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Freddie Gershon

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James and The Giant Peach Meets Josephine Baker and Bernadette Peters...

Posted: 07/20/11 03:45 PM ET

This past January at the Broadway JR. Festival in Atlanta, approximately 2,500 young people from grade schools with their teachers and adjudicators were given constructive guidance, tips, suggestions and evaluations of JR. performances and JR. productions from 50 schools in 37 states. Eight remarkable teachers were selected as being profoundly passionate, inspirational and exceptional.

These eight were particularly nurturing and excelled at the craft of teaching. They are the Freddie "G" winners.

They came to N.Y.C. from Ohio, Louisiana, North Carolina, Texas, California, Georgia and Wyoming.

The Freddie "G" Award is a gift from Myrna Gershon and me. We fund an intensive weekend of fun and learning designed for the winners.

The teachers saw the very first reading by children of a 60-minute version of JAMES AND THE GIANT PEACH. They watched the process of trial and error of a well-known literary work by a globally famous author being adapted into a theatrical musical experience for grade schools to perform.

Later that evening at Chez Josephine, Jean-Claude Baker explained the background of his legendary mother, Josephine Baker, her original bistro in Paris in the 1920s and spoke of her world of the Black experience in the 20's and 30's as she related it to her surrogate son, Jean-Claude.

As canapés passed and cocktails were imbibed, suddenly jaws dropped, twitters tweeted and cameras clicked as an adored woman of the theatre quietly slipped in with charismatic, ravishing glamour, making our eight teachers pinch themselves, meeting, Ms. Bernadette Peters. Ms. Peters did not make a speech. Instead, she went from teacher to teacher, from group to group, engaging them in conversations about their world(s), what they do, where and how they do it and how they work with children and generously posing for photos.

At dinner, Douglas Carter Beane (book writer for SISTER ACT which they would be seeing the next night) gave of himself and dined with the teachers, along with Benj Pasek (who wrote the lyrics of the songs in THE GIANT PEACH) and a group of about 20 others who are experts of JR. musicals.

The next day was devoted to interacting with four young actors, all middle school children with professional backgrounds (allowing for quick study and experimentation with scenes, improvisation and instruction from the teachers) and then with the expert master class guests who made suggestions and demonstrated ideas with the same children of the same material presented in more effective ways.

Half a morning with author Douglas Carter Beane; the other half of the morning with Kim Grigsby (the musical director of SPIDERMAN) focusing on vocalizing, breath control, articulation, understanding words and working with the children and teachers.

Then a working lunch reviewing everything that had been discussed that morning.

Then the afternoon spent with Warren Carlyle, a choreographer and director having choreographed FOLLIES in Washington at The Kennedy Center and about to do the same on Broadway, having just flown in from Toronto after creating and directing Hugh Jackman's one-man show.

Teachers experimented with students. Warren then experimented with teachers and students on directorial trial and error; the same scene done two or three different ways. Then they were swept off for dinner, then to see SISTER ACT both from the audience point of view and then the unexpected back stage point of view. Then on Sunday, a round-up, a barbecue, the New York production of RENT - and off to fly home.

I had a review session with eight very tired teachers whose cups runneth over with information, ideas, inspiration and delight.

Myrna and I found it validating and more importantly, the weekend was substantive and fun at the same time. It was a form of experiential learning for the teachers being immersed in the experience and having to do and in doing, learning to incorporate a wealth of knowledge into teaching techniques.

The MTI website has the background of these teachers, their interesting and diverse schools, the differences in their programs, but what they all share is a "calling," a commitment that is unique to physicians, scientists and others who (like these teachers) want to use their skills to change the world for the better.

As Myrna and I watched these three days pass, we felt a shot of adrenaline that good fortune gave us the means to give back and to have nurtured eight worthy, special teachers who will (in the course of their careers) be entrusted collectively with thousands of young people who will be getting compassionate nurturing and a fine education; children whose characters and skills will be built along with their attention spans, reading skills and the wonderful joy and pleasure of discovering their imagination, creativity and, most of all, themselves.

The bios of Messrs. Carter Beane and Carlyle and Ms. Grigsby are available via his Blog section.