April 6, 2012

Making Books Sing


A Q&A With The Musical Mastermind Behind The Literacy-Based Theater

By Elizabeth Raymond


Making Books Sing is a true theatrical gem for city kids, with an arts-in-education philosophy that jumps right off the page and onto the stage. New York Family recently caught up with Barbara Zinn Krieger, the theater’s Founder and Artistic Director about where the company has been and where it’s going. See what this mother of two and grandmother of two has to say about the importance of the performing arts and their upcoming production, The Butterfly.

How did Making Books Sing come to be?
After 22 years as Founder and Executive Director of Manhattan’s Vineyard Theater, I wanted to devote the next part of my career to creating the same kind of exceptional theater for children that Vineyard was known for creating for their parents. I believe that all good theater teaches us valuable life lessons; so having a literacy-based companion education program in the public schools of all five boroughs seemed like a no-brainer. We commission works based on illustrated books of historical or social significance, send teaching artists into the schools to work with the classroom teacher to inspire the students to write their own play or musical, and then share it with other classes. This not only reinforces the experience of seeing our professional production in a real theater, but also gives the students an incentive to research, read, write and express themselves.

What is your favorite part of the job?
So much of what I do inspires and stimulates me, it’s hard to choose. I love writing the librettos for some of the musicals, commissioning talented teams of composers and librettists for others, watching a musical take shape when it moves into the hands of the production team and the actors, and then sitting in the audience and feeling the excitement and enthusiasm of the audience.

Name a few accomplishments of Making Books Sing that you are most proud of.
*Our anti-bullying play Alice’s Story, which has been seen by 6,000 children in all five boroughs. *Broadway actors taking leaves of absence from hit shows to appear in our musicals because they believe passionately in what we stand for.
*A mother bringing her son to see one of our shows for the fifth time because
he was so into it.

Please tell us about your work with homeless families.
In 2007, MBS produced A Shelter In A Car—an inspiring musical about a homeless family that loses their apartment and have to live in their car. We always contact organizations that would be interested in the theme to see if they want to attend. Not only did several shelters send families to the show, [but] as a result, we were invited by Phipps Houses Transitional Services to create a program for homeless mothers and children living in several of their shelters. In order to enroll a child in the program, the mother or a grandparent had to participate. It is one of the most satisfying experiences our education department has had. We could see the difference we were making. Parents and grandparents were talking to their children more, and seeing them differently. A mother told us that she never knew her child’s favorite color was blue until they participated in our program!

We’d love to hear more about your upcoming production, The Butterfly.
MBS first produced The Butterfly in 2008. The story takes place in WWII Nazi-occupied France. Two young girls—one Catholic, one Jewish—meet and form a friendship, when the Catholic girl discovers that her mother is a member of the resistance and is hiding Jews. They learn about each other’s lives, and when a neighbor threatens exposure, they both react with bravery. The audience response to [the show] was so overwhelmingly positive, that we decided it deserved another production.

What aspect of the production do you think children will enjoy the most?
The story is compelling and full of exciting incidents. There is the rescue of a Jewish candy store owner right under the nose of a member of the Hitler Youth, a near disastrous meeting with a German Soldier that is saved by one of the girls’ quick thinking, as well as laughter and singing and dancing, to name just a few. And the story is not only for girls. A teenage boy, under the Nazis’ influence until he discovers the truth of their brutal occupation, figures prominently in the story, too.

What message do you hope viewers will walk away with?
I wish that oppression and discrimination were things of the past, but we know that they are still issues all over the world. The message that I hope the audience will come away with is this: we can all make a difference in the world, even children, by refusing to condone prejudice, and friendship can form the glue that unites people.

Lastly, why do you think it’s so important for young people to cross paths with the performing arts?
Growing up, theater became a window onto the wider world. Experiencing the performing arts opened my eyes to possibilities, and showed me lives very different from my own. The movies can do this too, but nothing beats the experience of taking a theatrical journey with living, breathing people. For many of the school children that attend our morning performances, our show is the first live theater that they are exposed to. I’ll never forget sitting behind a young boy who turned to his teacher at the end and said, “that was the best movie I ever saw!” I hope we are helping to create an audience for tomorrow, who will look forward to attending live theater and will bring to it discernment and enthusiasm.

Making Books Sing‘s production of The Butterfly runs from April 14-29, Saturdays and Sundays, at 2pm and 4pm. Theater 3 is located at 311 West 43rd Street.

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