A Little Bit of ZaZaKids History

For those of you who are curious about who exactly I am and how I came to write these pieces and create ZaZaKids Books, the following extracts from some early teaching journals, info on my zany theatre and  dance career, my writing obsession, and a few details about my unexpected publishing life, etc might be fun. 

BEGINNINGS: TEACHING

 

( that’s me in a lightly chewed  party hat a few years after starting Metro; a theatre/ dance company for kids)

MY TEACHING STORY

JOURNAL OF A 22 YEAR OLD CREATIVE ARTS TEACHER

I began my work at the New City School, an alternative school set up in St Louis, Missouri along the lines of Summerhill.  I started teaching that year by repeating as many exercises that I could remember from my university drama classes and various training courses. I also began to develop movement activities.

The following summer I was hired by the Special School District to teach “Creatives” in a six-week summer school program. As students I had sixty deaf children between the ages of six and twelve. They were divided into five different classes according to age. Each class met with me twice weekly.

I was overwhelmed to put it mildly.  I had to devise a program which would  interest the children, direct their formidable energies, and help them positively channel their creative forces. Not easy. I began keeping a journal that summer. The following sections are direct quotes from that journal.

“What I would like to happen during this six-week program at the Special School District.”

These kids have their movements jumbled. It seems that more attention has been given to oral communicative needs than to anything else. They desperately need to know how to make more use of their bodies. They are stiff and rigid and clumsy….the first part of my program needs to focus on direct experiences that inform the kids that they have a body that does work and not just a giant set of ears that don’t work.

I pushed the kids towards movement experiences. I insisted they take off their hearing aids in addition to their shoes and socks. Creativity comes from within, I reasoned, and hearing aids were a nuisance to creative movement experiences. I also believed that hearing aids were a constant reminder that they were handicapped. I wanted them to feel complete and satisfied with themselves as they were.

As they came into the room they just about exploded…running around and jostling each other. This was a room with no desks…a place with a teacher who lets you run around…who wants you to run around…they took their hearing aids off…everyone had been reticent about this the first day – school was a place where you HAD to wear your hearing aid…and their shoes and socks…Margo (head of the program) said she would have them wear shorts and shirts. 

The children were placed around the room. They weren’t able to find their own places in the space yet. Everyone had to look at me directly and when the group was together, I began doing simple movements. They followed me in movement – simultaneously. We worked in that way as a group for ten minutes. Afterwards I turned off the lights and asked everyone to lie down on the floor on their backs – not moving at all –then lots and lots of movement. They weren’t allowed to stop. We continued for ten minutes. Afterwards I turned on the lights and the kids started laughing and clapping. They had worked through some physical tensions. These children spend hours sitting at desks hooked up and plugged into machines. They are attached, wired, controlled by batteries and electric currents.

Directions couldn’t be complicated. The children were not good at reading lips yet.

In the beginning exercises they do everything I do because they can’t read my lips; only my gestures…when I motion with my arms to move back to form a larger circle, they copy my gesture of move back.

These children have a difficult time in space. They seem to need constant contact with something solid. They are always touching one another (and me). Many of them shuffle their feet along the floor. When hearing is impaired, it often follows that equilibrium is affected.

Today the movie came from the Museum of Modern Art. It is  about Alexander Calder and his shapes in space. The children sat through it twice. It is a beautiful movie. Afterwards the kids jumped up and began to be dangling mobiles. I then placed each child with a partner. One of them made the other into a mobile and then blew hard until his breath made the mobile move. Later everyone made shapes in the white light of the projector.

Later on in the summer the children began to feel more comfortable with their bodies and would experiment more freely.

Their free movement was lovely. Tina and Sheri didn’t look at me one time. (Teacher approval is very important; they want to be right.) Sheri used a wheelchair. For these exercises, her home teacher and I would take her out and put her down on the floor where she could be free to move in her own time in whatever way she can.

