[Oona Haaranen, a Finnish-born dancer and choreographer who came to this country 30 years ago, was a graduate student in a dance program whom I tutored in writing in 2007. I then began editing her writing and coaching her when she worked on the staff of the Dance Notation Bureau as education director. (English, she’s quipped, isn’t her second language. It’s her fourth!) She’s not only a performer and a choreographer, but she teaches and directs dance, both to adult professionals (New York Theatre Ballet) and children, and she teaches and writes about Labanotation and several other notational languages as methods of documenting and creating dances.
[Oona performed as a child for other children in her school in Finland and also performed a play for children with professional actors at the Finnish National Theatre when she was about 12 years old. She also danced in shows with children who studied ballet in private school for a children’s story ballet company. Later, Oona performed in professional productions for children at the Helsinki City Theatre where she did musical and dance productions as well. In addition to her professional dance credits, performance for and by children is something Oona knows well from direct experience.
[Oona’s been taking a memoir writing class and her goal is to document in a written form the important life experiences of her husband, her son, and herself. “Nobody Wants to See a Tired Bat on Stage” represents a very recent memoir by Oona Haaranen which she wrote up in April, May, and June 2013, just weeks and months after the experience itself. Since she and her husband are older parents, she says, she hopes that her stories will be around to answer some of Sebastian’s questions about their lives. She says that she thinks it’s nice to learn to write, and it’s been interesting to learn about the art of memoir writing, which is very different from writing about her usual subject, dance theory.
[This is Oona’s first attempt to write about Sebastian’s important early life experiences. (I’m personally delighted that theater is counted as one of them.) Earlier, Oona wrote about her and her husband’s earliest days with their son. “I am also curious about when I write something and what I remember,” she told me. “I felt it was important to write about [Sebastian’s] first theater experience and, luckily, it was a very positive experience not only for Sebastian, but also for me and my husband! I think we all loved it!”]
The middle of March 2013 had been an exciting and busy week with the Oysterponds Public School’s production of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs presented by the Missoula Children’s Theatre (MCT) from Montana. The children had their fantastic performance at the Greenport School auditorium on Saturday, March 16.
In the fall of 2012, the Oysterponds Elementary School’s PTA parents were talking about bringing a professional theatre company to Orient, New York, in Suffolk County, Long Island, for the second time to work with the kids at my son’s school. (MCT was at Oysterponds School the year before but Sebastian was in pre-school at the Orient Congregational Church. Oysterponds did not have pre-school at that time, though they do now, so Sebastian was not eligible to participate until this visit.) My hand went up because this was exactly what I was looking for for my son. It’s not easy to find this kind of opportunity in the North Fork. Parents who have time and can afford to, travel long distance to take their children to certain activities; they just aren’t available locally.
My six-year-old son, Sebastian, and I looked at the calendar and I told him that the theatre week at his school started Monday. He’d been counting days and nights until this special week started. Sebastian asked, “Mom, when are we going to see the performance?” I said, “No, you’re not going to see the performance—you’re going to be in it.” With a funny voice and face, he repeated, “Be in it?” “Yes,” I said. He didn’t quite know what that meant because, though he has seen ballet performances since he was three years old and has been observing rehearsals in ballet, he’d never been in nor even seen a theatre performance.
The Missoula Children’s Theatre, which I’d never heard of before, has been touring for 40 years from their home base to Japan (and beyond) and just during this year alone they’ll visit nearly 1,200 communities. As their flyer says: “A tour team arrives in a given town with a set, lights, costumes, props and make-up, everything to put on a play . . . except the cast.” The actors would come from Oysterponds Elementary School’s student body. (The performers in MCT shows are usually from five to 18 years old, but in this show, they were only between ages 5½ and 12 because Oysterponds only serves grades K-6.) The whole show was put together in six days.
Monday, March 11 (day of the audition) – Day 1The gym at Oysterponds Elementary was filled with children, excitement and loud noise. I didn’t want to stay because I felt that this was Sebastian’s time and experience and I didn’t want him to be conscious of me watching him. Before I left, I gave Sebastian my first professional advice for the audition. I told him to “have fun and show them what you can do!” I was very nervous and went home. I came back for the parents’ meeting in the end where other parents told me that Sebastian did well with the audition and that he was going to be one of the Bats. They also told me that my son had a really great time in the audition. When we came home that day, Sebastian asked, “Do I have theatre practice tomorrow?” I said, “No, Bats don’t rehearse on Tuesday.” He couldn’t wait for the Wednesday practice.
