The Passing of Wendi Kaufman

It is with a very heavy heart that I write that Wendi Kaufman, friend and author of the beautiful short story upon which our musical is based, lost her battle with cancer on August 27th.  Wendi was more than just the author of the story we were adapting, she was a friend, a cheerleader, a muse, and a mentor.  She will be deeply missed, but we are honored to have created a musical that carries her story forward, and know her spirit will be close by at each and every production of Helen that hits the stages.

We send our love and thoughts to her husband David, and her sons Alex and Eli during this difficult time.

To support and keep the memory of Wendi alive, consider purchasing her book, Helen on 86th Street and Other Stories, now available for pre-sale here.   In addition, memorial contributions can be made to Inova's Life With Cancer Program. 

Here's a small dedication we made for her last year.  Thank you, Wendi, for helping us fly.

Wendi Harris Kaufman, author of Helen on 86th Street




Helen's Boston Debut at Wheelock Family Theatre

We had such a wonderful time this past weekend attending Wheelock Family Theatre's production of Helen!  We were truly wowed by the production Ilyse Robbins, John O'Neil, and Sophie Rich created with their talented cast of advanced musical theater students (28 of them!)...with only two weeks of rehearsal!  We loved getting a chance to talk with the cast about the process of writing and developing Helen.  And, personally, it was so great to sit back and go on Vita's journey with her again.  Oh, how I've missed her.

So, a big thank you to everyone at Wheelock for bringing the story to a new generation of performers and audiences.  

The cast warms-up with a little Helen on 86th St.!

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Helen at Wheelock Family Theater! Coming Soon....

Robby and I are very excited to take a road (well, train) trip to Boston on Friday to see a production of Helen directed by my Boston acting buddy (and Elliot Norton award-winning director) Ilyse Robbins, and music directed by my very first vocal coach, John O'Neil.  This is going to be a special one for many reasons.  Obviously, having two talented friends at the helm is one of them.  In addition, we did one of our first readings of Helen at Wheelock.  Finally, Wheelock was my ticket into the professional world of acting.  Many moons ago, back when I was a young lass of twenty-three, I was given my Equity card for playing the role of Lois in Kiss Me Kate on the Wheelock stage, so heading back to see a show I wrote on that very same stage, is super exciting.  So, three cheers for Helen at Wheelock!  Check back for more about our trip.

And if you happen to be in the Boston area on Friday, come check it out!  The details follow:

Musical Theatre Student Performance: Friday August 15 at 6:30

 Helen on 86th St.

 Book and Lyrics by Nicole Kempskie. Music by Robby Stamper. Based on the New Yorker story by Wendi Kaufman. Directed by Ilyse Robbins and John O’Neil.

Based on a short story by celebrated author and playwright Wendi Kaufman, the musical Helen on 86th St. follows Vita Calista, a vibrant and unique 12-year old girl, as she learns to cope with an absent father, a single mother, a disappointing role in the school production of The Trojan Horse, and the daily pressures of being a tween growing up in New York City. It’s a story of loss, longing and acceptance, as seen through the eyes of a young girl wise beyond her years, which like the epic Greek stories it interweaves, carries a message of hope and redemption that resonates with people of all ages.

Wheelock Family Theatre’s Advanced Performance Intensive in Musical Theatre is comprised of actors ages 10 and older who have not yet entered high school. The 2 week program culminates with a fully staged public performance of the musical Helen on 86th Street on the WFT main stage. Students in the intensive prepare for a final performance through daily movement, music, acting, and technical exercises combined with in-depth rehearsals. In addition, the work will concentrate particularly on two aspects of character development: immersing a character in song and physicalizing a character.

Helen Upgrade

In honor of two upcoming productions of the school edition of Helen, I thought it was time for a website upgrade.  It's been so fun reliving this momentous time in my life as I've been redesigning the site!  What a remarkable experience.  I still am in awe of the generosity of so many people who shared their time, talents, and resources with us to make Helen possible.  I don't think I'll experience anything like that again...at least not in this lifetime. And Robby and I are eagerly awaiting Helen's return to Wheelock Family Theater this August, under the direction of two dear friends and colleagues of mine from my Boston acting days--Ilyse Robbins and John O'Neil.  Here's to that performance, and many more.

