|THE KEENE STATE COLLEGE MAGAZINE FOR ALUMNI AND FRIENDS||VOLUME XVIII NUMBER 3 Spring 2003|
On the Road Again
Rob Gray '99 is a soft-spoken, studious-looking man – until he gets on stage. Then the transformation takes place into Bob Cratchit in A Christmas Carol or Merlin in The Sword Called Excalibur or Dr. Ronk in A Doll's House.
That magic of transformation is what Rob and his wife, Lorrie, try to create in their work with Children's Stage Adventures (CSA). The Grays, who live in Sullivan, N.H., spend a week onsite every year in several communities and schools throughout the country. At the end of a week, as if by magic, a high-quality musical production of a classic children's tale is performed by 50 to 60 local students. Each production is complete with professionally designed scenery and costumes, props and makeup, and sound and lighting equipment.
CSA is striking a chord with students, parents, and educators. In 2000, its first year, CSA worked with about 250 children in five plays. This school year, CSA has been in residence at 19 schools and worked with nearly a thousand students in Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and even Sturgeon Bay, Wis.
"Rob and Lorrie have the unique ability to focus and motivate students to be successful in such a short period of time," says Stephen O'Neil, principal of Barnstead Elementary School in Center Barnstead, N.H., where CSA performed A Sword Called Excalibur in 2000.
"Parents and teachers are often amazed at what kids are capable of," says Rob Gray. "The first few days, we're almost sure that it's not going to work this week. Then the show happens. It is truly theatre magic. After the show, we have 55 elated kids and the parents give them a standing ovation. Some come up crying, saying they didn't realize that this was in their child."
The Grays describe themselves as actor/educators. They perform in the plays, but in minor parts, so the children can take the leads. The shows in their repertory are all original musical productions written by Rob or Lorrie. They include – in addition to Excalibur and The Fisherman – Androcles and the Lion and Oliver Twist.
"We base our plays on classic stories rather than fairy tales," says Gray, "on stories that reinforce values like cooperation and responsibility and pride in accomplishment. In Excalibur, Arthur has to learn that knowledge, not magic, is the way of the future, for instance. And Androcles gets repaid for his selfless act of kindness in pulling the thorn from the lion's paw. They both learn the importance of planning and teamwork, and they learn that friends help friends.
"We try to stay away from the someday-my-prince-will-come, helpless damsel kinds of stories," he adds. "We focus on action versus waiting for something to happen; we try to choose stories that are about empowering kids."
"We don't teach kids to become actors in a week," Gray cautions, "but we can teach them a lot about themselves and open up new possibilities for them."
Sharon Botting teaches reading at Ossipee Central School in Center Ossipee, N.H., which hosted CSA residencies three years.
"I can't say enough good things about the benefits for our students," Botting says. "They are simply so proud to be up there on stage, to hear the applause, to see their classmates and teachers in the audience. I have seen kids who may not shine academically just shine on that stage. They may not be academic stars but they are stars on that stage."
"Sometimes we don't even know the impact we have until later," says Gray.
He tells the story of a young boy at an audition who came up afterward and said he was concerned that he wasn't chosen for any part. Gray explained to him that he hadn't followed directions the whole time and that that was important for the success of the play.
"I told him I needed him in the play," says Gray, "because we needed older kids, but I needed him to listen."
It turned out the boy had attention deficit disorder. Gray cast him and they agreed that when the child needed to stop and have a time out, he would let Gray know.
The student's parents and teachers were amazed at his performance, says Gray, and thrilled that he was able to focus on anything for two hours. Gray later found out that the boy had so much trouble focusing that his desk faced the wall in his classroom.
"We purposely don't ask the teachers or staff about the kids' behaviors ahead of time," says Gray. "We want everyone to have the same chance. And if kids don't get cast because of certain behaviors, we don't keep it a secret. The next year, you can see those same kids trying really hard to get cast in the play."