What happened next was fascinating. The children began to take their movements and relate them to someone else’s. They were moving with someone else and they weren’t just copying. They were adjusting. After a while these twos grew into groups of three and four…concentration remained intense. Finally they were all together, moving and dancing with each other, but as a unified whole. I was astonished. Breathless.

I showed them movies of Marcel Marceau performing David and Goliath, The Lion Tamer and The Butterfly. They saw how precise and expressive the human body could be. They acted out those movies endlessly, trying to recall every moment that had been made.

I learned more in that 6 week session than I could ever have dreamed possible.

Before starting teaching again, I knew I needed to continue my dance work from university days. I enrolled for classes in Modern and Improvisational Dance at Washington University.  These classes  introduced me to a variety of techniques which have been invaluable to me as a teacher and of course as a performer. I also was lucky enough to study with Merce Cunningham, Dan Wagoner, Phyllis Lamhut, and Meredith Monk when they did residencies at Wash U.

I continued teaching at New City School and started work teaching dance and drama at Central Institute for the Deaf.

My early lessons  concerned individualising. The deaf children were deeply imbedded in the concept of uniformity and sameness. The school’s goal was help it’s students fit into the hearing world. The students learned to try to make their speech the same as others. They worked in classes to learn the right responses to questions and problems. The more alike they were to the hearing world, the better their chances of survival.

I saw my role as one of opposition to the standard. The art teacher, Jim Brainard, ( brother of well known New York artist Joe Brainard) was a great friend and support during these sessions. The other teachers at the school were more bemused than anything. But always supportive. And the wonderful director who hired me in the first place, Max Silverman, liked to bring his university students into my classes. In addition to the daunting task of fitting into a hearing world, the children nonetheless, needed to grow as individuals. That was my job as the ‘creatives’ teacher.

In our first class I asked about Halloween and asked who the children would like to be in a Halloween story. Everyone wanted to be a monster. Everyone wanted to be a skeleton monster. I had them flop and flop and wiggle around the room. Each child copied someone and kept watching me and the others.

It took practically the entire year before many of the children were able to stand up with two feet within a square of linoleum and not be touching something or someone. They were simply not able to function independently. They kept changing their places and getting closer to each other. They were afraid of losing contact with a physical being.

We spent weeks where the children would simply move around in our small space without touching anyone or anything else. I called our classes, “Studies in Stop and Go.” Everyone would go (run without touching) when the lights went on and stop when the lights went out. I found visual symbols very important to the children.

I wanted them to behave in terms of different. To point out that differences were good, we played the game of pass the stick. Everyone sat in a circle and a stick was passed around. Everyone had to use the stick as something different than what it was.

This exercise used a physical object to stimulate a creative and imaginative response. That was what I wanted most: a creative response.

The children responded well to a technique of ‘split second commands.’ This approach to movement activities proved challenging and exciting for the children. I began using this technique as a starting point for other lessons.

We began classes by talking about what could be seen outdoors during the fall. Responses were slow at first. Eventually the children released more and more and some lovely fall images came out…gold leaves…flaming…burning…run…leap…scurry…soft…wind…rip…tumbling piles…corn…yellow and red. Then I asked for half of them to stand up and get ready for the Command Game. I had them stand where they can see me in order for them to read my lips). I began…run…skip…run fast…slow…silly…fall down (motor activities) and gradually began to add image and quality words…floating…leaf…fall…burning…hot…light…flame…gold…They responded physically and imaginatively. They expressed through movement feelings from within their own selves. I asked the children how they felt after being all those things…cool…beautiful…hot…happy

They were excited about acting out stories. I was excited too. The children began to desire to communicate. They wanted to talk. They wanted to be able to show and tell their stories. Many children responded more enthusiastically when they were called upon by a group to help out. At first I gave parts to the kids. Later they were able to decide among themselves who was to play each role.

