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.

 

Helen and the Civil Rights Movement

 “There was a moving feeling within me that I was sitting there demanding a God given right and my soul became satisfied that I was right in what I was doing. At the same time there was something deep down within me, moving me, that I could no longer be satisfied or go along with an evil system that I had to be maladjusted to, and in spite of all of this, I had to keep loving the people that denied me service.”

~John Lewis, Civil Rights Leader (Quote taken from NBC's White Paper:  Sit in)

Don't worry, I'm not going to be so trite as to compare my Helen plight to the fight for racial equality.  That would just be ridiculous.  But, I do have to tell you how fortunate I feel to have a job that brings me back to reality and constantly puts me into contact with reminders about the conditions that others have fought against throughout history....the obstacles that people before me have had to overcome to make changes...the challenges that were bravely faced in the name of justice.

This month I have been teaching a lot of Civil Rights classes and it's made me reflect on why I would choose to spend so much of my time on this project.  I started in this industry as an actor, and becoming disillusioned with it after a number of successful years in the business, I went back to graduate school.  I started teaching in some of the most impoverished neighborhoods in the city.  I did that for many years, and then I wrote a play about it for my graduate thesis.  I wanted to share what I had experienced with more people than my immediate circle of friends.  What I saw, what I was exposed to, and what I witnessed about society, about injustice and about struggle was important, and so I felt the need to immortalize it by writing about it.

The first summer I used Wendi's story as the impetus for a mini-musical with sixteen 5th grade girls I felt those feelings stirring in me again.  There was something in her piece that resonated with all of us and that needed to be told, shared and addressed.  A friend of mine who saw the show on Wednesday night sent me an email saying, "the takeaway that Vita got from the whole ordeal, speaks to children of ALL ages.  It surely resonated with me."  

Regardless of what happens with Helen on 86th St. come May 9th, I feel like I've done my job.  This story has resonated with so many people. This experience--the attempt to create a piece of art and bring it to the community with no industry help or guidance and very little money--has resonated with so many people.  We have no idea what lies ahead, but what has come to pass has been incredibly special and important.  And let's be honest, we still have a great deal of racial inequality and injustice, but that doesn't make the strength and power behind John Lewis' words any less poignant.

All we can do is our best.

And every person involved in Helen on 86th St., from the parent volunteers to the actors, creative team, production team and fans, did better than their best.

And that is a beautiful thing.

We are here! We are here! We are here!

We've had an amazing run so far, and I am so grateful for that.  Yes, Robby fell through the trap door during tech, yes, we got a bizarre review, but all in all, this show has been received with overwhelming enthusiasm, and that is the best feeling in the world.  Full houses, excited and responsive audiences, standing ovations, little boys and girls sitting on the edges of their seats (literally), parents weeping, and families mobbing the concession stand to buy their Helen posters and t-shirts on the way out.

I couldn't be more proud.

And yet, for those of you Dr. Seuss fans out there, anyone who has read or seen "Horton Hears a Who" or Seussical, it's felt like we are those little Whos screaming and yelling on that dust speck, "We are here!  We are here!  We are here!"  I mean, audiences are loving this show.  And they keep asking me, "What's next?"  or "How many more shows are there because I want to tell my friends, family, etc." 

Right now, all of us, and that includes our cast, our team, our old Helen fans, and now our new Helen fans are like those tiny Whos suspended on a single clover leaf, lost in the field of clover, and the only one who is hearing us is Horton.  And everyone thinks that Horton is off his rocker. 

I'm hoping, that just like in the story, if we keep saying, "We are here!  We are here!  We are here!" Horton, and a lot of others will take notice.

For as Horton sings in Seussical, "A person's a person, no matter how small.  A person's a person, no matter how small."

A great show's a great show, no matter how small.  A great show's a great show, no matter how small.

The People Have Spoken....

The show was absolutely delightful! Having been musical theater actors and afficionados for many years, we're some of the toughest theater critics around. The book was fresh and original, which is a rarity these days. The show was fun and engaging from start to finish with many heart-warming moments. The music and lyrics were beautiful and poignant. It was extremely well cast and well acted. We would definitely recommend it to our friends, especially those with children. Sophia was on the edge of her seat the entire time, and has been singing songs from the show all day.

Nicole and her new friend Sofia (Age 9)

I Loved 'Helen on 86th Street.' The production stayed true to Wendi Kaufman’s original story in The New Yorker, making it the perfect combination of art and entertainment: a moving and meaningful story told by talented young actors. Best of all, it captivated the whole family, from the 10-year-old son to the 40-something husband.  I can’t wait to be able to say, 'I remember when it was a small hopeful venue. Now look at it!'

The show is a total charmer. And it's beautiful how out of such a humble story, the themes resonate---like ripples in a pool. Very inspiring. Have a great run!

I really loved your play.  I can't get the songs out of my head. I have been really annoying my family by singing them all the time.  I loved Helen on 86th Street so much that I would love to be considered for future presentations.  I know that loving a play won't necessarily get anyone considered for a play so I am prepared to give you my resume.  I think I look a lot like Vita. Especialy when I put my hair in braids. But if you do consider me I am up for any of the parts really.