Wednesday, March 13 (three days before the performance) – Day 2 for BatsWhen I picked him up from the theatre practice, Sebastian wasn’t feeling well and threw up when we got home. I had heard that a virus was going around Kindergarten this week; I hoped that this wouldn’t mean that his career as a Bat was over, since he seemed to enjoy being a one.
Thursday, March 14 (two days before the performance)I called the school nurse and told her that Sebastian had gotten sick yesterday, but that he was feeling better today. Sebastian insisted that he wanted to go to school and that he was feeling “fine.” The school’s policy is that if a child does not attend school, he is not allowed to attend the after-school activities. The nurse told me that due to the performance they were going to be more flexible with the rules this week and to bring him in later that afternoon if he felt okay. Sebastian couldn’t wait to go back to school and then take the bus to the big Greenport High School auditorium nearby.
I observed a little of the end of Thursday’s practice and all the Bats seemed confused. I saw that the children had a hard time getting adjusted to being on stage, since the previous rehearsals had taken place in the school gym; now they were lost with directions and placement on stage—something that also happens to professionals. It is not easy to remember all the lines and movements in the play, especially when you’ve changed practice space. When I picked Sebastian up, however, he was skipping out of the rehearsal and was very happy.
Friday, March 15 – Day 5 (day 4 for Bats)On Friday morning, Sebastian asked, “Do I have practice in the Greenport School? I said, “Yes, and costumes, too.” He jumped in the air and said, “With Bat costumes!” “Yes,” I repeated, “with Bat costumes.”
I was able to see a little bit of the end of rehearsal on stage. Sebastian’s practice didn’t look so good. He was not doing everything fully out, but was mostly marking his movements and seemed a bit confused. I asked Sebastian, “Why wasn’t it good? What was wrong today?” He said, “Because I was tired and that’s the reason I was slow.” I offered my second professional advice: “No one will want to see a tired Bat on stage. If you’re tired, you really can’t show that in a performance!” I remembered the countless times I was tired of smiling during a show, especially when I’d performed the same thing over forty times.
Saturday, March 16 (day of dress rehearsal and performance) – Day 6Saturday morning we drove to a piano class. After class we picked up muffins and a lunch from Eric’s Restaurant in Southold. I noticed the local newspaper, the Suffolk Times, and found an article regarding the Snow White production. I showed it to Sebastian and he said, “Look, Mom, my head is in the newspaper!” I’m not sure it really was his head. We went home and I told Sebastian to relax, rest and play because he had a long fun day ahead at the Greenport School dress rehearsal and performance.
Sebastian’s dress rehearsal at the Greenport School auditorium started at 2 p.m. There was a huge improvement since I’d seen part of the run-through on Friday. Every child and role had improved, like a miracle in just one day. All the children were quiet, focused and well-behaved. I didn’t see even one moment of that nasty stuff where older kids put down the younger kids. There was none of that; just the opposite: all the children were working together respectfully. The older students were helping and assisting the younger ones with costumes or escorting them to bathrooms. This must be part of MCT’s philosophy—everyone works together to accomplish the project (that is, the play) and no one teases or bullies anyone else for mistakes or difficulties. Instead, those who know more, help and teach those who are new or less experienced. Those children who do not want to perform can become assistants to the directors, sharing the production responsibilities. There is a “role” for everyone. That’s how they can do this both so quickly and with only two (young) adult directors (who, incidentally, I think did a terrific job).
The dress rehearsal was followed by a pizza lunch during which the children socialized with each other. Sebastian told me to go away and leave him with his friends. I helped the children with make-up while those who were waiting were doing a second run-through reading in the same room. From the make-up powder I applied on every child’s face, I remembered the numerous times I’d prepared for a performance. After the make-up followed a short photo shoot with all cast members. The children had twenty minutes before the performance would start at 6 p.m. Five minutes before the performance, I ran to the auditorium, where my husband, Sy, was holding a seat for me. It turned out to be a fairly big crowd. I was very excited for the children and of course for Sebastian.