A Shout Out to Mc.Math Middle School!

Robby and I would like to give a big ole' shout out to Mc. Math Middle School in Denton, Texas who will be premiering our newly licensed "School Edition" of Helen.

We have no doubt that on Thursday night new audiences will be moved by this sweet and simple story, and that Mc. Math will make us all proud.  That being said, I know what "performance week" (or what some call "hell week") can be like, so in honor of what I'm sure they are going through right now I wanted to share Samantha Bennett's "Ode to a Drama Teacher" with them.  (And trust me, it will all come together.  It always does.  And it will be wonderful.)

Ode To The Drama Teacher

And as you stand there: Aghast
Because we’re three days from Opening Night and
Ado Annie still doesn’t know her lines and
The Dream Ballet is a Nightmare and
The Light Board Op just got Detention…

Let us now praise You.

You, the Permanently Fatigued.
You, the Loyal-to-the-Point-of-Self-Neglect.
You, the Keeper of a Thousand-and-Eleventeen Secret Dreams.

You are the one who makes it all Look So Easy.
Who would have expected that the most important Skill you learned getting your BA
Was Juggling?

Juggling Paperwork and Personalities and oh, right – weren’t you supposed to have a
Private Life around here somewhere?

But even though you are Sick to Death of
Spoon River Anthology
You still puddle up every time you hear
There’s A Place For Us
No matter how Off-Key.

And while you still remember when you
Brought the House Down in
Midsummer
You now love This House.

You have created a House where any child – no matter how Flamboyant, no matter how Shy –
Can embrace their Inner Ethel Merman (and thanks to those English 101 classes you now must teach, you are keenly aware that using “their” in the previous sentence is increasingly considered correct and honestly, it’s really the only sensible answer as writing “his or her” is as damaging to poetry as the participle that dangles.)

And you have created a House where any child – no matter how Flamboyant, no matter how Shy – can dive straight to the Deepest, Darkest, Quietest corner of human suffering and bring a room of teenagers – and yes, you, too – to silent tears.

You have made a Home for the Misunderstood
A Family for the Misfit and a
Safe Spot to land no matter how bad The Mid-Terms are.

Because despite all the Budget Cuts and
The Paperwork and
The Meetings about the Meeting to Schedule the Meetings and
The Truancies and
The Parents
Dear God The Parents and
Did we mention The Paperwork?

Nothing on this Green Earth compares to watching a group of kids
Learn the true meaning of Ensemble.

And nothing compares to the pure joy of watching The Ones whom you knew would Eventually Get It
Finally. Really. Get It.

And nothing nothing nothing compares to The Confidences shared in low tones as they seek you out in
Your Office,
The Choir Room
The Front Seat of the Van on the way home from Fullerton.

You aren’t teaching Drama.
You are teaching Life
Which we all know is a Comedy – a Chekhovian Comedy – but a Comedy nonetheless.

And you aren’t teaching Choreography
You are teaching them to Dance.

And you aren’t teaching them how to be a Character.
You are teaching them how to be Themselves.

So here’s to you –

Making room for Art in a world that seems to have no room for Art.

(Because, by the way, that room has been repurposed as the new Standardized Test Prep Center – you don’t mind rehearsing outside, do you?)

And here’s to you –

Scrounging around for new shows that somehow match the sets you already have
Because some Genius on the School Board has
Recently Announced that not only can you not perform Huckleberry Finn
Or Anouilh’s Antigone (probably because he couldn’t pronounce it) and
Given the flap over the Scene from M. Butterfly last year, I guess
March of the Falsettos and The Vagina Monologues are
Out of the Question for the Spring

So Oh Dear God it looks like it’s going to be
Arsenic And Old Lace one more blessed time.

