that opera is way more than some stereotypes make it out to be.

Thou shalt get to know the classics
As an opera beginner, your best plan for getting to know the art form is to start with the classics. Find a playlist below that I curated, and have a listen. You'll hear favorite songs, many of which I'll bet you've heard before!

Thou shalt have an opinion
Sometimes there's the misconception that just because something is lauded as a "classic," you have to like it. Listen to or go see a few operas and decide what you like—a crisp Mozart tune is very different from a undulating Puccini score.

Thou shalt know the singers
It's hard to go wrong when seeing any trained, professional opera singer perform live. But hardcore opera buffs will go to shows just to hear certain singers. Here are a few names to get you started: Luciano Pavarotti, Placido Domingo, Maria Callas, Renee Fleming, Anna Netrebko.

Thou shalt know the vocabulary
Here's a list of terms that will help you on your first trip to the opera (click to enlarge).

Thou shalt know the composers
Most of the famous composers that you can name probably wrote an opera, but there were a few that really perfected the medium. While Beethoven wrote one opera, symphonies were more his specialty. Who are considered the best opera composers, then? Mozart, Wagner, Verdi, Rossini, and Puccini are recognized as a few of the greats.

Thou shalt avoid snobbery
When you've become an opera fan, make sure you spread the love, and help people understand that opera isn't high-brow and stuffy! There's nothing wrong with getting your Wagner knowledge from the Looney Tunes episode when Elmer Fudd sings "kill the wabbit" to the tune of "Die Walkure."