The cast of the musical "Helen on 86th Street" was marvelous, for sure, and the play was very original! It was funny, yet touching at the same time.  The vocals were superb, and I liked the way the two instumentalists hovered above the show and were actually an active part of the show itself. Very entertaining overall!

I was literally humming songs from Helen this morning. Dave and I talked about the story, the funny, touching and believable performances by the actors, the music, the beautiful choreography practically all the way home on our bus ride. We had such an amazing time. The final song had all three of us in tears - it's such a beautiful message - eloquently worded and beautifully scored.

Stay true to your dream and your vision - they are magical and there are so very many people who need to see Helen and fall in love with it like Dave, Aunt Connie and I did (and everyone in Sunday's audience, I'd say).

I didn't want to gush last night, but now I do want to congratulate you on your wonderful achievement.  The show is just fantastic.  We laughed, we cried.  The songs were lovely.  The cast was sensational. The numbers were great.  I don't know how many ways to say it!   The show is terrific, and I hope it has a long and happy life.  I can't wait to see what happens to it next!!!  Who wouldn't want to produce such a fun show??!!

Every person that I have brought to this show has absolutely loved it. Yesterday, my Mom, Mom in Law, my friend and I were all in tears after the show - we all loved it so much! I can't get the songs out of my head - even when I am listening to other songs on my IPod!

I loved the show! Everyone in it was amazing. I am so glad that you have included me in the "loop".

I ran out of your dress rehearsal pretty quickly Wednesday night to make it to a class (plus you had to stage curtain call!), but I wanted to once again tell you what a great show you have on your hands.  I was thrilled to be a part of the final dress's audience and witness firsthand what a fantastic collaboration you two have!  The cast and story were equally amazing and OH MY GOD the music - beautiful!!

Sorry to ramble on and on, but really I was so proud to be there and so happy for the two of you and the incredibly talented cast.


The Critic Speaks...and so does Nicole

One of the advantages of being a "nobody" in the industry (and having a blog) is that I have absolutely nothing to lose by speaking my mind. 

And so, I'm going to do what every producer has probably always wanted to do, but would never dare.  I'm going to deconstruct the review we received on Broadway.com.  Yes, that's correct.  I'm going to critique our "critic." 

Come on, you know you've all wanted to do what I'm about to do!  But, instead, you try and pretend that a "lackluster" review doesn't exist.  So I'm going to do it for you, because I'm really no one in this industry except that crazy lady who wrote and fully produced a musical in under a year with a cast of nineteen (15 under the age of 16) while working a full-time job.

And if you are thinking, "Oh, Nicole.  Rise above it.  All that matters is that audiences are loving this show!  Your target audiences (see previous blogs) can't get enough of it!  You succeeded in what you set out to accomplish and this story is resonating with people."

And that's all true.  But, it does matter, because every time someone googles "Nicole Kempskie" or "Helen on 86th St." what they are going to read is that I didn't use enough "vertical angles" in my staging to hold the attention of our critic. They aren't going to be privy to the miracles that occurred while getting this horizontally challenged show off the ground.  How in six rehearsals on the weekends, I managed to put up a fully-produced show.  Or how my brilliant production team, working with almost no money made this show look like an Off-Broadway production.  Or how the COMMUNITY worked together to create a piece of art that could never have existed if we hadn't all worked together.  Or how the author of the short story and 70 of her colleagues and friends from D.C. took a charter bus to see the show and were beside themselves.

Getting a review that comments on vertical vs. horizontal staging techniques after what we've all been through reminds me why I hated math so much until we started getting "partial credit" if you "showed your work" and the teacher could see that everything was mostly right, until that tiny subtraction error you made at the end...("Partial credit" definitely saved me from failing math.)

So, join me, in looking a bit more closely at Ms. Vignola's "review."

Last week, Helen on 86th Street made its World Premiere at the American Theatre of Actors (314 W. 54th Street).  Based on the popular Wendi Kaufman short story, Helen follows the story of Vita.  Vita is a “Little Miss Sunshine”-type tween struggling with her mom, an absentee father and a disappointing role in the school production.  A new musical by Nicole Kempskie and Robby Stamper, it is a story of loss, longing and acceptance.  Like the epic Greek story it echoes, The Illiad, Helen carries a message of hope and most importantly redemption.   Helen on 86th Street runs now through May 8th.

NICOLE RESPONDS:  Apparently, Ms. Vignola likes the horizontal formatting of my words, since most of this paragraph is essentially the copy I wrote and provided for her in the press packet.  Oh, except for it "echoing" the Illiad.  It's actually "echoes" the Odyssey, hence the 64 Odyssey references scattered throughout the piece.

As a musical, Helen on 86th Street is a little lackluster.  The script has plot holes that are only answered if you read the short story.  For example, why does a twelve-year old girl have matches so available to her in 2011?  I had a copy of the short story in my press packet, but I wonder if everyone else was in the loop.

