Marcie Shapiro Counts Her Blessings directing “Oskar”

December 4, 2017

Recently Spotlight had the opportunity to speak with Marcie Shapiro, the director and choreographer of Peninsula Youth Theatre’s Stories on Stage premier of Oskar and the Eight Blessings.  The book won the 2015 National Jewish Book Award for Children’s Literature.

“Oskar” is a beautiful story by Richard Simon and Tanya Simon, with wonderful illustrations by Mark Siegel. Oskar is sent to America to live with an Aunt after the Night of Broken Glass.  His father reminds him that “even in bad times, people can be good”.

“Oskar” winner of the 2015 National Jewish Book Award for Children’s Literature

Marcie, how do you feel about directing your first Stories on Stage play for PYT?

M: It’s been a special treat for me to work on this project for several different reasons. First of all, when I found out that I would have the opportunity to collaborate with script writer, Brian Miller, I knew this project would be a blast. After initial discussions with Brian, we realized that this story needed a heartfelt musical underscoring. Low and behold, my husband Steve Shapiro quickly became the piano composer for the project. Steve and I spent a lot of time talking about the messages of every scene so that he could write music that emphasized the feelings and emotions of the story. We sat down at the piano together as he improvised music and I gave him thumbs up when the musical sentiments felt right. A tear or two was shed during those sessions. It was through this process that I realized just how touching this story will be when integrated with Brian’s script, Steve’s music, and our overall vision. I have really cherished the opportunity to collaborate with such talented artists as Brian and Steve. Those types of projects don’t come around all that often and I’m really grateful for the experience.

Marcie Shapiro, director and choreographer of PYT’s “Oskar and the Eight Blessings”

What’s been the biggest challenge with bringing this story to life for the stage?

M: In the original children’s book, much of Oskar and the Eight Blessings is told through beautiful illustration.  The greatest challenge has been figuring out how to represent that glorious expression of images in a staged version. Brian and I worked together on this and decided that much of the feeling and atmosphere of those images can be represented throughout the show within the scene transitions. Dreaming up those transitions has been the most challenging part of the project, but it also became the most creative and artistically rewarding element of the staging as well. Through these creative transitions, the actors also had a lot more opportunity thrown their way to have little interactions, demonstrate their many talents, and create delightful ambiance that helps tell a meaningful story.

Oskar and Aunt Esther (illustration by Mark Siegel)

 

Oskar in New York (illustration by Mark Siegel)

What blessing does Oskar learn that resonants most with you?
M: After going through the process with Steve to create the musical underscoring for this play, it has reminded me once again how powerful music can be to express emotion and foster human connection. As such, the scene where Oskar meets Count Basie and Trumpet Man exemplifies how connected humans can be through the language of music. In the scene, the characters don’t communicate with words, but rather, they communicate through a whimsical exchange of whistling. At the end of this scene, the characters realize that they have made a connection with each other through this exchange. When I first saw our actors, Bennett Rosenberg, Michael Tucker, and Naomi Shanson, perform this scene, I could see it in their eyes that they understood the power behind a musical connection. It reiterated to me how lucky we all are to share a moment like that on stage through this production.

Count Bassie and Oskar, whistling (illustration by Mark Siegel)

What’s it’s been like working with this cast? What do you hope they have learned from working with you?
M: When these kids came to auditions, I had that moment of “Seriously? I get to work with THEM?” It’s really a dream come true to work with a group of highly motivated kids who take expressive arts seriously and understand the power of the stories they communicate on stage. I am also really enjoying the smaller format of SOS as it allows me to get to know each actor much better and really explore all the talents they have to offer. As we’ve worked on this show, I think these kids have learned how much more we get out of our experience if we keep our minds open to ideas, remain flexible with each other, and continue to analyze and find special moments in the script. These kids all have a natural ability to express themselves well on stage, but it has been their continued character development and their idea sparks throughout the process that has really driven this story to a new level. If even one of them had not been part of this show, the project would have turned out differently because we would have been lacking that individual’s insight and creativity. On all their future projects, I hope that they continue to create, analyze, and share ideas with each other because that was a critical part of our process on Oskar that made it a truly special piece.

Cast of “Oskar & the Eight Blessings”

 

Elves (Megan Foreman, Dana Cooper, Alma Gur, Eva Colliou) and Flying Angel (Serena Gaylord)

What do you hope the audience will experience from seeing this show?
M: At the risk of sounding cheesy, I hope that audience members will be reminded of the many blessings in their own lives after watching this play. One of the first things I told the cast was, “If you come out of this play with a greater and heightened awareness of the blessings in your life, then this project will have lasting meaning for you.” For me, the driving forces that energize me on all of these performing arts projects is how the experiences change me, the connections I make with people, and the lessons I learn. How neat is it that the very story we are telling through Oskar and the Eight Blessings reminds us to open our eyes to the good in people and the blessings they offer. If everyone could heed that message, it would certainly make the world a better place.
Why should people come and see Oskar and the Eight Blessings?
M: It feels very fitting that this show is presented during the holiday season, a time when we open ourselves up to the celebrations and blessings  that surround us. With all that’s happening in this world, it is therapeutic and necessary to recognize the good things in our lives. This play will remind you of that and teach you that no matter how dire your situation, embracing the positive connections with people around you will put you in a better place. While we may not have had Oskar’s experience, we can empathize and imagine how difficult it would be for a young boy to leave his family, travel across the Atlantic to an unknown world, and find strength within himself. We see Oskar overcome those circumstances by reminding himself of his love for his parents and recognizing the warmth of others in his new environment. If we could all embrace love and human connections in the face of our current challenges, we’d be in a better place too.

Naomi Shanson (center as “Oskar”) with parents played by Braden Koch and Kate Gough

Get into the holiday spirit by seeing Oskar and the Eight Blessings which performs Friday, December 8th at 9:30 am, 11:00 am, 12:30 pm, and 7:30 pm and Saturday, December 9th at 11:30 am and 1:30 pm at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, Second Stage. Tickets are $10.00.

Come and see Oskar!

Blog and photos by Barbie Koch

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