But that’s OK

I love Arsenic And Old Lace.

So here’s to you –

Making room for Another Coffee Mug with
Those Damn Masks on them
Making room in the Chorus for
Just One More
And

Making room for Each and Every Child
To Be
A
Star.

© 2011 Samantha Bennett

A Special Request

Dear Helen Friends, Family, and Supporters,

As you might recall if you were a follower of this blog, Wendi Kaufman, the author of the original short story upon which our musical is based, was diagnosed with cancer soon after we began planning our spring production.  Despite the challenges she faced during her treatment, Wendi and a busload of friends, family, and fans, boarded a charter bus in D.C. and filled the Chernuchin Theatre on the day of our first matinee performance.  It was a day I'll never forget, and I don't have words to express how moved I was to have Wendi and this wonderful group of people in the audience to share our opening weekend with.

Last fall, we were all thrilled when Wendi went into remission and began to resume her "normal" life.  I remember the day she emailed a photo of herself glowing with a full head of hair!  I breathed a sigh of relief knowing that this spunky and strong-willed woman (much like her Helen heroines) had overcome the challenges of the past year, and was not only smiling, but was glowing.  It made Robby and I so happy to share the great news that Helen would soon be published, and would live on.

Unfortunately, as is the case with so many cancers, Wendi's returned a few weeks ago  She is currently recuperating from a major surgical procedure in which they removed a tumor on her spine.

So what can we do?  As you know, I'm an avid believer that nothing is impossible, especially when lots of people come together to attain a common goal.  I mean, look at what we (that includes all of you) were able to accomplish with Helen?  Thanks to everyone's hard work, support, and belief in Helen on 86th St. we made it happen, and now it will live on and on and on.  

But, I want more than that.  I want Wendi Kaufman to live on and on and on.  There are too many of us out there who need her spunk, her smarts, her huge heart, and her writing.  So all I ask of you (don't worry, I'm not going to ask you to donate to Kickstarter), all I ask is that you keep Wendi and her family in your highest, most vibrant, healing, and loving thoughts.  Because I know from experience just how powerful those thoughts are.

Many, many, thanks.  

 

 

Helen...One Year Later...

Wow!  How time flies! 

Today we reunited with our Helen kids to celebrate our one-year anniversary since the show.  To be perfectly honest, I really didn't know how it was going to feel.

So how did I feel at our anniversary? 

I felt grateful.  And proud.  And pretty copasetic.

I mean, how often do you get to create a piece of art with a group of people who feel like family?  How often do you get to watch a group of talented young people grow up and grow before your eyes?  How often do you get to see a vision and a dream come to life? How often can you breathe a sigh of relief knowing that your show, something you put 150% of your heart and soul into, will have a life beyond it's initial production?

So how do I feel?  Grateful.

It seems appropriate that we [inadvertently] scheduled our reunion for the day of the Tony Awards.  It's a time when theatre is placed front and center and celebrated.  And that's how I felt at our anniversary. I felt like celebrating that we, in our tiny and humble way, have been a part of that theatrical spirit with our show.

While I've got your attention, check our the new Stamper and Kempskie website and see what we've been up to since Helen!  We've finished a new full-length musical, Robby won a MAC Award, we've started another new show (one song down, 11 more to go), we've got another musical for youngins' about vampires and werewolves underway, the school edition of Helen is published and already in the hands of drama teachers across the country (and in Canada!), and I'm working on an docudrama about mothers with author and educator Jan Valle. 

I won't lie.  It wasn't easy to pick ourselves up after Helen.  But, after some resting and some time, we pushed each other to jump back into the creative pool and get back to doing what we love to do:  Writing.

Onwards and upwards!

Helen School Edition coming to a theatre near you...

Yes, it's true!  Kids across the globe will soon be able to put on Helen on 86th St.!

We are so excited to announce that in the spring of 2012, the one-hour school edition of Helen on 86th St. will be published and available to license through Playscripts, Inc. 