NICOLE RESPONDS:  Okay, she finds it a "little" lackluster.  She's entitled to find it a "little" lackluster.  A "little lackluster" doesn't  happen to be a phrase that I've heard escape from anyone's lips who has seen the development stages of Helen or the show, but okay.  At least is wasn't fully lackluster.

As for the matches.  Yes, there was a time when it was much clearer that Vita had a match collection bowl (from restaurants) on her dresser, but since on an Equity Showcase budget we couldn't afford a dresser or anything other than a bed, we had to put the bowl of matches under her bed.  And then it was really hard for Taylor (Vita) to strike the small matches that Jeena (our brilliant props person) had gathered from restaurants all over the city and put together in the "match collection bowl" so we preferred to keep the action of the show moving and Taylor safe by giving her kitchen matches so that she could light them easily as she sings a vocally difficult song.

The short story is 5 pages long and is written in the first-person from Vita's perspective.  There are no "plot holes" or parts of the story that have been left out from Wendi's story because I invented 75% of the story, the characters and plot in order for it to work on the stage. As for the remaining 25%, I toiled to make sure that I was as faithful as I could be to Wendi's story.

The score was average at best.  The songs reiterated the action but didn’t do much to further it.  It was hard to remember any of the tunes once the house lights came up.

NICOLE RESPONDS:  I don't know ANYONE (and I'm talking musical theatre glitterati) who would ever call Robby's music "average."  That is just not true.  And I'm not saying that because I'm his writing partner, I'm saying it because it is a fact that Robby is a brilliant composer who has a unique and innovative sound. 

Oh, and I don't even know how to write songs that don't move the action further.  Ask me to write a "torch song" for a musical and I'm at a loss.  I only know how to tell the story and move the action through songs.  I won't bore you all by going song by song and justifying how each piece either gives you crucial character information in order for you to invest in the characters and go on a journey with them or precisely moves the action forward in song as opposed to dialogue.  But, if I had to, I could...in a heartbeat.  So, that is just not true.  I will happily hand my script to a dramaturg and let them be the judge of that.

And, ironically, I spent all weekend listening to people who told me how they "couldn't get the songs out of the head" or "couldn't stop humming the music."

Kempskie pulled double duty as Director for this premiere as well.  I felt like she made good use of an odd space.  After all, she had a cast of nineteen to handle. Nonetheless, her staging became predictable at some point.  She relied too heavily on action going from left to right.  When she played with the vertical advantages of the theatre, she immediately caught my interest.  I wish Kempskie pursued this further.

NICOLE RESPONDS:  Mental note for me--Somewhere between calling Robby in the ER, responding to 15 sets of parent's emails, coordinating a production team of 16, trying to find Maggie's bag with her brand-new Uggs that were swiped from the dressing room, doing multiple live radio interviews, taking out the theatre trash, changing the light bulbs, and buying toilet paper, YOU MUST "PURSUE" THE VERTICAL ADVANTAGES OF THE THEATRE. 

Right.

The strongest part of the show was fifteen of the cast members under the age of sixteen.  Frankly, these kids can act.  Every one of them made smart choices and were super interesting to watch. 

NICOLE RESPONDS:  I agree. 

And these fifteen cast members under the age of sixteen (most of them twelve) just naturally made smart choices that made them "super interesting" to watch on their own?  It wouldn't happen to have anything to do with the writing or the direction or the choreography or the music that they are almost always singing every time they stepped on stage (which is almost the entire show)? 

Just asking.

My favorite actress of the cast would have to be Aurielle Kaminski.  She played Vita’s nemesis – Helen McGuire.  Miss Kaminski has comedic timing far beyond her years.  While most kids her age play big on the stage, she found a way to play her role with mature subtlety.  Not only did she hit every joke, she found the jokes between the jokes.  I completely see Miss Kaminski giving SNL's Kristen Wiig a run for her money, once she’s old enough to drive of course.

NICOLE RESPONDS:  Awesome.  Aurielle is fantastic, as is every child and adult in the cast. (And thanks, Trish, for singling out one tween girl in a cast of 13 tween girls and 3 women.  That's really going to do wonders for the morale in the lady's dressing room.)

People still watch SNL?

Believe it or not, I actually can take criticism.  I don't like it (who does?), but ask anyone in my cast, on my creative or production team if I have a problem taking criticism in order to make changes that will better the show.  I mean, I made extensive changes based on notes my old roommate Elijah gave me after our last reading, and made a staging change last week based on something one of the kid's dad's said.  I'm not one to turn up my nose at constructive criticism and feedback.

What I can't "take" is un- constructive criticism.  I'm sorry, but it perturbs me when a reviewer sees a brand new musical that is fraught with so many potential pitfalls, that has so many merits, and they choose focus on the fact that I staged the show (in a proscenium theatre) from left to right.

As Vita says in the show: "Not helpful."

