Playing All the Parts


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“Money is so terrible. I would love if it was possible for the theater to continue on beyond me. We are trying to make this happen but don't have the answers yet.”

-- Sandy Robbins



It is a Monday morning in January. Snow is falling on the Upper West Side and forecasters predict it will continue for another day. On West End Avenue, in a 12th floor apartment, Sandra Robbins wakes at 4 a.m. to finish some work that's been on her mind. She then returns to sleep for an hour. These days, Sandy's nights are similar to when she had young children. Her rest is disrupted by work concerns and caring for her husband, Dr. Arthur Robbins, who wakes up with terrible leg pain and for frequent trips to the bathroom.

Sandy had a difficult weekend. Art's blood pressure has dropped very low, and he slept through most of both days. Sandy was not feeling well herself.

This morning, Sandy is feeling better, but she is worried about Art's health and the snow. The impending storm threatens to cancel school for the next day, or possibly two, which is perilous for The Shadow Box Theatre, the children's theater which Sandy founded and directs. The theater is scheduled to launch “The African Drum,” their first show of the calendar year, this morning, and continue with double performances through most of the week.

“Without school buses, we don't have an audience,” Sandy says.

The theater is expecting 307 children tomorrow and 371 children the next day. Schools pay between $7.50 and $8 per child to attend. The money pays for the actors and crew and for the rehearsal days Sandy has already paid in wages. When a show is missed, Sandy can try to reschedule, but it is challenging with a tight rehearsal and performance calendar and actors with their own second and third jobs to schedule around. Weather cancellations have plagued Sandy for years.

“It's going to cost us a lot of money,” Sandy says, as she mixes powder and water into a fruity flavored vitamin drink – her breakfast. “It becomes a logistical nightmare, a financial nightmare. How to stay alive in this business is not easy.”

Sandy showers and gets herself dressed by 8. Before she leaves, she checks her email to see if the theater's new sound system has been delivered and is in the right hands. She calls Art's doctor's office to change his appointment time to get him in sooner. She makes a plan for Rosie, her dog, in the snow. Elizabeth, who cleans the house two days a week, will bring Rosie to Sandy's daughter's apartment 20 blocks up, so that Sandy does not have to walk her on the ice.

Sandy must get out of the apartment to make it to show time. She bundles in a heavy coat and scarf.

“Do I have my phone? Where are my glasses?” she says to no one in particular.

Elizabeth helps her locate both.

What would I do without you Elizabeth?” Sandy says and gives her a kiss on the cheek goodbye.

“Be sure you get up!” Sandy calls to Art, who is still in bed and is scheduled to see clients this afternoon.

She heads out, down the elevator, into the snow.

***

For Sandy and Art, work is life and they are largely inseparable. Reaching their 80s and facing challenging health conditions has not changed this. They rely on each other and a web of family and paid help to take care of household tasks so that they are able to use their energy to do the work and activities they find meaningful.

Sandy and Art live in a pre-war three-bedroom apartment on West End Ave., which they bought for $39,000 in 1976, during a low of the city's housing market. Its river views, high ceilings, moldings and oversized rooms are now worth millions.

Their apartment is used as a live and workspace, grandfathered into policies that now prohibit this arrangement. Their apartment sees dozens of people coming in and out during a busy week.

Through their large kitchen is a small office for The Shadow Box Theatre, where on any given day one to three people are working full-time. Down a front hallway is Art's office and therapy session space.

Art – considered a father and founder of art therapy - retired as a professor at the Pratt Institute at 80. He maintains a robust private practice from fall to spring, also running seven supervision therapy groups (aka therapy for therapists) in their home each week. He has been seeing some of his supervisees for many decades.

Art has long had serious pulmonary and cardiac issues. He has relied on a walker for almost two years and has been on full-time oxygen for about six months, requiring him to be connected to a tank and a tube to his nose. It is a visual nuisance (people assume he is seriously ill), a physical nuisance and results in him becoming more dependent on Sandy.

“Just before every summer everyone thinks I am going to die and not return,” he says of his supervisees. “But thankfully I have always come back,”

He finds himself a more effective therapist than ever, no longer bogged down by self-doubt or judgment.

Sandy was trained as a dancer and a preschool teacher. Through her theater, where she likes to say she essentially “makes puppets dance,” her body of work is expansive. She has written over 20 shows, adapted them into traveling shows and puppet-making workshops, written hundreds of songs, conceptualized costumes, puppets, scenery and lighting. She choreographs human dancers and elaborate shadow and 3D puppets of many different styles. All shows share the common theme that people are the same at their core and that all of humanity and the earth deserve respect. Their settings range from New Orleans to a field in Africa to a generic city street.

Sandy overflows with creativity, but she's not creating anything new these days. She spends much of her energy rewriting and refiguring large productions into smaller, more profitable traveling shows, managing the theater's grant writing and reporting, figuring out the puzzle of audience and performance logistics and managing staff. Once her veteran actors teach lines, music and staging, Sandy comes in to teach puppetry and dance to each show's new cast. She drills on the details and polishes the puppetry of each show to make sure intention is right. Even though she has done the process hundreds of times in the theater's 40-plus years, it is her favorite part.