"The kids are always looked at with fresh eyes," Botting adds. "Rob and Lorrie come in fully believing that every child who has a part will be a success."
The weeklong residency includes three workshops for the kids on topics such as mime, Shakespeare, puppets, and improvisation, as well as workshops for teachers.
"The workshops give the kids who choose not to audition a chance to still benefit from the stage skills," says Botting.
"What we do is not just for when we're here," says Gray. "They're skills and techniques that teachers and students can use throughout the year."
The Grays bring plenty of on-the-road theatrical experience to CSA. From 1995 through 1997, they traveled and performed for the Missoula Children's Theatre, the largest touring children's theatre program in the United States. When they decided to create CSA, they designed it around many of MCT's concepts.
"We'd travel 500 miles in a weekend in a pickup truck," says Gray. "Each week, we'd be in a new town with new people. We were forced to spend a lot of time together in some fairly tough conditions. Luckily, Lorrie and I had been married for seven years by then – we were 34. In fact, the Missoula people told us, when we were selected, that they were glad to pick a couple that had been married for several years because they figured we'd already had most of the fights we were going to have."
In 1997, the Grays returned to their home in New Hampshire and took "regular jobs" – Rob as a special education job coach at Fall Mountain High School and Lorrie with a local insurance company. They both acted in community theatre in New Hampshire and Vermont.
And Rob decided to return to Keene State to finish his degree – the degree he'd started in 1982, originally majoring in education. He needed only 30 credits to graduate, and this time he knew he wanted to major in theatre. Edith Notman, then chair of the theatre department, helped him design a course of study that allowed him to complete his degree in a year.
"That was the best time I had in college," he says. "At 37, I finally figured out what I wanted to do."
Lorrie, meanwhile, who had studied music in college, began writing their first original play – The Sword Called Excalibur.
Shortly after Rob received his degree, they put CSA on the road. They each continue to work part-time jobs – Rob drives for a transportation company and Lorrie works in insurance – but every spring they take a leave from their jobs, pack up their Ford Ranger pickup and hit the road for several weeks. With 19 performances in 2002-03, they are almost ready to add a couple of additional actor/educators to the CSA staff. (Among those already helping out are Rob's sister, Kathryn (Gray) Bush '78, a second-grade teacher in Penacook, N.H., who serves as president of CSA board of directors, and his brother, Chris Gray '88, who teaches at River Valley Technical Center in Springfield, Vt., who has designed and helped build sets.)
Ironically, Rob's experiences as a Keene State "drop-out" in the 1980s played a crucial role in preparing him for starting CSA years later. Not knowing what he wanted to major in, he left college and decided to ride his bicycle across the country.
"I wanted to prove myself to myself," he says. "I felt like I hadn't completed anything."
Beginning in New Jersey in August 1985, with several stops to work along the way, Gray rode 5,300 miles, arriving in San Diego in the spring of 1986.
Gray says he also needed to learn, at 22, that most people are good people. "I didn't find one person on that trip who wasn't helpful to me."
There was the man in North Carolina who drove Gray to a bike shop after a tire blew and insisted on paying for fixing the tire. And the family in New Mexico who welcomed Gray into their home for Easter dinner. One man in Gettysburg, Pa., made a particularly strong impression on Gray. He was 70 years old, his wife had just died, and he was riding a three-speed bicycle across the country.
"He said he had always wanted to do it," says Gray, "and when his wife died, he decided it was time. If he died doing it, so be it. He didn't want to regret not having done it."
Later, when he was contemplating starting CSA, Gray realized that he didn't want to be 70 years old and regret not having tried it. And he gained another lesson from that bicycle trip.
"When we started, it was a huge undertaking," says Gray. "We had no idea how long it would take or if it would be successful, but I learned from the bike trip to just worry about one day – just focus on that day. I learned patience and I learned I could rely on myself."
Cherryl Jensen is a freelance writer living in Keene.