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New York City public school drama teacher brings one-woman show to CCRI
Feb. 29, 2016
Performer Karen Sklaire already knew that teachers can change lives. What came as a surprise to her was that the life most changed by her decision to become a teacher was her own.
Sklaire talks about her path from equity actor to educator, and from intimidated new hire to a woman on a mission to do her best in a deeply flawed system, in her one-woman show, “Ripple of Hope: One Teacher’s Journey to Make an Impact.” Thanks to the Charles Sullivan Fund for the Arts and Humanities in association with the CCRI Players, the show will be presented free of charge at 7:30 p.m. Friday, March 11, at the Community College of Rhode Island’s Knight Campus in Warwick.
Directed by Padraid Lillis, Sklaire performed the work to much acclaim at both the New York International Fringe Festival and Washington, D.C., Capital Fringe Festival.
As you would expect from someone who has made a living taking life and laying it bare on stage, Sklaire is candid about the seismic changes she made in her life after a decade of struggles and some successes as an equity actor in New York City. She spoke of Sept. 11, when she was selling gym memberships to pay the rent, and was in line for an audition at one of the equity buildings when the planes crashed into the World Trade Center towers.
“I was listening to the news on my Walkman,” she said. “I was telling people in line, ‘We have to get out of here. Something really bad is happening.’ You could see the smoke. But no one wanted to give up their place in line. I thought, ‘I can’t live this life anymore. I have to figure out what to do.’”
Like many New Yorkers, Sklaire casted about for a way to make an immediate impact. Her life covered in smoldering fog and dust, she continued to go to work at the gym, which was next to a firehouse – Engine 8 Ladder 2 – that lost some firefighters in the aftermath of the attacks. She decided to turn her nights doing standup into a fundraiser for the company, getting names such as Colin Quinn of “SNL” fame to headline.
“It felt so good,” she said. “Despite whatever else was going on, the one thing in my life that felt good was whenever I felt I was making a difference with people.”
Still looking for a way to make an impact beyond the stage, Sklaire eventually would find a way to make an impact through theater, as when part of the Actors Equity Actors Work program, she was placed as a substitute teacher at a school in the South Bronx.
“I was so idealistic about it at the time,” she said. “I was going to save people! I went to Hunts Point in South Bronx, and I was incredibly shocked about what I saw.”
Sklaire, who grew up in relatively well-to-do Connecticut, said she had taken her images of what it would be like to teach in an inner-city school from movies like “Dangerous Minds” and “Freedom Writers,” idolizing the idealistic teachers who, in time, earned the students’ trust and were able to shake things up. She found the reality of the system was a little more complicated than that: budget cuts, corrupt school administrators, high attrition rates for teachers and the tyranny of testing were a few of the challenges she had run up against.
“It was incredibly challenging, but I loved it a lot,” she said. “I loved the kids. I was determined that I needed to stay, and I had to find my place in the school system.”
One of those times she found her place would come to be the backbones for “Ripple,” Sklaire said, remembering how music helped her connect with a boy named Le Jean, a bully of considerable size despite being only in elementary school.
“I pulled out my iPod, and he asked me if I had Michael Jackson. I said yes, and I put it on, and he was just this amazing dancer. I had an idea,” she said. “I told him I was going to have a show in the fall, and I wanted to make him the special celebrity guest – but he had to do something for me. He had to stop beating kids up, and he had to try better in school. And he did it, and it was amazing.”
Sklaire used the experience as the basis of a monologue she workshopped with monologist Mike Daisey, who encouraged her to expand it into a solo show. Finding and collaborating with the award-winning Lillis was the final piece to the puzzle; Sklaire said that it was his guidance that helped her to dig deeper into the story and bring it to life.
While she was being bumped from school to school and coming up against cuts in programming, she spent the rest of her time developing the story. She relied on her comedic talents to make the piece poignant without surrendering to much of the pain she felt around what she was going to, and found that teachers in the audience loved it.
“It’s about how you keep going when people say no to you. It’s about how you make a difference when faced with huge challenges. And about how I became an activist for students through my work, for equality of education and for arts education,” she said.
Having the ability to perform the work for the CCRI community then takes on a special meaning for her, she said. “I believe that this younger generation are the future defenders of human rights,” she said, “and I believe it’s a story of triumph. That’s the great thing about art – I’ve been able to take adversity and creatively find a way to turn it around and heal myself, and other people, too.”