Jazz is the Ultimate Team Sport: Students Design Music for the Fall Play

Since she began work as a music teacher at Meridian, almost every theater production at the school has featured some element of Laura Jaye’s work. A few highlights include the fairy lullaby she wrote for A Midsummer Night’s Dream; the creepy Puritan-era hymns she arranged in harmony for The Crucible; Artemis in the Parking Lot, a musical she co-wrote with Misha Chowdhury; and a long-form jingle she arranged for the Italian farce The Servant of Two Masters.

This fall, Laura’s involvement reached new heights with Tony Kushner’s A Bright Room Called Day. The play takes place in Berlin during the early 1930s, and Laura said she felt inspired by Kushner’s emphasis on music. The script specifically calls for standards like “Memories of You” along with Bach’s Unaccompanied Violin Concerto in G Minor and Mahler’s Second Symphony, The Resurrection. “Music was clearly an important part of the play for Kushner,” she said, describing the potential she saw in these diverse references. “I could imagine a production where they just used recorded music,” she explained, “but I knew at Meridian we had the talent and resources to take it to” — here she adopted a Terminator-esque voice — “the next level.”

That next level took the shape of a weekly music class devoted to designing and performing music for the play. Students read the script and studied jazz standards from 1930 and 1931, specifically focusing on music that the characters would already know. They held music production meetings to identify the play’s dramatic arc and worked together to create a parallel arc with music. After selecting songs, the students practiced and practiced and practiced. “Because of all of the improvisation involved in jazz,” Laura said, “the only way to stay tight in performance is to play together a lot and learn each other’s style.”

The class — led by Laura and comprised of 10th and 11th grade students Jacob, Luke, Max, and Naomi — included jazz guitar, mandolin, violin, percussion, bass, and vocals. The band played as the audience took their seats, performed the songs — including those Bach and Mahler pieces — that Kushner called for, and also served as a live musical soundtrack that the actors controlled onstage. With the turn of the knob on an old radio positioned in front of the band, the musicians came to life, changing songs and volume as characters adjusted the switches. The effect was both lively and mesmerizing.

Many audience members described the invaluable presence of the band in the production, and Laura knows that the experience also had a meaningful impact on the student musicians. Following this experience, she said, “they can all sit down and play a standard together. They’re not scared of jazz. They’ve cultivated an appreciation of that music and how cool it is to make it up on the spot.” In addition, the band fostered a deep and trusting collaboration. “You need to know that others are supporting you when you’re improvising, and vice versa,” Laura explained. “Jazz is the ultimate team sport.”

While Laura created the jazz class specifically to support A Bright Room Called Day, she aspires for musicians to be just as deeply involved in future plays. As it turns out, she’s not the only one looking ahead. Before the production had completed, several of the musicians turned to Laura and asked, “What’s the show next year?”

Craftacular 2015: "There is nothing in the world so irresistibly contagious as laughter and good humor." - Dickens

Pajama pants? Check. Bathrobe? Check. Slippers? Check. It was the Friday before winter break, which means it was time for Meridian’s Annual Pajama-Bathrobe-Slipper Day. On this festive occasion, students and faculty celebrate a long trimester of hard work by attending school in their comfiest and silliest sleepwear. Dinosaur-printed sweatpants, koala-bear onesies, and long-forgotten bathrobes roamed the halls all day long. After a morning of classes, the community gathered for the day’s culminating event: the Craftacular. Each student and teacher drew the name of another community member out of a hat and was tasked with secretly creating a gift for them. This year featured a wide range of options, including felt scarves, wood burning, lemon soap scrub, jewelry, sock snowmen, and picture frames. Students wandered from station to station, carefully creating personalized items for their giftee. Donuts and cider were passed around to keep energy and creativity flowing, and at the end of the day, gifts and hugs were exchanged as a community-written “Craftacular Carol” was read to the whole school. Thanks to everyone for another spectacular Craftacular!

From Space Travelers to Princesses: Literary Agent Visits Creative Writing

This fall, students in Sonja Vitow’s Creative Writing elective enjoyed a visit from literary agent Rebecca Podos, who is also the author of the upcoming young adult novel The Mystery of Hollow Places, which will be published by Balzer & Bray in January 2016. As both an agent and a published author, Rebecca provided invaluable answers to the writers’ questions. When 11th grader Kendra asked about what she looks for in a manuscript, Rebecca said she values a good sense of plot and character, along with a strong command of language. (She also advised writers never to begin stories at the start of the day: “That can’t possibly be the most interesting time to begin a book, right?”)