My final question/comment/thought is:  Why is Broadway.com sending a critic who reviews downtown, often avant-garde, Off-Off Broadway theatre to review a mainstream family musical? 

As Vita and Ms. Dodd say in the show: "NOOOOOOOOO!"  "WHY???????????"

But, don't get upset, readers.  (Since I know that a lot of you out there are going to be even more incensed by the review than I was.)  We know it's good.  We know that it's moving people, and making them think, feel, laugh and cry.

And that's more than enough.

Better than the Royal Wedding

To be honest, I was fast asleep during the Royal Wedding this morning.  Even if I weren't completely consumed by the opening of my show, the hoopla surrounding someone's wedding (royalty or not) evades me.  But that's just me.

More importantly, I was fast asleep because for the first time in almost a year, I had the most restful, peaceful sleep since I began this Helen endeavor.   We really pulled it off, and our opening couldn't have been more beautiful.  And now, I can't wait to sit back and enjoy 10 more brilliant Helen performances. 

I marvel at what we've accomplished in the face of so many challenges, obstacles and setbacks.  I marvel at my brilliant cast who are performing this piece as if the show had been running for a year.  I marvel at what my production team did with a practically non-existent budget while juggling multiple non-Helen related shows.  I marvel that when I walked into the theatre last night it was spotless (if you've been to the Chernuchin before, you'll understand this one) and the parents had it all set up like a Broadway theatre.  I marvel that last year at this time the first draft of Helen wasn't even finished.

So forgive me if I turn my nose up  at Kate and Prince William.  The magic I've witnessed and experienced this year far surpasses any Royal Wedding. 

And the Royal Wedding hoopla was nothing compared to the girls' dressing room last night before we opened.

 

Helen Sneak Peek

The day has come....OPENING NIGHT!  I couldn't be more proud of the work that we (collectively) have created.  It's a beautiful play.  My production team has worked miracles with a tiny budget, my cast brilliantly makes it look as if we've been in tech for three weeks instead of three days, my creative team has supported what I believe is a beautiful and authentic piece of art that says something and moves you.

I am so excited to see the show come to life tonight in front of a live audience comprised of peolple who believe in this project and who helped bring it to life.

If you don't believe me that it's great, just check out this short reel I made from tech. 

I look forward to seeing you all at the theatre!

Keep Calm and Carry On

Notice anything odd about this clip from yesterday's tech rehearsal?  Perhaps that the kids are singing along to only cello accompaniment?  Wondering where my better half, my composer/pianist and best friend Robby could possibly be at 5:25 during our second day of tech? 

Have I peaked your curiosity?

So my day yesterday went like this:

Wake up.   Try to catch up on emails and get my blog posted using my computer that seems to have a virus so it freezes up every few seconds or so.  Run around trying to find clean clothes and something to eat in my barren cupboard.  Subway in.  Stop at Duane Reade to buy 12 rolls of toilet paper, snacks, makeup for Greg (let him explain), and baby wipes.  Empty the trash in the theatre and along with my Stage Manager and ASM, lug eight bags of trash outside to the dumpster.  Organize the costume racks.  Have a fight with the contractors from the city of NY who show up fifteen minutes before we are about to start to "measure the windows" for the building restoration project that the theatre is part of.  Robby arrives and falls through the trap door on the upper catwalk with Clarice's $70,000 cello in hand, gashing his left shin.  Ji Ji wraps the wound and we send Robby off to a clinic to have it looked at.  We start where we left off with tech, sans piano.  Robby gets sent to the Emergency Room because his injury is that bad.  Between running tech I am on the phone with either Robby at the ER or the Insurance company because trying to figure out how to use the Accident Medical Insurance Policy that you have to purchase (thank you, Equity) is like finding your way out of Pan's Labyrinth.  Robby is trapped at the ER while they do x-rays, doctors and nurses fight over his x-rays (something regarding an "unidentified object" floating around in his leg), they seal his wound with 14 stiches, they try and get to the bottom of how to file the claim to our insurance, etc.  I have at least 25 conversations on the phone with our insurance provider who can't "provide" me with a billing address to send the claim to so he can leave the ER.  (Something about the vendor they got the insurance from being in CA and everyone being out at lunch.  No kidding.)  Finally at 4:59, I get the billing address, the doctor and nurse stop fighting, Robby is released, and I have time to video tape the most brilliant cast in the world singing "The Face" to cello accompaniment.

All in a days work.

But when I look at this video and I think of the work that my cast and production team did yesterday, in the midst of a crisis, I am again overwhelmed with gratitude for these exceptional people I have brought together for this project.  Everyone just carried on as if there were a piano.  Everyone just carried on as if I weren't 6 contractors hanging out the windows taking measurements behind them.  Everyone just carried on as I screamed at insurance providers in CA coming back from their leisurely lunch break.  That's what I call a team.  So, this video will always be precious to me because it will remind me of the day when everyone proved that if you just put your mind to it, the show will go on.

A Letter to All You Producers/Investors

What I’m aiming for, and what I think the long-term health of the industry requires, are three things: 

Shows that are, one, uniquely theatrical: experiences that need to be live.