As proud as we are of the full-length Helen, we are so excited that this version will soon be available.  We've worked really hard to maintain the integrity of the full-length and Wendi's story, but we also wanted to make sure this version was manageable and very "user-friendly" for young performers and their directors/music directors who have to work within the constraints of a school rehearsal period, a camp program, an after school program, etc.  We've been there, we've done that, and we tried to be cognizant of the pitfalls.  We both feel that the "product" we will be putting forth will make Helen as magical as it was here in New York, wherever it gets done.

So as Thanksgiving approaches, we couldn't be more thankful for what this year has brought forth.

And the best part?  We've only just begun.

With gratitude,

Nicole & Robby



 

 

Reunited for Helen Junior!

 

This blurry, out of focus photo in no way does justice to our wonderful Helen workshop on Sunday.

What it does mean, however, is that I need to get a new iPhone...or invest in that Canon SLR camera that I've been dreaming of...

Anyway, that being said, it was like coming "home" on Sunday.  Coming home to an exceptional group of young performers and young people who are as lovely as they are talented.  Coming home to a "family" of Helen parents and supporters who have become our friends.  Coming home to material that we all believe in and still enjoy hearing and seeing.  And coming home to creating art with a community of people who share our passion, values, and work ethic.

It was so nice to be back home.

Just last year at this time we hadn't even entertained the notion of mounting a full production of the show.  We had just finished our "teaser" and were getting ready for a full table read in November.  Our pre-adolescent kids (almost all of who have been with us since last August) were tweens, not teens.  Some of my favorite musical numbers didn't even exist yet.   I knew next to nothing about producing an Off-Broadway show. 

So, not only was it nice to be back home, it was a little awe-inspiring.  I'll be honest, since the show closed in May, Robby and I have been so focused on what didn't happen, that we never gave ourselves the opportunity to register what did happen.

And what did happen was nothing short of remarkable.

A huge thank you goes out to our Helen family for helping us remember that.   We love you!

 

Words of Wisdom from Jim Henson

I'm finishing up a study guide that I am writing for BAM on "The Muppet Movie."  In a few months, hundreds of elementary school students in Brooklyn and Manhattan will pile into BAM Rose Cinemas to experience what was one of the first movies I saw growing up--at the Edgemere Drive-in, snuggled in a car with my mom and dad and my new baby sister who had just been born that year.

I'm so excited for this generation of young people to experience Jim Henson's brilliance, and have been deeply inspired by his work-ethic, his artistry, his life-philosophy and his generous spirit as I've been writing this guide. 

What follows is an excerpt from the book, "Jim Henson:  The Works--The Art, the Magic, the Imagination."  I hope it inspires you as much as it inspires me:

I believe that life is basically a process of growth-that we go through many lives, choosing those situations and problems that we will learn through.

I believe that we form our own lives, that we create our own reality, and that everything works out for the best. I know I drive people crazy with what seems to be ridiculous optimism, but it has always worked out for me.

I believe in taking a positive attitude toward the world, toward people, and toward my work. I think I'm here for a purpose. I think it's likely that we all are, but I'm only sure about myself. I try to tune myself in to whatever it is I'm supposed to be, and I try to think of myself as a part of all of us-all mankind and all life. I find it's not easy to keep these lofty thoughts in mind as the day goes by, but it certainly helps me a great deal to start out this way.

I love my work, and because I enjoy it, it doesn't really feel like work. Thus I spend most of my time working. I like working collaboratively with people. At its best, the film and television world functions creatively this way. I have a terrific group of people who work with me, and I think of the work that we do as "our" work.

I don't know exactly where ideas come from, but when I'm working well ideas just appear. I've heard other people say similar things-so it's one of the ways I know there's help and guidance out there. It's just a matter of out figuring out how to receive the ideas or information that's there waiting to be heard.

