by Samuel L. Leiter
One of my regrets over the past three decades, ever since my daughter became a grade school teacher in the New York public school system, has been my failure to record her frequent rants about her job: the incompetent principals, arrogant parents, lack of supplies, budgetary shortfalls, emphasis on testing over creative teaching, bureaucratic ineptitude, and, even though she mainly taught the earliest grades, the physical violence wrought by troubled students. All this came to mind as I watched Karen Sklaire’s delightful, insightful, hilarious, as well as touching solo show, Ripple of Hope:One Teacher’s Journey to Make an Impact (directed by Padraic Lillis), inspired by her experiences as a drama teacher in various New York elementary and high schools, ranging from the South Bronx to Chinatown. The show was a contribution to this summer’s Fringe NYC after a run earlier this summer at the Capital Fringe Festival in D.C.
Working in a bare room with only a video projector, background sheet, laptop, desk, and chair, Sklaire recounts her post 9/11 travails after abandoning a going-nowhere acting career and a job selling gym memberships so that she could teach drama to young kids. Fueled by an RFK speech about creating ripples of hope in the lives of the disadvantaged and by movies with inspirational teachers played by Hilary Swank and Michelle Pfeiffer, this former Syracuse University musical theater major began her career brimming with enthusiasm. But even before she arrived at the first day of school, her innocence began crumbling when a hooker’s body was found in a nearby garbage can.
During her well-packed, 50-minute monologue Sklaire notes the aggressive parents who encourage their tots to fight, the foul-mouthed little cuties, the struggle to behave professionally when faced with out-of-control children, the cynicism of other teachers, the oblivious principals, the rapid turnover of the coolest administrators, the threats and taunts from Crips gang members, and everything else that leads her to tears, fears and, finally, self-doubt. The many hurdles she must leap include a funny sequence in which she’s ordered by a clueless Bronx high school principal to teach and present Eve Ensler’s Vagina Monologues (which he calls Vaginalogues) to a class of boys and girls and winding up with an unsatisfactory rating when he’s unhappy with her work. Another tribulation includes being “excessed” from a job and forced to sit in an empty “rubber room” while still drawing her salary, along with other traumatic experiences familiar to anyone who’s seen how the system can crush even the most idealistic of teachers.
Sklaire, a perky, petite, attractive woman dressed in tight jeans, a red blouse, and a close-fitting jacket, occasionally stumbles but her charm and versatility never waver. She mixes in clips of the movies she references, as well as of students performing under her direction, including her Chinatown little ones doing a production of Cinderella. Especially appealing is a section about how she made a breakthrough with a troublemaker who had a Michael Jackson jones, casting him as the “celebrity guest” of a Halloween show; she even shows a video of him performing “Thriller.” She herself does a pretty decent Jackson routine, pseudo moonwalking included, in keeping with an aptitude for vocal and physical mimicry that allows her to capture the voices and body language of numerous people in her narrative, including the potty-mouthed, sometimes drug-addled students with whom she had to deal.
This piece should be seen by urban educators everywhere (the venue seemed packed with them). For all the jolts encountered during her teaching career, Karen Sklaire has sent out ripples of hope to her students, regardless of whether or not the system in which she worked had the heart or wisdom to appreciate it. Swank and Pfeiffer were only acting; Sklaire is the real deal.
Ripple of Hope: One Teacher’s Journey to Make an Impact
The White Box
440 Lafayette Street, NYC
Samuel L. Leiter is Distinguished Professor Emeritus (Theater) of Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. He has written and/or edited 27 books on Japanese theater, New York theater, Shakespeare, and the great stage directors. For more of his reviews, visit Theatre’s Leiter Side (www.slleiter.blogspot.com).