Two, essential: They matter, they need to exist.

And, three, they sell tickets. We aim for all three, but that’s a high bar, and sometimes you get only two.

                                   ~Jordan Roth, President of Jujamcyn Theatres

Dear Theatrical Producers and Investors:

As I sit here, after a year and a half of writing and developing the musical Helen on 86th St., my thoughts return again and again to these words by Jordan Roth—words that have been my guiding principles throughout this endeavor. 

It’s my job as the current producer of Helen on 86th St. to sell this show, and tell you why I believe you should invest, and thus ensure this show has a long and fruitful life beyond this very limited run. 

So I’m here to tell you—I can’t give you a single reason why you shouldn’t invest, nor can I give you a single reason why this show shouldn’t have a long, healthy and profitable commercial run. 

“But wait,” you say, “There is a cast of 19 people and 15 of them are under the age of 16.  There are no flying helicopters or superheroes! The only ‘star’ is the story!  There are no dropping chandeliers! The writing team and creative team is unknown!”

All of that is true.  But, let’s be frank for a moment.  Do you think that’s what gets the average people off their couch and into the theatre?  It may be what gets people initially interested in a show, but it’s not what makes a show a phenomenon.  And I believe that Helen on 86th St. could be a phenomenon. 

So, if you insist, I will happily go into the merits of this show, because what I have experienced while developing this show, is nothing short of a miracle.  The support and enthusiasm that allowed us to raise funds through grassroots efforts in order to produce these eleven performances, tell me the most important thing you need to know:  The people have spoken and they believe in Helen on 86th St.

But let’s return to Jordan Roth’s elegantly laid out “criteria” for a moment and see how they apply to this particular show:

Shows that are, one, uniquely theatrical: experiences that need to be live.  There is nothing more engaging, exciting and enlivening than watching real children (ages 12-16) play children, and sing, dance and act with aplomb and expertise.  There is a reason Annie and Oliver were, and will forever be, so successful.  There is a reason why millions of “Gleeks” tune in with hunger each week to faithfully watch “Glee,” or that “High School Musical” is being performed in thousands of high school and middle schools across the country as you read this, or that Billy Elliot continues to gross millions on Broadway. 

Helen on 86th St. takes this a step farther, by being a smart show about issues that everyone can relate to.  It’s about a young girl trying to make sense of life, a single mom doing her best to raise her daughter on her own, a drama teacher and a group of students struggling to make magic by bringing to life the epic tale of “The Trojan Horse” for their school play.  And it’s based on a New Yorker short story—a story that is part of a high school English textbook and is taught in 11,000 classrooms across the country.

Two, essential: They matter, they need to exist.  It’s not enough for a plucky red-haired girl to sing, “The Sun Will Come Out Tomorrow” in this day and age.  The future generation of theatre-goers that have been raised during this sweeping technological age of iPhones, text-messaging, Reality TV, and the internet have different theatrical needs.  The family musical has to be reinvented in order to keep this generation going to the theatre, and Helen on 86th St. provides that experience. Fresh, original, relevant and not afraid to shy away from the complexity of life, Helen on 86th St. serves as a mirror that reflects the world the young people of today are functioning in and grappling wit

And, three, they sell tickets.  Here are some Helen on 86th statistics.  Please keep in mind, this is being written before the full production has been seen by anyone:

  • The Helen on 86th St. website has been visited by 7200 people, who have made 53,000 site visits.
  • The Helen on 86th St. website has about 700 unique visitors a month.
  • 1200 people read the Helen on 86th St. blog each month, and the blog has 200 readers each week.
  • In two months, after one public “teaser” of Helen on 86th St., we raised almost $17,000 on Kickstarter.com to put toward our Showcase budget.
  • In a cast of nineteen, we have maintained almost the entire cast we started developing the project with.
  • The tickets we released for public sale in February, sold out in a week and a half.

So, who is Helen for, you ask?  Here is the target audience I believe Helen on 86th St. could reach:

  • Families:  kids, parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and so on.
  • Tourists looking for a show that they can take the whole family to, but that won’t be painful to sit through for two hours—a show that speaks to both them and their kids.
  • Traditional musical theatre lovers.
  • Contemporary musical theatre lovers.
  • Smart, bookish, literary types who read the New Yorker.
  • Theatre lovers or academics who feel drawn to classical theatre (Greek, Shakespeare, etc.) and “smart” material.
  • Single parents struggling to raise their children on their own.
  • Children who are being raised by single parents and divorced parents.
  • Adults who were raised by single moms.
  • Buddhists, New-Age types, Oprah fans, etc. who like to delve into existential questions.
  • Tween girls who love musical theatre and are obsessed with “High School Musical,” “Glee,” and who have done Annie at least once.
  • Tween boys and girls who have read all of the Percy Jackson books.
  • Music teachers, drama teachers, classroom teachers, anyone who has ever worked with kids.
  • Suburban New Jersey families who have already seen Mary Poppins, The Lion King and Billy Elliot and are looking for another family show to attend.