At some point in my life I decided, rightly or wrongly, that there are many situations in this life that I can't do much about-acts of terrorism, feelings of nationalistic prejudice, cold war, etc.-so what I should do is concentrate on the situations that my energy can effect.

I believe that we can use television and film to be an influence for good; that we can help to shape the thoughts of children and adults in a positive way. As it turned out, I'm very proud of some of the work we've done, and I think we can do many more good things.

When I was young, my ambition was to be one of the people who made a difference in this world. My hope still is to leave the world a little bit better for my having been here.

It's a wonderful life and I love it.

Another summer, another show

A huge BRAVO goes out to my fearless teens and interns this summer from the Lucy Moses Summer Music Theatre Workshop, for doing Bollywood justice, and bringing Mitali Perkin's poignant book, "Monsoon Summer" to life so beautifully. 

Man, we put them through a lot!  Not only did they have to do the usual singing, dancing and acting, but these teens also had to try and master Bhangra, Bollywood and Kathak dance, dissonant Indian melodies, complex harmonies, and learn how to play the percussive musical accompaniment for our score in four weeks.  It wasn't always easy, but in the end, we pulled it off, and managed to expose the Kaufman Center/Merkin Concert Hall community to the magic of India and the wonder of Bollywood.

A second BRAVO goes out to Program Director Sean Hartley and Assistant Director Amy Sulds, and all my fellow composers, writers, directors and choreographers:  Beth Sorrentino, Marisa Joseph, Clay Zambo, Jihwan Kim, Scott Ethier, Dan Acquisto, Gabriel Luce, Ben Tostado, David Gordan, Wendy Baker, Suzanne Gregorie, Steve Brennan, Jason Robinson, Christine Barklay and Angie Gomez for their wonderful work.

This was the first summer that LUMO partnered with First Books, a fantastic non-profit organization that provides new books to children in need.  What this meant was that we had a bevy of great books to choose from to adapt this summer, and the author's blessing to musicalize their writing.  And for all you writers out there who have ever tried to option the rights to a book or a story, you know just how much a blessing that really is.  You can learn more about the great work this organization does, here.

Speaking of great non-profit organizations and partnerships...I have some exciting news about an upcoming Helen partnership with another great non-profit organization. 

More information will be coming soon!

The Story Goes On...

A couple of weeks ago, we gathered our Helen kids and our glorious cellist/singer, Clarice, together for a DIY recording session at Pearl Studios.  With a handheld digital recorder in a mic stand, Robby at the piano, and me filling in for our (sorely missed) adult actresses, we went through almost the entire score, song by song.

To be honest, it was really hard for me.  I was still in my “recovery” period—that two-month time span when I was filled with a great deal of emotion that I was still trying to make sense of.  I felt like one great-big exposed nerve.  So to see all these lovely people, with their hopeful faces looking up at me, and singing the songs so perfectly like the show had just closed the day before, was challenging for me.

I wanted to tell them that I knew exactly what was happening with the show.  I wanted to promise them that the show would be going up again, very soon and that they would all be playing their roles again.  I wanted to say that the incredibly hard work we put in and all of our efforts, had immediately materialized into something concrete.

And all I could tell them was that whatever the future held for this particular show, they would always be our “family” and that we would continue to write for them, use them to develop our work, and if we could, use them as performers in future productions of Helen on 86th St.  I needed them to know that what they had given us was so enormous and beautiful and we would never forget our miraculous “original” Helen on 86th St. cast. 

I am so glad that Robby had enough energy at that point (when I didn’t) to coordinate this session and that we will always have an audio recording of this special group.  I can’t tell you how much I cherish it.  And I’m so pleased to say that Helen will have a life beyond this production.  More details will follow in the weeks to come, but suffice it to say, if I have my way, many more children will be singing the songs that you can hear our outstanding cast singing here. 

