“Mind your Zoom manners! Since we’re all together today please don’t talk over others,” Head of Lower School Arts and Integration Sarah Bellantoni advised. She, along with all members of Class 2 and their homeroom teachers, had convened over Zoom for a special workshop in drama class. “So, who can tell me what’s been happening in class this week?” she asked.
A student began explaining that they had been listening to stories of immigrant workers through a play titled “Layer the Walls” – a production made up of individual stories about a variety of folks who lived in a New York City tenement building in 1909, each identified by a unique wallpaper.
“In Jimmy’s story, he couldn’t get a job because he’s Irish,” one student said. “Each story takes place in one building in NYC during a specific time period over 100 years ago.” A few others offered anecdotes and insight from the play to recount the stories for their peers.
This class was unique because Rachel Sullivan, one of the creators of the play, would be joining their workshop. Before she joined, however, students had one more story to learn about. Together, they watched the story of Goldine, a young girl who was a garment worker in a factory with poor working conditions.
The class quickly learned that Goldine was a Jewish immigrant from Russia and her “defining wallpaper” was maroon with flowers. At only 15 years old, Goldine worked long hours, usually 12 per day, six days a week. With people smoking indoors and without windows, Goldine had begun to struggle with her work. It was harder to breathe and, sometimes, the smoke was so bad she couldn’t see. The workers ended up going on strike for many long months, but, in the end, their strike was successful and laws and regulations were put in place for the safety of workers.
“Now you’re going to do some acting and imagining!” Ms. Bellatoni said after the video ended. She explained that each student would come up with their own character to work in a garment factory with Goldine. They made character choices such as a name, age, family dynamic, and their country of origin. Here are a few examples:
“My character’s name is Sam. She’s 16, from Russia and she lives with her grandma. She has two sisters and has been in New York for two days.”
“My character is Meadow, who’s 14 and from Russia. She lives with her mom, dad and older sister. Her best friend’s name is Ronda.”
“Lulu is 15, from Russia, and lives with her mom and brother. She’s been in New York for five days.”
"Sophie is 16. She works because her mom is ill and her best friend’s name is Violet.”
Students also practiced verbal acting responses such as ‘Huh?’ ‘Wow!’ and ‘Oh no.’ After sharing their imaginative personas, Ms. Sullivan entered the Zoom room and Ms. Bellantoni facilitated a Q&A between the creator and the curious Class 2 students. To begin, one student asked, “Did you actually use a sewing machine?”
“No, we use a shadow puppet that looks like the machine. Those machines are really heavy!” Ms. Sullivan said. “If we have time, I’ll show you one of our props at the end.”
Hoping to expand upon this information, another student enquired, “How did you make all the props and backgrounds?”
“We used a material called Tyvek – it’s very strong and sturdy. We wanted to make it look old so we poured tea all over it to create that sepia tone,” Ms. Sullivan explained.
A third student wondered what inspired the creation of “Layer the Walls.” Ms. Sullivan recounted the time she visited the Tenement Museum in New York City and discovered that 40 layers of wallpaper and paint lined a single apartment on the Lower East Side.
“There was something about digging through those layers that was really interesting to us,” she said. “Who lived there? What were their stories?” After long hours of research, “Layer the Walls” was born.
After their robust Q&A, students were ready to act! They transformed into their characters and, with Ms. Sullivan’s expert guidance, they transported back to 1909. As a full group, they began to “sew” and imagined the sights, smells and experiences they would’ve encountered, sharing how it made them feel.
Once their acting exercise came to an end, students and their teachers offered Ms. Sullivan an enthusiastic round of applause. She bid farewell, saying, “I can’t wait to hear what happens with these characters you developed!”