Yours truly,

Nicole Kempskie

The Elves and the Shoemaker

Something magical is happening at the Chernuchin Theatre on 54th St.  Remember the old Shoemaker and his wife who went to bed overwhelmed by the impossibility of making all the shoes they needed to sell in order to survive?  Each time I step back into the theatre I feel the way they must have felt. 

Mere fabric, lumber and paint are slowly being transformed into the set for Helen on 86th St. thanks to the help of my Helen "elves."

FRIDAY

 

 

SATURDAY

SUNDAY

I am so indebted to all the elves that have been working so hard at the theatre while we've been at the rehearsal studio.  A HUGE, GIGANTIC, ENORMOUS THANK YOU goes out to:

  • The most astounding, hard working and talented production team in the history of Equity Showcases:  Niluka Hoatling, Jeena Yoon, Ji Youn Chang, Sam Gordon, Philip Naude, John Ottaviano, Luke Hoatling, Jason Hurley and Ryan Kilcourse and Cat.
  • The volunteers who generously donated their time to assist with painting, set construction, and all the rest:  Joe Ippolitto, Greg Ippolito, Emma Young, Ed Miller, Joe Bera, Kelly Bera, Mike Zucker, Mike Grajek, Dan Mattia, Robert Mattia, Elana Johnston, Lucy Liu, Pete Gilbert, Kathy Gilbert, Richard Pimentel, Shereen Pimentel and Shawn Fitzgibbons.

Your generosity, dedication and kindness overwhelms me, and reminds me why I started this whole project a year ago!

MERCI!

 

Helen hits the public radio airwaves!

I'm very tired, and I mysteriously just lost the whole blog I wrote, so I'll make this very brief.

Yesterday was very cool.  Being a NPR geek, it was quite a thrill to be in the WNYC studios yesterday to do Robert Sherman's "McGraw Hill Companies Young Artist Showcase" on WQXR.  Robert talked to us about the show, a handful of the Helen kids sang a bunch of our songs on the air and got interviewed, and Robby played his music beautifully. 

I know that it is geeky, but I have always dreamed of being on public radio. 

It's pretty great to know that dreams can come true!

Now, it's off to bed so that I can drag myself to the Chernuchin Theatre for our 8am load in. 

Oh, and the show will air on Wednesday, May 4th at 9pm.  Make sure to tune in!

To sell or not to sell...

...that is the question.

Well, loyal Helen friends, I promised a dramatic build up to our climax next week (Opening Night) and I'm not going to disappoint you.  I am here to share with you what will go down in Helen history as my definitive moment of discouragement.

What, pray tell, could this be, you ask?

Going over budget?

No.

Sleep deprivation and/or the lack of any semblance of a life?

No.

Not having my full cast together for a rehearsal until our first day of tech?

No.

Not finding anyone who would donate a power conditioner?

No.

I'm going to be straight with you, as I always have, friends.  Now, I don't mean to rain on your parade or burst your bubble, because I know a lot of you out there have been inspired by this Helen journey thus far.  So, please, don't let this get you down.  But, you know the old "Field of Dreams" mantra, "Build it and they will come?"  Well, the Helen on 86th St. reality (and most likely the reality for any small, "unknown" team trying to mount a show) actually is, "Build it and be proud of the beautiful show you and your team have created because it's April and just about every 'industry' person you are inviting to your show is otherwise committed for the full run of your production."  It's Tony season, and OBIE season and Drama Desk season and Pulizter season and so on.

Yup.

And it stinks.

And believe me, it's not for lack of trying.  If you knew the measures that I have gone to in the past week to hustle and nudge and persuade and implore the people who can take this exceptional show to the next level....well, you do know, because you read this blog and know that my name is Nicole Tenacity Kempskie.

"It's not fair!" says Vita in the story Helen on 86th St.  I know that those words are so...tween.  And maybe because I have been spending so much time with tweens, I'm starting to regress, but I wanted to scream out with Taylor when she said that line last night.

Because it isn't fair.  It isn't fair that everyone in this industry is scurrying around frantically trying to find the "next big hit" when the "next big hit" might be right under their nose. It isn't fair that we held onto tickets for industry people we don't even know, when there are so many teachers we've worked with and students we've taught who would be thrilled to see this show.  It isn't fair that a show that has ganerned so much support from the communities who actually comprise the ticket buying audiences, can't be acknowledged by the industry at large.  It isn't fair that a group of people can work as hard as the Helen team and have such a positive impact on so many people, and not "succeed."  (And by "succeed" I mean move to the next level.  In my eyes, we have already succeeded.)  Because if we can't succeed, honestly, I don't know who will be able to.

And most of all, it's unfair that we need those industry people in the seats in order for Helen on 86th St. to have a life beyond May 8th.

