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Marjory Stoneman Douglas students perform Yo, Vikings! Photo courtesy of Melody Herzfeld.

Melody Herzfeld on the arts, her theatre family, and recovery


BY ANITA MARTIN MANDERFIELD

THROUGHOUT HER 15 years teaching theatre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, Melody Herzfeld has shown uncommon devotion to bringing theatre arts to her school and community. In her first year at the school, this director of MSD’s Thespian Troupe 4879 and Thespian alum (Troupe 3468, Hillcrest High School, New York) founded the Children’s Theatre Project for high school and middle school performers. As her troupe’s numerous Florida Thespian state selections and critic’s choice awards — not to mention regular school and community honors for Herzfeld herself — can attest, her career more than commends recognition.

Still, until the American Theatre Wing and the Broadway League asked her for her bio, Herzfeld had never bothered to write down one, not even for programs. For Herzfeld, winner of the 2018 Tony Award for Excellence in Theatre Education, the honor lies in her students: in guiding their artistic achievements, challenging their strength of character, and nurturing their sense of compassion.

On February 14, during the tragic shooting at their high school, Herzfeld protected more than 60 theatre students by gathering them into a narrow storage office, keeping them safe and calm. She also helped them to make sense of the grief that followed, through discussion, support, and, of course, the arts.

The Educational Theatre Foundation was honored to present Herzfeld with the 2018 Spirit of Thespis Award at the Florida Thespians Festival in Tampa this March, followed by the troupe’s stage performance of “Shine,” written by Herzfeld’s students in the immediate wake of tragedy. A few months later, on June 10, the students performed a surprise rendition of “Seasons of Love” from Rent on the stage of Radio City Music Hall, just moments after Herzfeld received her Tony. Teaching Theatre connected with Herzfeld shortly after the Tony Award ceremony.

Melody Herzfeld and her student, Kali Clougherty.
Melody Herzfeld and her student Kali Clougherty.
Photo courtesy of Melody Herzfeld.

Congratulations on the Tony and to your students for their performance of “Seasons of Love.” They looked so at ease.

MELODY HERZFELD: The real question is: How did they keep 16 kids from telling a secret? It was a huge surprise. I never saw them rehearse in New York, and when I saw that happening live, my mouth just dropped. These are kids I’ve watched sing a million times, but seeing it happen like that was just magical. And it was the perfect song. To me, that song is the anthem for drama students and theatre people. Everybody understands what it means to them.

You must have had mixed feelings about the Tony.

MH: There’s some sadness involved with it, because you’re getting something based on a lifetime of work, and it’s happening in the midst of this horrible tragedy. So the positive attention we’re getting is wonderful, but it comes with … some guilt. Still, we have to remember that our body of work is important and relevant. We can’t dispel the fact that we had a life before February 14, and we have a life now. It’s hard to divide the two, but I did have a life before then, and I worked hard.

Everybody at the school has worked hard for the accolades they’ve received. It’s not just this year, it’s every year. So we’re passionate about what we do — and excited — but in light of all this, it is kind of dim for us at the same time. It comes with a lot of humility.

Your students have learned to use the arts to process trauma, heal, and raise awareness.

MH: This is the ripple. It doesn’t just come out of nowhere. It’s not just me as a teacher. It’s every arts teacher they’ve had. The teachers who teach them creative writing or taught them how to play a recorder when they were in third grade, how to draw, to sing in a chorus …
     
Most elementary school kids have one or two days a week, if they’re lucky, that they get pulled out for a fine arts class. When they get to middle school, they get to be on an elective wheel, so they can choose an arts class, so they get drama once a day … for one semester. When they get to high school, they get to say, “I want to be in drama. I want to be in band. I want to be in chorus or fine arts or creative writing.” They have a choice. But even then, they’re required in our county to have only one — one single credit — of fine arts, which means that’s one year of fine arts for their entire high school years.
     
But at our school, we’ve made a kind of boutique performing arts program. I’m able to teach many different disciplines. I have technical theatre. I have acting. I have advanced acting. I teach a theatre production class. It’s like having our own little production company.

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A lot of the kids start with me in ninth grade, and they end with me in 12th grade. Some of them were also part of the Children’s Theatre Project that we do each year, when they’re in sixth or seventh or eighth grade. So by the time a student has graduated, they could have had me for about seven years. We joke and call these my doctoral program students.
     