These early teaching experiences taught me that learning must involve the whole child. It should involve his brain, his body, his emotions and his imagination. As a result, I came to believe wholeheartedly in the child as an individual who is separate and distinct from anyone else. I realised my responsibility as a teacher was to encourage the growth of the total child.

I continued teaching dance and drama and ‘creatives ‘at Central Institute, Mary Institute ( a private girls school), and New City School for another two academic years. After that time I was  invited by Mary Stigall to teach in the MAT PROGRAM  (Masters of Arts of Teaching) at Webster University and by Annelise Mertz to teach children at Washington University.

Above:  Teaching a dance class at Washington University

THE NEXT STEP: THEATRE AND DANCE

At the end of an intense period of teaching all kinds of children and adults in a variety of circumstances, my mind was made up. I would follow my dream. I would hit the road and start a travelling theater dance company for kids with the best actors,  dancers and musicians around. We would only use live music. It was clear that  classroom visits after the shows and teachers workshops would play a vital role in our visits. These six or seven artists would both perform and teach classes afterwards.

I set up Metro Theater Circus in 1971 with a great friend, Lynn Rubright. New City School gave us a big classroom for rehearsal space in exchange for the company teaching creative arts there during the week. We were set.

Looking back, I am sure all this ‘get up and go’ and  was linked to the zeitgeist of the late 60’s counter culture where, we were sure, if we were passionate enough, we could do anything no matter what.

And it worked! The ‘Circus’ proved to be a formative and thrilling adventure in our lives. Metro’s mission was to bring live innovative theatre, dance, and music  experiences to kids of all ages and social and cultural backgrounds across America.

The above photo with all the ribbons was taken just after our first performance  in Autumn 1971.  We called our show, “THE SECOND GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH.” Included are Lynn (purple),  Me (Yellow), Becky (Green),  Rita (Pink), John ( Red), and Jamie (Orange). Like Firecrackers, this first show was a hum-dinger and we were hired right away by school districts all over the state and mid-west.

Below photo, the cover of the Children’s Theatre Review, 1976, shows the Circus performing a scene from “The Rootabaga Vaudeville Show;”  a song and tap-dancing vaudeville  show of little plays I wrote and lots of poetry. In this sequence I am the one with the basket.

The above two photos are from a performance of SOMERSAULT which I wrote in 1978 (and which included a musical version of the rhyming play, The Three Little Pigs….it’s full text now included in Firecrackers).  I played Mama Pig in the pink wig and talented friends Carol, Branislav and Suzanne (all in pink ears) were the three fabulous dancing baby pigs. The ingenious banjo,  guitar and piano score was composed by Stephen Radek. Branislav Tomich created the brilliant set and costume design and June Ekman was co-director.

 

The MTC on tour in Iowa  in our Dodge Van, 1978. Pictured left to right are Suzanne, Nick, Carol, Brainislav, Me, Peter

The above brochure cover was by the late and great artist and dancer, Remy Charlip.  MTC was fortunate enough to have worked with Remy and his brilliant colleague, June Ekman, on two Metro shows; Arm in Arm ( based on his best-selling children’s book ) and Do You Love me Still or Do you Love Me Moving ( from his brilliant mail order dance drawings)

In fact, a number of poems, haikus and little plays that appear in ‘Firecrackers‘ were written by me and merrily performed by the company (myself included) in various shows during those first ten years when I was both performing and directing the Circus. We performed and taught nearly every day during the academic year in different schools and arts venues across America. It was an arduous and crazy schedule but totally wonderful.  I am sure,  looking back, that I personally must have played every animal there ever was as well as a myriad of creatures that never were.

The photo below appeared in a newspaper from Kansas City in 1975 when Metro was on tour with our song and dance version of Alice in Wonderland. The curious body in the top photo is me working with 5th graders.


Then in 1981  I  moved to London and Metro was taken over by extraordinary and brilliant fellow company members Carol Evans North and Nick Kryah.

Sidebar: I remain crazily proud of Metro because this wonderful company continues to flourish. It has, over the years, touched the lives of millions of children around the world.