So you know what I'm doing?  I'm releasing most of those industry seats and putting them back on sale to the public.  Because enough is enough.  I want the people who get excited about the thought of seeing Helen on 86th St. to be able to see it.  Because I believe it would be a travesty to have an empty seat in the house when so many people have wholeheartedly been backing this show since it's inception.  So spread the word!  And get your tickets here if you missed out on the chance to get them before!

And just so you know, it isn't all grim.  We actually do have some wonderful industry people who will be attending.  And, ironically, these incredibly busy, incredibly successful and high profile people were among the first to RSVP.  And they did it with kindness, encouragement and grace.  Which gives me a glimmer of hope, on many levels. 

And thanks to them, I opted against making the title of this blog, "Something is rotten in the state of Denmark."

Guest Blogger: Emma Young (Maxine)

Just so you know, not only are the Helen kids good singers, actors and dancers, they are also great writers, talented artists and humorists, and really beautiful people.  Point in case--just check out Emma's guest blog entry for today...

GUEST BLOGGER OF THE DAY 

EMMA YOUNG (MAXINE)

I sit outside of the studio, staring at the professional, high-quality headshots and the resumés listing countless productions and training that must have begun years before I set foot on a stage.  And from my nervous perch on a wicker chair I can hear the inhuman vocals that are loud enough to resound beyond a soundproof door without being pushed.  These kids are naturals, these kids have been on thousands of auditions, these kids have performed on Broadway stages, and these kids are completely confident in their abilities.

And through my anxious light-headed haze a familiar thought emerges, one that has forever been a shallow comfort and a guilty indulgence.  "She's not that good."  Which you know is a lie, and yet which you feed to yourself because it's so much easier and comforting to think.  Because in this business (of which I know very little by comparison), there is the crushing pressure of competition.  Because for every hundred people out there, convinced that they want it the most, that they've tried the hardest, that they are the most suited for the part, only one person can get it.  And the statistics thrown at you over acting careers are enough to make you physically nauseous and force you into considering life in an alleyway with only the shelter of a cardboard box.

This overwhelming competition can embitter you, force you into resentment, push you into finding faults that aren't there, and ultimately terrify you, to the point where you take that step into the first rehearsal and wonder: will I ever be comfortable around these people?

But after months these fears have fallen away.  I never expected to work with people who had so much experience and yet so little judgment.  People who are grounded and kind and willing to make friends.  People who, despite my lack of experience, have always accepted me and been patient and taught me.  People who have never made me feel bad about how little I've done but rather have pushed me to be as good as them and shown me how far I could go.  People whom I've come to care about so much that, while Meredith is singing "The Journey is the Destination", and I look around at everyone so comfortably in their element, I sappily tear up and hope that no one will notice.  Because let's face it, I've cried enough in these rehearsals, whether it be from laughter, happiness, or how touching the finale is.  

The Helen Boys

I love our Helen boys.  We have two of them.  Yes.  Thirteen tween girls and two boys. 

Based on what I've observed, they don't seem to mind that ratio.

They are easy-going, polite, hard-working, talented and funny guys.  So, on behalf of all the Helen girls, I just want to express how much we appreciate having you two around.

We you Sean and Greg.

The TAMY Awards

Okay, so I'm desperate.  There is so much to do in this final week and a half before this show opens, and yet, I feel it's so important to be blogging at this time, since this is the buildup to the climax of the story!

My dear young talents haven't provided me with any guest blogs for this week yet, so I scrounged up this speech I gave last year around this time at the TAMY Awards.  The TAMY's are essentially high school "Tony Awards."  Students and schools from all over Massachusetts are nominated in various categories mirroring the Tony's, and they all get together for a big reception and ceremony at Theatre at the Mount in Gardner, MA.  Prom dresses are brought out, speeches are written, the opening number is goes off without a hitch and then the "keynote" speaker comes out and gives an address to the masses.

So, without further ado, since I have to run to the post office, here's the speech I gave last year, right around this time, before we had even finished writing Helen on 86th St.  Picture me standing at a podium with this huge picture of Ken and I in matching argyle tops projected behind me:

First of all, I want to thank you so much for having me here as the distinguished speaker.  It means so much to me to me to stand before so many younger versions of myself.  You take me back to a time, many years ago, when I was at Auburn High School, juggling homework, college applications, student council, dance classes and appearing opposite Ken Davenport, now a successful Broadway producer, on this stage singing “Tea for Two.”  It was a time when I was so excited about what lay ahead for me in the future.  Which brings me to a phrase I heard recently, which has actually become the title of a song in a musical I’m currently writing. The phrase is this:  “The journey itself is the destination.”  Now, those might seem like strange words to use when starting off a speech at an awards ceremony.  I think we tend to think of ceremonies like this as moments at the end of our journey…that moment when we finally have arrived.  But, I’m here to tell you, and to remind you, that your journey is just beginning.  And it’s going to keep going and going, and twisting and turning, sometimes going off course, then getting back on track, just like mine has, and continues to do so.