My students learn that the art is not just done on stage with the actors. It’s everything that goes into it. I was once asked about using the stage on certain dates for next year. I said, “Well, our set goes in on a particular date, so you can’t use the stage for two and a half weeks after that.” The next question was, “Well, can you like lift the set up and move it?” I said, “What?”
     
Someone not involved in theatre, they don’t understand how complex it is and how much communication and collaboration has to go into it. You have to get along with people. You have blend your ideas. Every single person — every single person — is responsible to the main goal. If one person lapses, we can see what will happen.

I have to keep re-teaching this fact and these values over and over again. You’re just showing them the fundamentals of being responsible, being a hard worker, and being resourceful.


In your acceptance speech, you mentioned a specific classroom discussion you had with your students on February 7.

MH: We were having internal problems among the students that week before. I’m the kind of teacher that, if you tell me something’s wrong or tell me somebody’s misbehaving, I’ll go right to that person and say, “What’s up?” Not in a negative way, but in a way to open it up, because sometimes kids just need permission to say something.
     
So, I had heard there was some fighting among the ranks. The next day I set all the chairs in a big circle for that particular production class. When they came in, they wondered, “What’s this about?” I said, “Put your stuff down, have a seat. Put your stuff down, have a seat.” And I bore my soul to them. I said, “If this is happening in our class, among our ‘family,’ then I have failed you,” because they must have felt they had permission to do that. When they’re under my care, I take responsibility for that.
     
I explained to them how it made me sad to hear that people were bickering, and I tried to explain that we have different people in our family, some better than others at some things. Some are trying to find out how to be a leader. Some will never be a leader but love to support others. And those are all OK positions to have. But at the end of the day, if we can’t all come together and forgive and move on and try to take that step forward and do better, then what have we done all this for?

The full cast and crew of Yo, Vikings!
The full cast and crew of Yo, Vikings! Photo courtesy of Melody Herzfeld.

And I explained to them that I had been just like them: a teenager who had said some mean things to people at one time or another and not acted honest or genuine. I also told them that it’s OK to not be perfect. It’s OK to have negative thoughts about things. It’s OK to say something wrong and ask for forgiveness. It’s OK to be human. And it’s OK to forgive people who may not have acted as they should have. We all have dark sides, and if we didn’t, we wouldn’t be human.
     
Then I opened the circle by saying, “Anybody who feels anything, you have a chance to talk right now.” And that talk ended hours later. We ended up not having rehearsal. At one point, one of my leading men — handsome, talented, like he has the world at his feet — made some serious confessions about how he felt imperfect, how he felt like the outsider. We don’t realize the demons other people have. Just because they’re dealing with it better doesn’t mean they don’t have real issues in their life. We’re all even. We shared something personal and private, and I was leveled by it.
     
I’ve also said to my students, “I’m a much older woman with a family. I’ve had a life. I may have my things, but my road has never been easy.” Until they’ve lived the life, kids don’t understand that. They just see all the things that everybody else has or does. After that moment, we had big hugs and lots of tears. It was a big love fest. Kids that never talked to each other were hugging and saying, “You’re awesome, and thank you.” It was a great day. We felt renewed. Everybody felt like a big elephant was lifted out of the room. It was a great week.
   
And the day that everything happened, not even a week later, I don’t know what would have happened to us if we didn’t have that talk. … Rehearsal that day couldn’t have been better. It was a beautiful, perfect, Valentine’s Day with great weather, everybody singing and hanging around. It was a Silver Day in our rotating schedule, so I was lucky to have all the kids with me. On a Burgundy Day, half of them would have been in the 1200 building [where the shooting occurred]. There were some 60 students with me. I had sent four or five to the theatre to do light gels. And then everything happened.

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My classroom is huge, very open. We have a lot of six-foot tables on tennis balls that we push aside when we’re rehearsing. We have one storage closet, and we have an office, which has windows all around, where leadership kids do their meetings and hang out and whatnot. Attached to that office, there’s a Jack-and-Jill connection to another room, and that’s where we all ended up. It’s like an inner office, but it’s used more like a storage closet, because it has all the lighting boards and sound boards, a lot of equipment on wheels. It’s about five to six feet wide and ten feet long, so it’s pretty small. I don’t know how we all fit in there, but we got skinny fast.

Your student Kali Clougherty told me how you kept everybody calm, kept the mood light.