LONDON

Now implanted in London in the early eighties, I  worked in fringe theatre and dance, both performing and producing. In 1988, I was working with The Liverpool Playhouse when I met the late literary agent, Rod Hall. I shyly handed him a little manilla envelope of poem/plays that I had written for a Metro show; Mudweavings.

These poems were based on the idea of personal myth; those little stories we each make up as a child which help us make sense of the world.  I collected these myths from family and friends. For example, one of my personal myths was thinking that the sun rose the exact second I opened my eyes in the morning. Everyone I interviewed had a different myth.  It seemed to me that the re-telling of these myths, needed to take a poetic form.

 Mudweavings emerged as a musical poem/play filled with bubbling mud puddles, dancing paper bags, friendly moons, racing trees, sparkles on a morning sidewalk and freckles on a friends nose.

Below is a photograph from Mudweavings, 1979-80; ‘Fill up a Paper Bag’. This poem now appears in Firecrackers.

Left to right:  Carol, Sherry, Me, Nick, Brooke, Joanie

Rod liked these little pieces and took the poems to the publisher of Orchard Books in London, Judith Elliot. And she published it the following year,  as, ‘Mud, Moon and Me.’ Judith has been a brilliant friend ever since that time and indeed it is her hand which has so firmly nurtured and guided Firecrackers.

Below is an article published by my local paper at the time about Mud, Moon and Me.

 

AND NOT TO FORGET THE QUILTS

Of course, I haven’t mentioned that during the years the Circus toured around America, I was collecting old quilts on the side. I first saw these treasures in small town thrift shops and was smitten by their beauty. I loved touching them and looking at the wonderful old fabrics.  I started buying them and studying the historical literature about quilts. It felt like I was holding pieces of precious history in my hands. I especially loved them since I seem to have been born with two left hands and am positively the least craftsy person I have ever met.

Antique quilts, at that time, hadn’t been ‘discovered’ as folk art and so it was easy to buy them for only a few dollars each. After some years, without meaning to, somehow I assembled a collection of over one hundred quilts.

Naturally when I moved to London  my quilts came with me. After doing a number of exhibits and writing a book for HarperCollins ( The American Quilt Story under the pen name of Susan Jenkins ) about the history of American women and quilting traditions, I decided to start a publishing company in 1992. It was a leap to be sure. But then I was used to leaps.  The company, based in an old warehouse a few blocks from where I lived in Islington,  was originally called Museum Quilts Publications. At first we published only books about quilting. Then we moved onto other crafts and cooking. And after a few years we had a team of 35 people and were producing a lot of books on all kinds of subjects. And our name had changed to MQP Books, LTD.

I was CEO and publisher of that company for 16 years.

And that is how I came to learn about publishing.

After leaving London in 2007, and following a dream once more, I moved to rural France to an old stone farm. Waking up each morning to the thrill of a bright orange sun rolling over the horizon, I found myself coming back to my writing roots. I wanted to write for kids.  I was inspired by what I saw and heard every day in the countryside. The authenticity and beauty of country life and nature cast its spell.    It was a new and magical world. I couldn’t put my pen/computer down. And still can’t.

It seemed a good idea after writing all these poems and stories, and books to create ZaZaKids Books to publish my own work.  I knew I could write for kids, I had been doing it for years.  But ZaZaKids needed to be a professional organisation , and having previously been a publisher for 16 years, I knew what that meant. And I knew how hard it could be.  And then,  the stars smiled and  I found some brilliant  children’s book professionals to work with; Judith Elliot ( my dear old friend), Roy Johnson, Louise Millar, Jo Riddell( the wonderful illustrator…then called Jo Burroughs… who had done the gorgeous drawings for Mud, Moon and Me all those years ago), and Martin West. Once again, there was  a team and once again we were set.

And that is the improbable, unexpected  and completely true-blue story of ZaZaKids Books. Stay tuned.