Today I accompanied my Kaufman Center students to our annual Broadway field trip.  As I sat among a sea of children from our camp and what seemed like hundreds of performing arts camps from across the country, I had a bittersweet moment.  Here was a show (which shall remain nameless), that is being marketed as “family” entertainment, and the entire row of children behind me seemed to be a combination of confused, bored and fidgety (judging from how many times the boy behind me kicked my seat).  I kept hearing one child say, “I don’t understand.  Why is everyone laughing?  What was funny?” 

It made me think of what a missed opportunity this theatrical experience was for those kids—the future generation of theatre audiences.  Here was this wonderful chance to expose hundreds of eager and enthusiastic children to the magic of live theatre—to provide that unique communal experience of song, dance, emotion and drama that has been a part of culture since ancient times, but it didn’t speak to them…and so they tuned it out.  Sure, they watched when the sequins came out (for there were lots of sequins), but did they feel anything?  Did they recognize their lives, their friends and family, their struggles and triumphs in this musical?  Maybe at moments, but overall, no.

So when I look at this page on our website,  and see kids, moms, dads, grandparents and so many others smiling away at the somewhat shabby and decrepit American Theatre of Actors after seeing one of our Helen performances, and I think about my experience today, I do feel like I made an important contribution to the theatre industry.

My favorite recording of that day, has to be the full cast rendition of "The Journey is the Destination."  While this song is sung by the "mom" in the show, Victoria, we divided up the lines and sang it as a group.  This song has always been very poignant to me, but hearing it sung by Clarice and the kids in the cast, just reminds me why I did what I did this past year.  Enjoy! (And try and see if you can pick my solo out!)

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.
            ~Charles Caleb Colton

Hello, Helen friends!  I know it's been way too long.  Believe it or not, I'm just starting to recover from the past year.  And since I am enjoying reading books, gardening, cooking, sleeping, doing yoga, watching films, working my multiple jobs and writing new shows, I won't be going back to blogging on a daily basis anytime soon.  But, I do do miss this blog...and I miss you...and I miss being able to maintain our connection, so there will be more blogs to come from time to time. 

Especially since the development of Helen on 86th St., and the Stamper & Kempskie writing team's career have only just begun.  Phase 2 is underway and I know there will be exciting news to share and more stories "from the trenches" to enlighten you with as our "baby" continues to mature and grow.

For today, I just HAD to share this with you.  It seems as though this happy little Helen blog and the idea of chronicling the process of "raising" and mounting a show has taken hold in the "industry."  In fact, there is a heavy-hitting producer who has just started his daily blog about the ins and outs of producing a musical that will be opening this fall on Broadway.

Check it out here.

Something tells me this won't be the first time that Helen can be credited with "breaking new ground."  At least, not if I can help it.

Stay tuned for more on Helen's "toddler years" in the next few months (hopefully, we will sail through the "terrible twos")...and for some samples from the awesome DIY "Original Cast Recording"  we made a few weeks ago.

Til' then--Happy Summer!

El Momento de la Verdad

I've started to write this "wrap-up" blog so many times over the last few days, but every time I do I end up at a loss.  There is just so much to say...and yet, nothing to say.

If you saw the show, it speaks for itself.

If you were a part of the show in any capacity, that experience speaks for itself.

If you have read this blog that chronicles the events of the past year, it speaks for itself.

But it does seem that some sort of closure is necessary, at least for this leg of our journey.  And so I'll do my best to provide you with that.

Like so many other times when I have been at a loss for words, or too exhausted to form coherent sentences, I will rely on the words of others.  This is a repeat quote, but it so perfectly encapsulates what this monumental experience has meant to me, and I believe, to all those who took part in it that I feel it bears repeating:

To laugh often and much; to win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children; to earn the appreciation of honest critics and to endure the betrayal of false friends; to appreciate beauty; to find the best in others; to leave the world a bit better whether by a healthy child, a garden patch or a redeemed social condition; to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded.

            ~Ralph Waldo Emerson


Much love and gratitude to all of you who have been onboard for this groundbreaking and miraculous theatrical and social "experiment."  We all have a lot to be very proud of.

And I have no doubts that we will all meet again very soon.