Thursday, March 26, 2009

Crystal Skillman: On Location with Annie at A Class Act NY

Andrea McArdle leads the special Annie workshop at A Class Act NY

(Editor's Note: Today, we welcome playwright Crystal Skillman to the nytheatre i's Good News Theatre Blog, with a great story about the Annie workshop at A Class Act NY.)

It’s about 11 am on a Saturday morning as I arrive at the Ripley-Grier Studio, where I hear the driving, rousing melody of “It’s Hard Knock Life” seeping through the studio door. All the parents waiting in the hallway are a little nervous. Partly because they’re anxious about how their child is doing learning a new dance in the next room. The other reason is that Andrea McArdle, the actress who originated the role of Orphan Annie on Broadway, has just come into the hallway.

Here to lead an Annie Workshop with A Class Act NY Acting Studio, whose mission is to “enrich children’s lives through the magic of the performing arts in a fun, safe and supportive environment,” Andrea strides up in her black leather jacket to meet Jessica Rofe, A Class Act’s fearless artistic director, as if on cue. Jessica fills Andrea in: the younger class is running through "Hard Knock Life" to show her what they’ve learned thus far. The group of older kids are still rehearsing and will come in later. Jessica leads Andrea into the room, encouraging me to follow.

Instantly, I’m greeted with the image of about 10-15 very young kids – girls, with one boy – on their knees with white rags and red buckets to their side.

“You’re lucky – these buckets are lighter than the ones we had to use in the show,” Andrea remarks. The kids instantly give her attention. If this Annie school is in session, Andrea is the principal of the day. She warmly greets Jordan, an actor and Class Act NY Instructor who has been teaching the kids their choreography thus far with incredible patience and enthusiasm. Andrea wastes no time jumping in, kneeling with the kids.

“Think about what orphan you want to be. Are you the angry one? Whiny? Protective? Are you tough like Annie?”

There are questions of course. The boy in the room asks if he can be a different character like Daddy Warbucks. Andrea’s quick to list off the other fun male roles: Mr. Bundles (laundry guy), Bert Healy (radio guy), President (FDR guy).

It becomes settled that he’ll play the orphan July in the song, but they can all call him Johnny.

They keep rehearsing and the dance gets stronger and stronger. After a round of congrats for the younger group’s impressive hard work learning the dance of scrubbing floors and orphan antics, the older kids come in and share the same routine they’ve rehearsed. The younger kids watch, impressed themselves, and are so excited when they’re invited to join them. Suddenly the room is filled with roughly 30 kids, all sizes and ages. When they run towards the rehearsal mirror, pulling back their fists on the imagined audience, Andrea herself among them, hitting home the final cords of "Hard Knock," it is clear these are not kids to mess with! And they are having the time of their life.

But what is it about Annie? Why do so many young girls want to play her? This question sticks in my head as we break for lunch. As a fan of the show myself, first listening to Annie on my record, lovingly kept safe in its precious bright red album cover, I know the power of the show. From the moment it debuted on Broadway in the late '70s with Andrea singing her heart out, her ever faithful Sandy by her side, this show has inspired countless young kids to dream of playing Annie or simply sing the songs along with her or to act out her role in their room.

A lot of this pondering has directly affected one of my most interesting projects – a musical called That’s Andy, about a young boy who wants to play Annie. Co-collaborator Bobby Cronin came up with the great idea and brought together Kevin Carter as composer and myself as a playwright. All of us have felt a connection to Annie (for me harkening back to Harold Gray’s strip, the original inspiration) and the idea of someone whose dream it is to be that kind of leader – to do more than fit in – to inspire people to change.

This comes up in the food court at Ripley-Grier with one of the moms, who has gotten some food herself. Her daughter has always wanted to play in Annie and has been involved in several productions, like the Junior Annie series, both professionally and locally. She knows why these girls want to be Annie:

“She’s just so – heroic!”

Her words stick with me as I return. The students are huddled around Andrea, all eating lunch together.

“My friend was one of the chipmunks in The Wizard of Oz!”

“Ah, you mean munchkins,” Andrea figures out as she smiles. One girl asks about Sandy.

“He was the most amazing dog,” Andrea shares with them, reminding them that he came from a shelter, an orphan himself.

Jessica keeps things moving along, but before we get started again the students have an opportunity to take pictures with Andrea and/or get autographs. I’m floored by this younger generation who have come in with some older materials – songbooks, souvenir booklets – one girl has even brought in a photo of herself as Annie from when she was in the show which Andrea signs, remarking on how great her costume and the wig are.

Well, of course! Even hero needs her outfit.

After a group photo and Andrea showing everyone how the original Annie auditions worked by having everyone sing happy birthday (which these students do, complete with cha-cha-chas!), we move onto scene work.

The groups break off, rehearse and present their scenes, some even staged. Andrea praises them for being so believable. When one younger actress struggles in the opening scene, where the orphans all look to Annie as Molly cries missing her mother, Andrea offers:

“Miss Hannigan isn’t really in charge. It’s Annie – she’s the leader of this team, wears the pants in this family. Has unshakable confidence. That’s why when she’s gone, it all goes to heck because she’s the voice of reason.”

If that isn’t the description of a real hero I don’t know what is!

Nearing the end of the four-hour workshop, the students start to share 16 bars of their music with Andrea. The quality of all the students is impressive, but time is running out.

Andrea suggests we do a “group sing” of "Tomorrow." She’s actually been rehearsing for a NY Pops concert at Rose Hall with a choir of folks all doing "Tomorrow" and talks about how powerful the song can be to sing together.

She starts, kneeling in the center of the room.

“The sun'll come out …”

Andrea continues, on and on, building. Hitting every note. As she does, you can see that girl who played Annie so many years ago through the woman she’s become today. Strong, confident, and a professional who loves to share her love of this role and this play in order to help these students envision their own future in theatre.

As she hits the chorus and invites us to join in, I watch the faces of the students, teachers, and even the pianist, all singing, reflected in the mirror across from us. I see the pure joy this song brings. The hope each person in the room personally share. With all we’ve gone through recently, with a new president coming in bringing change, while our economic climate is beginning to mirror the Depression era Annie is actually set in, this is quite a feat. It strikes me how the song is timeless, and always will be, because there always will be a tomorrow.

It’s pretty emotional at the end, everyone saying goodbye. Parents have now come into the room full of excitement, thanking Andrea, Jessica, and Jordan. It’s very clear that A Class Act NY’s mission has fulfilled these families expectations again and again. Some of these students will go on to be professionals, some just want to learn something new, but in either case, these kids all have an experience to remember for sure.

As Andrea is on her way out, I get the chance to thank her. I tell her how impressed I am with her enthusiasm teaching this next generation of young actors and actresses.

She smiles.

“You can’t fake that.”

Just what a hero might say.

* * * * * *

Learn more about A Class Act NY here:
And huge thanks to guest blogger Crystal Skillman! Let me know if you want to see more stories by Crystal in this space. Crystal and her collaborators are working on That's Andy, aiming for a reading this fall. Learn more about Crystal here:

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