January 15, 2014 —
Time flies. While shaking my head in disbelief that another year has flown by, I was simultaneously thrilled that kids from every corner of the state were once again arriving for the annual New York State Theatre Education Association (NYSTEA) conference being held in Callicoon, NY (www.villaroma.com ) last weekend. I attended some of the event in 2013 and was so blown away by what I had observed, that I was determined to return and make sure that my previous experience wasn’t a fluke.
Teach them well and let them lead the way—With more than 800 students in attendance, the Villa was teeming with activity. The kids were accompanied by scores of teachers and chaperones, and the schedule of workshops, seminars and classes was staggering. Sullivan County was well represented this year with theatre enthusiasts and educators from the Fallsburg, Eldred and Tri-Valley school districts, and as I scanned the lobby, I couldn’t help but smile. A few of the returning attendees remembered me from last year, but it was the (ever-present) Wonder Dog, who elicited shrieks of glee from adults and children alike as she made her way through the throngs, greeting all with her usual joie de vivre. Hearing my name above the din, I turned to find local heroes Ellen Pavloff, Heather Strauss and Justin Glodich, hovering near their students from our local schools.
Show them the beauty they possess inside—“As a first-time NYSTEA participant, I cannot explain how extraordinary this experience is,” Strauss told me. “Someday,” she continued, “I’ll be able to brag that I met these students before they became tomorrow’s Broadway stars, TV producers, film professionals and rock legends. NYSTEA is here to present an opportunity for the kids to learn more about their chosen field… yet I know that it’s us, the adults, who received the learning experience of a lifetime, as these students showed us their determination, talent and unending perseverance and their love of the arts.” With workshops ranging from “how to sing a comic song,” to “dance for non-dancers” and “set design on a shoestring,” there was something for everyone and the kids’ enthusiasm was infectious. “There are no ‘outsiders’ here” said 15-year-old Rosie Canzoneri. “The conference is a ‘no-judgment zone,’” and her newfound BFF Maddy Albest concurred. “This is my second year and one of the best experiences of my life,” she said with great enthusiasm. The girls had just met but were quick to point out that the convention presents an even playing field for all. “There are no cliques,” Rosie continued, “no nerds, no geeks, no ‘pretty little liars’ here. We are one big, happy family and all beautiful in our own special way.” Noting that I was close to tears, the girls giggled and bid adieu to the dog, heading to the nightclub for closing ceremonies.
Give them a sense of pride—Throughout the three-day intensive, the kids write, compose and choreograph in the seminars, meeting with counselors and college reps in between, some of whom express interest in recruiting future scholarship candidates for theatre-arts programs on campuses across the state. To a fault, the kids encourage their counterparts, whether their own performances are chosen for the finale or not, and as the multitudes fill the nightclub for the final curtain, the thrill and excitement is palpable. “Are you emotional, too?” asked Pavloff, taking me aside. “I spoke with one of our students just now,” she said. “You might want to write this down.” Whipping out my pad and pen, I scribbled furiously. “You know that day-afterChristmas feeling when you’re sad that you have to wait another year until it happens again?” he had asked her. “Take that, multiply by 10 million and there you have my current emotion.”
Let the children’s laughter remind us how we used to be—Giddy with joy, the atmosphere of the closing ceremony elicited hoots, hollers and thunderous applause as some of the chosen few delivered monologues (written during the conference), won raffle prizes and showcased choreography learned in the process. After raising more than $3,000 for “Broadway Cares” (www.broadwaycares.org ), the kids exchanged numbers while hugging it out. “I can’t believe it’s over,” I heard repeatedly, as the final images of the weekend played across the big screen, while the future of America cried over parting from their new friends, before returning to their hometowns. Spying Glodich and his Eldred School students taking their leave, I stopped for a moment and snapped a pic. “Tag yourselves online!” (www.facebook.com/theriverreporter ) I shouted. “I’ll see you soon.” What did these kids teach me? Simple: Learning to love yourself is the greatest love of all.