MH: There was some panicking and people feeling like they’d pass out, because it got hot in that closet. It was a bit like playing hide-and-seek. As soon as you hide, you have to go to the bathroom. I said, “Don’t worry. There’s a pail in here. We’ll be fine.” I was joking around a little bit, but I would peek out through the blinds. I could see a little bit through the holes in the blinds, and I had my eye on the outside the entire time. When we got into that closet, I was on work mode. I was on duty. My job as a teacher is to protect the kids — and whatever may happen, I have to be ready, even if I have to improvise. At first we didn’t know what was going on outside, we just knew that we were in lockdown, until we heard there was an active shooter. Then it was “OK, I have to look for Plan B.”

What was it like to reunite with your students on February 26?

MH: Everybody was welcomed back onto the campus for the first time. The parents came with the kids. Nobody came alone. The kids wanted to find their teachers, so I texted my students that I’d be in Room 710 at four o’clock. I wanted everybody who was with me on that day to be back in the same room, because I think we needed to be in the room together, to have their parents see the space where they were. I also needed to retell the story to the parents, because many didn’t get a straight story. A lot of kids didn’t leave their rooms for days, and their parents didn’t know what their child had experienced.

When I saw each one of them, I hugged them tight, gave them a kiss. After everybody sat down, I said, “I think the thing I need to do is tell you about what happened that day” … and you could hear a pin drop. I retold the whole story, and at the end, one of my students said, “That was exactly what happened that day. You remembered everything.” Another student added, “But you forgot the part where you said, ‘Give me 30 seconds.’” I said, “What are you talking about?”

He said, “You stopped recording the dress rehearsal we were doing.” I was recording a dance number and stopped recording, when the bell went off for a fire drill. “You said, ‘Give me 30 seconds, and let’s finish the scene.’ You saved our lives, because we would have been out there already and would never have been able to come back in the room.” I didn’t recall saying that, until he reminded me.

Melody Herzfeld Tony's
Photo by Theo Wargo/Getty Images.

Melody Herzfeld's Tony acceptance speech

NEXT TO THE PASSING of my dear parents and in-laws, marrying the love of my life, the birth of my amazing sons, and reunifying with all my theatre students on February 26, there has never been a more defining moment in my life. All the goodness and the tragedy that has brought me to this point will always be embraced. I am humbly thankful to the Broadway League, the American Theatre Wing, and Carnegie Mellon University for this honor.

As theatre educators, we teach kids by giving them their space to be critiqued yet not judged; giving them a spotlight yet not full stage; creating the circle of trust in which to fail; telling them long, drawn-out stories so they can be the best listeners; giving students simple responsibilities that are “beneath” them to encourage character; and stressing to them to be selective as they formulate relationships while welcoming every single side that exists in the world — and also how to begin again. It’s a given in a theatre class for a student to think that you can speak freely and honestly.

As a young girl, I remember signing up for a talent show and having to improvise something great when I got up there on stage, and I was able to pull it off. Have guts.

I remember as a teen being told by Lenny Forman, Mr. [Isaac] Patterson, and Mr. [Robert] Busch [of Russell Sage Junior High School in New York] to sing out so everyone could hear me. Be heard.

I remember JR [Jessica Rothman], [Jeanette] Horn, and Dr. [Stephen] Posner [of Hillcrest High School in New York] perfecting all the technicals of a stage production in high school and repeating the steps over and over. Hit your mark.

I remember, as a student of David Gideon and Geoffrey Horne [of NYU Tisch’s Lee Strasberg Theatre & Film Institute], being repeatedly encouraged to say what you really want to say in those lines and being asked how I felt — and to act upon those feelings as honestly or as shamefully as needed and I did. Tell the truth.

And as my dear mentor Joan Stein had instilled a work ethic in me to be the best I could be and how loyalty and collaboration with people was key. Family.

I remember on February 7 sharing a circle with my beloved students and encouraging them to be good to each other when times were trying to keep the family together, accept everyone, and make a difference.

I remember only a week later on February 14, a perfect day, where all these lessons in my life and in their short lives would be called upon to set into action. Letting the stronger be our collective voice and supporting the rest that needed time. We all have a common energy. We cannot deny it. We all want the same result: to be heard, to hit our mark, to tell our truth, make a difference, and be loyally respected. We teach this every day in every arts class. Imagine if arts classes were considered a core class in a child’s education? And ours is only one small part — yet the most important part of a child’s education.

Thank you, Stoneman Douglas High School and all my fellow Eagles. We have all known that the future of the world was about collaborative creativity and here we are — the future, changed for good, MSD Strong.