The performance went extremely well. Only at one point did one cast member forget lines and the storyteller, Witless the Woodsman (the only professional cast member), said, “Aren't you supposed to say something like. . .,” and the child remembered her lines and the story continued. There was another interesting moment when the audience heard a big bang from stage right. It was probably the evil Queen’s mirror set that fell during the exit and Witless the Woodsman shouted, “I hope everyone is okay back there!” The audience laughed and hoped the same thing and the performance continued . . . . The children were able to keep the performance together and the audience was very responsive to everything that took place during the show.
I’ve seen and performed in countless theatre and dance productions both as a child performer and as a professional performing for children and grownups. I must say that this was not a typical children’s performance during which you sometimes wish it was over. This was a high-level theatre production performed by amateur children. All the children were singing, dancing and acting very well. My husband and I, long-time theatregoers, were pleased with this experience and totally amazed how well the show was put together.
The only nitpick I had with this show was Snow White’s costume. It was a little bit baggy. I asked the young directors, Ashlan Stephenson and Melody Waters, about this. They told me that a ninth-grader usually performs Snow White’s role, but Oysterponds only goes up to sixth grade. Perhaps this was also a nice twist, that Snow White actually wasn’t wearing the usual “Disney” dress with a collar we’re used to seeing.
After the show, I asked Sebastian, “Would you like to be in another theatre production?” He said, “Yes, are we going to the Greenport School tomorrow for theatre practice?” I said, “No, the show’s over for now, but maybe in the future.” I hoped the Oysterponds PTA would bring the Missoula Children’s Theatre back to Orient or anywhere on the North Fork.
At nine o’clock Saturday evening after the performance, the tired Bat just fell asleep. I had asked Sebastian, “What book do you want to read before going to sleep?” “ Do you want me to read you Snow White?” “No, Mom, Cinderella. Look, Mom, Cinderella looks like Snow White!” Perhaps it was because of Snow White’s baggy and peasant-like costume in the show that he told me that Cinderella looked like Snow White. . . . I read him Cinderella. Usually we read three books at bedtime but by nine, the tired and happy Bat was asleep. No other books were needed, just music.
Two-and-a-half months after Sebastian’s theatre debut, I’m typing final rewrites to this ‘work-in-progress’ story while sitting in an audition for another Missoula Children’s Theatre production, Rapunzel at the Mattituck High School auditorium, a little farther west than Greenport. Sebastian is going to be one of the nine little Mushrooms in this June’s production while I’ll be a stage mom.
[“I am curious how different mediums act as a form of documentation,” Oona wrote me, “not just writing but the way photos can tell a story or music recording can tell a story of how Sebastian has improved from the first piano class.” “I would love to mix mediums and find an interesting collage form in which I could mix photos, written words, sound recordings and video together, and perhaps also art.” She says that just before Christmas she wrote a new piece about how she came to the U.S. “Since it was something that happened so long ago, it was very different to write” compared to “Tired Bat,” a very recent memory, Oona found. “These were things that I haven’t been thinking about for very long, but Sebastian’s story is something that happened very recently and writing something recent is very different,” she observed.
[I hope Oona will continue to send me stories of her family and her life as well as articles about her dance work, both as a teacher and as a choreographer. I don’t cover dance much on ROT because it’s a field in which I’m ignorant, and I hope Oona will favor the blog with discussions of her art, especially her work with children—which, readers of ROT will know, is a subject I care about a great deal. In the past, I’ve written on this blog about art in schools and theater by and for children (see “Degrading the Arts,” 13 August 2009; “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow: Children's Theater in America,” 25 November 2009; “Making Broadway Babies” [from Allegro], 25 November 2013; “Kids on the Broadway Boards” [from assorted sources], 30 November 2013.) I also posted a report on the Missoula Children’s Theatre on 25 August 2009, which I urge interested ROTters to read in connection to Oona’s account of the company’s work on Long Island (http://rickontheater.blogspot.com/2009/08/missoula-childrens-theatre.html).]