And I want to encourage you, as you travel on this very special path—a path that we, as performers and artists are so fortunate to travel on—to really love and cherish every moment and bump along the way.  When I was the age that most of you are, I was absolutely determined to be a Broadway star, and then a movie star, and then, who knows what.  Now, ironically, I spend most of my time teaching students, who have those same dreams and aspirations, and creating theatre, as a writer, director and choreographer—and I really believe that I’ve got the best job a person could ask for.

But, back to the acting—I started off on that course, passionately chasing the Broadway dream; working hard in college, in Boston, and New York to make my mark on stage and on screen.  And at this particular moment in time, my name has yet to appear in a Broadway playbill…and the last time I looked up at a movie theatre marquee, my name wasn’t up there.  But, let me tell you about the riches I have gained on my particular path: I have cherished memories of wonderful actors and actresses that I have been so fortunate to share the stage with, beautiful plays and poignant characters that have allowed me to say what I need to say about the world in a unique way, the skills to collaborate and work with a team of people, who care about and love something as much as I do, the ability to give a 100% to something that I believe in, and to the blessing of always having art, whether it’s music, dance, movies or writing, to help me through the more difficult times in my life and to express my joy.

So, it’s okay to dream about that journey to Broadway.  I sincerely hope that each of you are able to realize all of your dreams.  But, as your walking, running, skipping and hopping along on that path, take time to really value and appreciate the beauty of each step, each person, each success and each failure that you experience along the way.  Because even if you never arrive at “Destination Broadway,” if you have a passion and love for theatre and art, you’ve already arrived.

Helen on WWOR's "Valerie's New York"

I did it.  I survived my first live, unscripted radio interview.  Sure there was some blathering, some moments of being tongue-tied, but all in all, I think it went pretty well.  And when I heard Taylor's sweet little voice singing "Letters" and clips of Leenya Rideout's singing "My Odyssey" and "The Journey is the Destination," I have to admit, I felt like a kid in a candy store. 

Many thanks so Valerie Smaldone, a great interviewer, who asked thoughtful questions and made me feel so comfortable talking about this show.  All of us at Helen greatly appreciate the opportunity to spread the word about our production over the air waves!

The show will air tonight on WWOR's live stream at 6pm  www.wor710.com and you should be able to download it on their website tomorrow.

 Happy Friday!

 

Helen on the Radio!

I've got my first Helen radio interview tomorrow on "Valerie's New York," which will air live on WOR's stream, www.wor710.com, at 8:20 AM for all you early birds.  If you miss the live airing, you'll be able to stream it from their website.

In addition to interviewing me, Valerie will be playing some clips of our music, so that will be just about the coolest thing ever. (Sorry, I still get excited about things like this...it's still all new to me!)

Fortunately, I've been too busy with a million other things to be nervous about being interviewed on the radio.  And I love to talk about this show, so as long as I can keep the nerves at bay, I should be okay.  

But, if you are listening, go easy on me.  This is my very first live radio interview, so if I happen to babble or seem incoherent, just trust that I'll get better as I get more practice.  And fortunately, I'll be able to practice some more, since we've got some more radio programs and interviews planned.

Stay tuned!

 

Helen Guest Blogger: Missy Dreier (Lucy)

One Phone Call

By Missy Dreier “Lucy”

Summer of 2010, I was at the doctor’s office with my mom, for something minor. While waiting for the doctor, my mom received a phone call from her childhood friend and next-door-neighbor, Janice Fuld, who my mom describes, as “not having a bad bone in her body.” Janice, aside from being my mom’s long-time friend, also happens to be good friends with Nicole Kempskie, the writer/director of Helen.

Now, she called my mom and said, “My friend Nicole is doing a staged reading of her new musical with a bunch of girls Missy’s age, and for her birthday, we all read the script with her. It’s really funny, and I know she’s holding auditions soon. If Missy’s interested, I can give you Nicole’s information.”

My mom and I were quite excited!

“Of course!” I exclaimed. And from there, I got an audition.

I felt good and confident that day, and although my audition was in the late afternoon, Nicole and Robby were cheerful and happy to see everyone who had come out.

Sitting outside the audition as kind of an “intern” was Emma Young, who, although I didn’t know it then, would soon become my good friend when she joined the cast as “Maxine”, along with the rest of the soon-to-be Helen cast. When practicing the sides I had been given for “Lucy,” the character I now play, I couldn’t pronounce “Andromache.” Instead of being competitive and letting me go through with it, Emma kindly showed me the correct pronunciation, and even gave me some advice. This is pretty atypical in the world of competitive children’s auditions!

Soon, I found out I was welcomed to the cast as “Lucy,” the character I now know so well and love. Ironically enough, Janice told us that when she had read the script with Nicole and her friends that was the character she played.

Now, after three readings, and an Equity Showcase coming up, “Lucy” has become my second name, and “Hector, (the character Lucy plays)” my third. The Helen cast and production staff has truly become my second family. Each new member is welcomed in so kindly, and each rehearsal, although crammed with lots of blocking and choreography, is tons of fun.

I am so thankful for that one phone call that has given me this amazing opportunity. And what lesson have I learned? —Always keep your phone on you!