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BWW Interview: Catching Up with HOLIDAY INN Star and Humanitarian Bryce Pinkham


Emilio Criscitiello is a musician, published author, and resident music teacher at The Hungerford School in Staten Island, New York. A veteran teacher of students with special needs for over twenty years, he instructs, inspires, and empowers his students to a path of acceptance and joy through the magic of the arts and the power of music. He also happens to be my father. So when he called to tell me that a "Broadway guy" would be visiting his school to act as principal for the day, my interest was very easily piqued.

The Broadway guy in question was Bryce Pinkham, an actor who has become something of a Broadway favorite in recent years. His most notable roles include turns as the murderous Monty Nevaro in the Tony Award winning musical, "A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder", playing opposite Elizabeth Moss in the revival of Wendy Wasserstein's, "The Heidi Chronicles", and showing old school Hollywood verve playing Jim in this season's production of "Holiday Inn."

Yet through all of his lauded Broadway appearances and notable turns on television, there is one important aspect of this endearing Broadway personality that many of his admirers may not know about. When he's not delighting audiences, Bryce is an ardent supporter of arts education and the power of theatre in shaping lives on a global level.

Through his work with Zara Aina, a non-profit foundation he co-founded with fellow Broadway actor, Lucas-Caleb Rooney, he is impacting the lives of youth on the island of Madagascar. Aiding in the long term well-being of both his students and their communities, the mission of this important organization lies in a long-term investment in impoverished communities through the healing and transformative power of the arts.

I had the chance to speak with Bryce following his visit to The Hungerford School last week (which included a trip to my father's classroom where the students delighted him with a musical performance of their own). In discussing his efforts as an activist and teacher, as well as the merits of theatre in empowering youth of all races, backgrounds, and abilities, it became very clear throughout our chat that the sincerity that makes Bryce so beloved by Broadway audiences is no performance and that the passion of this actor and humanitarian does not stop at the stage.

What brought you to The Hungerford School last week?

A group of students came to see Holiday Inn, that's where I got my initial invitation. I had never been to Staten Island, so they invited me and I said yes. I believe that with great privilege comes great responsibility. I see my time on Broadway as a privilege and I was raised with a sense of service. I grew up in the Boy Scouts, my parents raised seeing eye dogs for the blind, then I went to Boston College and the spirit of that university is one of commitment to service as part of a well- rounded life. So these sorts of things are not difficult for me to yes to because I always find each time that I'm able to contribute in some small way to a community that I end up getting something back as well. Having learned that lesson many times I knew that Hungerford would be no exception.

I had a very profound day there and your dad is a perfect example of the type of teacher, human, professional that we should all aspire to be. One with seemingly infinite patience, compassion and a desire to care for everyone. I felt like I got a lesson on inclusion by going there. I believe that my artistic life and my professional life as an actor is a career that on many days feels like a very selfish pursuit. And is has to, right? Because I'm the business, so on many days I'm thinking about myself. So I try to find ways to balance that feeling by getting outside of myself and doing whatever good I can with whatever I privilege I have at my disposal.

I know that you are passionate about the power of the arts, particularly in influencing the lives of young people. I was reading about your non-profit organization, Zara Aina, which uses the power of the arts to influence youth and enrich communities in Madagascar. How did that come about for you and how has it been going?

That organization grew out of a trip to Madagascar that a friend and I took. There we encountered a third world population where fifty percent of kids drop out of school before they finish middle school. My friend had bought a motorcycle and was driving through the country when it broke down on the side of the road. Who should come out of their village but a bunch of kids to see this stranger on a motorcycle. They couldn't communicate and he sort of had to communicate with them through charades. They began laughing and connecting on a deeper level and he realized that this was our way in, through performance and physical theatre.

We wondered how could we bring that kind of performance to these kids and also help keep them in school. So we designed a program whereby we lead them through a course of performance-based curriculum over four years. It's almost sort of a similar philosophy to what I imagine your dad believes which is that there is something about the creative brain that can unlock pathways to achievements utilizing another side of the brain. Theatre, for both my co-founder and I, was a place where we really excelled growing up when we didn't always excel in the classroom. And I think one thing we're trying to create for these kids is the belief that they matter, that their education matters, that their minds matter, and if we can use the performances to build up their self esteem, show them that they are unique and worthy of applause, that they can invest further in their education. If they come to our center after school and do the performance work and continue to show up both literally and figuratively, we pay their school tuition, so the families can keep them in school. We also provide homework help and some English classes, along with dance, creative arts, and performance.