Sandy still dreams that her favorite play she has written, “The Earth and Me,” will one day be performed in Washington, D.C. for Earth Day. And she hopes that all of her work can be recorded and organized in one place.

This year, Sandy has a grant from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs to strengthen the operation of the theater, including developing a succession or transition plan.

In order to accomplish this, Sandy must deal with the theater's financial challenges, detangle it from the many in-kind resources she provides and figure out how the theater can run without a director who does it all – writes, directs, fundraises, teaches puppetry, moves boxes – for free.

“Money is so terrible. I would love if it was possible for the theater to continue on beyond me,” Sandy said. “We are trying to make this happen but don't have the answers yet.”

While she would like to work less, to take care of Art and to pull back when she too is sick, Sandy is not ready to stop working and is also not ready to give control to someone else.

“As someone who is over 80, the complexity of what happens in the next 10 years is sometimes very overwhelming,” Sandy said. “A much more difficult problem to solve than other problems I'll have to solve. I know ahead of me is far, far from the number of years behind me. I also know if I'm not productive, that piece of my life force will feel abused.”

Sandy's age – 81 – is also the average life expectancy in New York City. Both Sandy's grandmother and her mother died at age 80, and Sandy held her breath for most of last year, half-waiting for an emergency to strike from a determiner of fate. Now that she has crossed that threshold, she feels more solid on the other side. Statistics support her confidence.

Once a New Yorker reaches age 70 today, they can expect to live another 17 years.

***

On the snowy January Monday, Sandy arrives at the theater's home performing space at P.S. 3 in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. The school receives free performances for their students, in exchange for giving the theater rehearsal and performance space in their auditorium. Thousands of students from through out all the boroughs come to P.S. 3 (and several other performing spaces) to see The Shadow Box Theatre. A core mission of the theater is to expose children to theater who would not otherwise have the opportunity. The theater's audience is almost always a majority of students of color.

Sandy's hair is wet and her cheeks are pink from her commute - two subway trains, too many stairs and about 10 blocks of walking. She rushes to check the set-up before the kids arrive.

Her cast – mostly in their 20s and 30s - arrange the puppets on stage, chat and check their phones. The theater's longtime musician – Leopoldo Fleming – takes his place, rearranging chimes and triangles.

Sandy learns the new sound system isn't working, forcing the actors to project without microphones, during this final dress rehearsal and performance for P.S. 3.

When the children file in, Sandy hugs teachers she has known for several years. She talks to a group of children in the front row and rearranges them to make sure the smaller ones can see. Once it is show time, Sandy always addresses the children and only talks to the adults to remind them how to support the kids – to move so they can see or to discuss the lessons of the shows back in the classroom afterward. It angers Sandy how thoughtless so many people are when talking to children, labeling them as “bad” or making them feel small or powerless.

“Can I have everybody's attention please?,” she calls and the room is silent.

“What you're seeing is the last rehearsal before we open show and sometimes emergencies occur. Our sound system is down but I know you will all listen carefully.”

“Life doesn't always go as we expect it and sometimes that's the way it is. There's a saying, 'you have to roll with the punches.' Do you know what that means? You have to make adjustments.”

“Are you ready to see the show?”

“YES!” the children scream.

“Have fun everyone!”

As soon as the narrator and The Shadow Box Theatre's signature puppet See-more enter the stage, the children lean forward. Sandy used to play the narrator herself. She designed the role to be like a mother, holding See-more the child, as a way for the children to see themselves safely in the story.

Today's narrator teaches the children the word “Jambo!” or “Hello!” in Swahili. The kids scream it back several times. Human actors playing animals enter the stage singing and the show begins.

Sandy wrote “The African Drum” after a trip to Africa, many dozens of hours of research at the New York Public Library pre-Internet and working with Leopoldo, an African drummer and composer, on the music. “The African Drum” tells the story of four common African legends including one about how the turtle gets its shell and another about how all of the animals get their colors.

The climax of the show is a moment of theatrical magic: Kijana, a shadow puppet, has been kidnapped by a man. Kijana's parents, human actors, are looking everywhere for her. Her mother asks the children in the audience if they know where Kijana is?

The children raise their hands, scream and squeal, and stand up and point to direct the parents back to her daughter.

“An evil man took her!”

“In a drum!” they yell.

They are captivated and yet still seem to feel safe watching the potentially frightening scene.

“You are holding every child in the palm of your hand and it's scary but if you let them know that it will be okay, they'll feel safe,” Sandy said.

Sandy has seen this moment hundreds if not thousands of times in decades of rehearsals and performances. Today it is as if it is again the first time. She, too, is standing in the dark at the back of the theater, rocking on her toes, rooting for Kijana to find her way home.

This series is a production of the Robert N. Butler Columbia Aging Center at Columbia's Mailman School of Public Health. It is led by Dorian Block and Ruth Finkelstein. It is funded by the New York Community Trust. To find all of the interviews and more, go to www.exceedingexpectations.nyc

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