You also helped your students to channel their feelings into art. They wrote songs with professionals for From Broadway with Love, also the song “Shine.”

MH: “Shine” came out of the fact that a former student of mine and drama student alum came into town just wanting to comfort me and her mom, whom I’m best friends with. This alum works for a film production company, and she said, “Maybe I could help. Maybe we could create something together, maybe we could give the kids an outlet.” She knew how drama kids would work: they want to do something, they want to help somehow.

Ten kids showed up, and we sat on the carpet floor of a Marriott hotel with a big Post-It notepad, writing ideas about how could we help, how could we be part of bringing everybody back together. At the end of the meeting, two girls — Andrea Peña and Sawyer Garrity — said, “Well, we wrote this song.” I said, “Let’s hear it,” and they sang a little bit of it a capella. I said, “It sounds awesome. You should finish it. Finish what you started.” They finished the song that night and sent it to me the next day as I was getting out of Alaina Petty’s funeral. I listened to it in the car, and it brought chills — such a simple song, but so perfect.

So “Shine” came out of just giving the kids an opportunity. They might have started that song and kept it to themselves. They might have sung it to each other, and no one else would have heard it. But when we come together as a theatre group, we open up ourselves. We open up ourselves to share ideas, so that people can say, “That’s good. Do that!” It’s like a cheering committee in theatre, because no ideas are wrong.

With the [From Broadway with Love] songwriting collaboration, I had gotten an email from Sam Willmott, the writer of Yo, Vikings!, the children’s play we were about to open on March 1. His message said, “Melody, I’ve been thinking about you guys since what happened last week and just checking in. If there’s anything we can do, let us know.” So I reached out to him, and I said, “We’ve been broken here. I don’t know what we’ll do. I don’t even know if we’ll be able to finish the show.” He wrote back, “Listen, you have an open contract. Whatever you need, let us know.”

On February 26, I told the kids, “I’m here for you,” and I promised them that life is good. I said, “You cannot stop living your life. You’re young. You have a whole life ahead of you. Life is good and life is beautiful … and life can be horrible too, but you can’t give up on things.” Then I said, “If you want, we’ll continue with the show and go to competition. How many think that they would want to go to the [state] competition?” Every single hand went up. They compelled themselves to finish what they started. Then I asked, “How many feel compelled to finish the show?” Again, all of their hands went up. When I wrote back to Sam, I said, “Looks like we’ll go ahead. Thanks for standing by us.”

He wrote back, “Can I call you?”

And we had a three-hour conversation about how he would like us to be part of a songwriting collaboration. There was a producer for From Broadway with Love who would like to do a benefit show for our community. That opened up the whole world of Broadway that had been patiently sitting in the wings saying, “We’re here for you when you need us.” Just waiting for us to say, “We could use the support.” They were so humble and so gracious in the way that they handled it.

So, we had a lyric-writing campaign where the students uploaded lyrics into a Google drive, then musicians selected which lyrics to work on. They collaborated with the students via Skype, text, cell phone, voice recordings back and forth. About 40 songs were made, and out of those, the producers selected five to perform live at the From Broadway with Love concert. It was beautiful.

 Kali also emphasized that she sees art as a way of spreading awareness and healing, a way just as valid as political activism.

MH: The commonality among many of the students — especially the kids who started shouting at the top of their lungs — is that at a very young age, someone gave them permission. Theatre reinforces that, it gives them permission to be themselves, to express themselves. So, it made absolute sense for some students to start expressing themselves loudly over their anger and sadness of what happened at their school and to their friends. 

Each kid expressed themselves in different ways, though. Some started marching around, some wrote songs, and some remained closed. Everybody found their voice, in a sense. Theatre is a way that people can feel empowered. And people who do theatre activism are able to spread an idea, to reach a lot of people. But I would never want anybody to feel they were on the outside because they thought they needed to be a political activist to do or to appreciate theatre. Theatre should be for everyone.

I’m protective of theatre. I want all my kids to feel they can express themselves in a safe place without being ridiculed or attacked for their beliefs. We all walk different walks, but everybody essentially believes in the same thing: life. I want to make sure that we’re able to share theatre with everyone. To me, theatre is a blessed event. Theatre needs to be holy in a sense. We have to look at it like the Greeks did, as a holy, special place. Theatres were hallowed ground. The Greeks took good care of theatre. And we need to continue to take care of it.

 Read more Teaching Theatre.