What an incredible long-term commitment to the lives of these kids and communities.

I think your dad does a similar thing from what I could tell from visiting for one day. The kids are the stars are the stars of that school. They are the lead cast and there are no judgments, only celebration. To see two students belting out "Dont Stop Believing" with a choir backing them up and a professional band standing to the side letting them take center stage reminds me exactly of what we try to do in Madagascar. When we go over there with American volunteers we're very careful that all the performance is done in the native language and our American volunteers play the ancillary characters and all of the Malagandy kids take center stage, it's really important to us. And I could tell there's similar spirit at Hungerford.

I think there's a real fear and stigma in the general public about approaching people with disabilities not knowing enough. And so because they feel they don't know enough about a disability, they don't approach or they're scared of what they might say or do wrong. My trip to Hungerford taught me is that it's okay not to know. It's okay to go to learn, I felt like I was a student for the day. The community taught me a lot about inclusion and joy and acceptance, of each other and also of who you are. The students there have, with the help of their teachers, learned and are learning to accept who they are and celebrate who they are and that's really powerful.

Absolutely. And this is definitely an extension of a conversation surrounding ableism and representation that's happening within the commercial theatre right now.

I couldn't agree more. Despite the sort of daily downers in our world, there's a great sense, at least to me, of hope and optimism about a generation that's awakening to this knowledge. I'm a straight white man and I've never been more aware of that and how much responsibility comes with that privilege. I have become so much more aware of the responsibility on all of us of standing up for each other, of inclusion, of representation. I feel like I've learned so much over the past five to ten years that I have tremendous hope for the generation behind me and the amount that they're starting with. We're seeing such a shift in inclusion in the commercial theatre world, which is usually on the cutting edge, so the fact that we're just now seeing it tells us we've got a long way to go. But if Broadway is starting to be more representative of every lifestyle and experience, then we've got hope and i think it's important that everyone get behind that movement, not just people who are desperate for representation of their experience.

One of the reasons I like going to Madagascar is because there's a lot of fear. You get off that plane, you find yourself in a third world country and if you've never experienced poverty on that level, your fear will come up and grab you real fast. But once you get passed that fear, you come out on the other side of that so much more relaxed and open and it's really a breakthrough for a lot of people when they release all this fear that has been keeping them from connecting with other people. So the experience in Madagascar has been as much for the American volunteers as it is for the kids, which is why we named our organization 'Share Life'. In an ideal world, it's a two way street, not just Americans providing aid and leaving but also going there to get something as well.

Being a proponent of arts education and the ways in which the arts can uplift lives and communities, what are your feelings on the current threat to arts funding in America and how can people best support the arts in their communities?

Well i mean the obvious answer is by investing in them, by highlighting the missions of organizations like Hungerford and like Zara Aina, in using the arts as a tool of empowerment and social change. But also as a tool of education, as I said there is something in the use of the artistic brain of a developing child that people don't understand the power of creative thinking. To de-fund those things seems like cutting off your nose to spite your face.

It is a scary time but I think the theatre in particular has survived far worse and I think it will and i think it will be about finding ways to invest in it in creative ways and to stand up and fight for it. The mark of a great culture is not in how much money is in the banks but in the stories we tell and if there's no one there to tell the stories and sing the songs, then the culture is in crisis. So I think people can start on a local level by investing in arts education and in children if they have the privilege to do so. By including arts organizations among the many social institutions that are in desperate need of support. It's also about information. I just finished a season of Mercy Street on PBS which is fearful for its future and I think that's such a shame. PBS is such an important disseminator of information that has no mandate from a corporate entity. The mandate comes from the government and therefore comes from the people. Things like PBS and NPR could be in jeopardy and we just have to fight for them in the same way we're fighting for all the other things we fight for these days. So, when the arts march comes along, we better all be there.

Read more about how you can support both Zara Aina and The Hungerford School, here and here.

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