When Tati, an 11th grader, asked how to write a young adult novel that isn’t cheesy, Rebecca advised, “respect your characters, whoever those characters are -- they can be space travelers or princesses, but respect them as people.” Rebecca also said she’s tired of all characters looking and sounding the same, and she strongly prefers books not focused solely on “cisgendered, white, teenage, suburban, affluent characters.” Elizabeth, a 12th grader, wondered whether she should write about characters who lack morality, and Rebecca insisted that those characters are often the most interesting, adding that the idea of “likeability” is a frequent and flawed standard for characters in young adult novels, particularly girls and women. In early reviews of her own novel, Rebecca said she was gratified to find that her female protagonist was described as “fascinating, but not always likeable.”

That description could be used for many of the characters in young adult novels these days, particularly those that focus on popular subjects like vampires, zombies, werewolves, and other apocalypse-generating forces. Rebecca stated that darker stories and horror are actually among her favorite genres. When Ruby, an 8th grader, asked whether there’s a limit to how gory or violent a young adult story can be, Rebecca’s answer didn’t dictate to writers, but asked them to make thoughtful choices. “Make sure there’s a reason for the violence,” she said. “Ask yourself, why do that many people have to die in that particular way?” In other words, it all comes back to one important policy: respect your characters.

New Teachers on the Block: Emily Farbman

This is the first post in our New Teachers on the Block series, which profiles faculty members who joined Meridian this fall.

One of the first things visitors notice walking into Emily Farbman’s art room is a large yarn sculpture hung aloft just beyond the doorway. Stray threads brush your head as you walk in, and it’s clear that you’re entering an especially creative space.

The yarn piece is the result of an opening exercise that Emily conducted with all three levels of her sculpture class. After looking at examples of non-traditional 3D art, students collaboratively generated the yarn sculptures, sometimes tossing the yarn to one another or twisting it from opposite ends of the table. Emily says that this group endeavor sets the tone for students who might be nervous or intimidated by art. Those who come to the first class thinking “I’m not good at art,” or “I can’t sculpt” see that, rather than prioritizing training or technical ability, Emily values energetic approaches to ideas.

Emily comes to Meridian from Beaver Country Day School, and she says both schools use art class as a place to generate ideas rather than simply present assignments. She loves working with self-motivated students, and she appreciates Meridian’s class size, saying, “In small groups, I can really understand where students are coming from, where they’re going, and what I can do to guide them.”

Growing up in Washington, D.C., Emily always loved art, and she was encouraged by her mother to pursue creative projects at home. By the time she was in high school, she realized that art wasn’t only a hobby but a passion and a strength. She started spending time in local museums, sketching a range of works from contemporary paintings to bronze sculptures. Emily’s own artwork has focused primarily on portraiture. She’s worked in other mediums as well -- including metal sculpture and printmaking -- but consistently finds herself coming back to drawing and painting faces. In college, these works sometimes reached the scale of 3 by 4 foot canvases.

Outside of school, Emily loves to read books -- recent favorites include Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah -- cook, exercise, make her own art, and spend time with her two children.

Welcome to Meridian, Emily!

Meridian's First Student-Directed Play

Students have always been a major part of generating Meridian's theater productions, but this year two seniors, Juliette and Lili, took on the direction of our spring play. They chose John Cariani's Almost, Maine, which features an intrepid and awkward group of small-town characters who grapple with love and heartache over the course of just one night. Juliette and Lili were immediately drawn to the play's awkward charm when they read it aloud together, and directing proved to be a wonderful and rewarding challenge. As they wrote in the program, "We struggled at first to think of ourselves as authority figures, and had to learn quickly to assert ourselves and establish our vision for the show. Our cast has done an amazing job of sticking with us, and their patience and hard work played a huge role in getting this show off the ground. We cannot thank them enough for giving us this opportunity, and for making our final show at Meridian such an incredibly rewarding experience." 

Congratulations on a fantastic production, Juliette and Lili!