Good teachers matter. Good teachers inspire. They open our minds to new possibilities. One dedicated and passionate teacher can change a child’s life.
Karen Sklaire is one of those teachers.
Karen has taught Drama in the New York City public school system for the past 14 years. She has taught at schools in the Bronx, Manhattan, and Brooklyn. She believes in the power of theater to help young people find their voice and discover the beauty of their imaginations.
Because of Karen, her students have found the joy of creative play through improv exercises, learned how to write their own plays, and experienced the excitement of performing for an audience in her annual productions.
A few years ago, I had the pleasure of observing one of Karen’s classes with a group of 2nd graders at a school in Chinatown. They were rehearsing a play. I believe it was “The Princess and the Frog”. I sat in the back and watched the kids perform. They had made their own set and costumes. They all seemed to be having a great time. The girl who played the princess was wonderful, very expressive and joyful. Karen came over to me and whispered that the girl had been very shy and quiet in class. Working on the play, with Karen’s encouragement, the girl had come out of her shell and transformed. Performing had given her a newfound confidence.
In 2015, Karen created the first Speak Truth to Power summer theater camp. She invited me to come speak to the teenage participants about my work as a playwright and a performer. We had a great discussion, and then I watched them rehearse for a performance of Speak Truth To Power, a project of the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights, which uses the experiences of courageous defenders from around the world to educate students and others about human rights, and urges them to take action. The play examines issue ranging from slavery and environmental activism to religious self-determination and political participation. Speak Truth To Power began as a book written by Kerry Kennedy and has been adapted into a dramatic production by Ariel Dorfman.
It was incredible to watch Karen guide these young people through the rehearsal, working on each of their monologues with them, giving them direction on their physicality, their vocal quality, and their acting choices, while creating exciting and beautiful tableaus with the rest of the ensemble behind each performer as they portrayed each defender in the play. The students were responsive, creative, and very inspired by Karen. Her passion for the play and sharing the importance of speaking out about human rights and justice was infectious. I was so impressed. I wanted to join the camp!
In 2015, Karen received the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights award for her work in theater and human rights. The award was presented by the actress, Catherine Keener.
In 2016, Karen worked on a project with my theater company, Chrysalis, about mental health. She was one of five actress/writers, including myself. We devised a play about the many issues surrounding mental health. There were monologues, scenes (some fictional, some taken from interviews), and movement sequences that Karen directed for us. Karen brought her passion and dedication to this project. She was a great ensemble member, very giving and creative. She brought out the best in everyone.
This past October, Karen came to me with an idea. She called me and said she wanted to do something with me to help Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane Maria, which devastated the island in September.
I jumped at the opportunity. I had been wanting to do something more than just donate $25 or $50 to the Red Cross or Unicef. Karen and I sat down and discussed what we could do. She suggested we do a theater benefit event in which we both perform our solo shows.
We decided to find a school in need to help. By chance, Karen met a teacher from Flushing High School in Queens, who is from the city of Ponce in Puerto Rico. The teacher called her hometown, and the people she spoke with went from school to school searching for the school most in need. The teacher told Karen to contact La Escuela Jaime L Drew, an elementary school in Ponce.
Soon after, Karen and I sat down sat down at a coffee shop together to call the principal of the school. Once we got on the phone, we quickly realized that neither of us spoke enough Spanish to communicate with her, which was a challenging and comical moment. In the midst of trying to explain our mission to the principal, a lovely young actress, named Hannah, who happened to be drinking coffee next to us, overheard our struggle. She came over and offered to be our translator. It truly took a village!
The principal told us that the school needs new air conditioners, a silent generator, uniforms, school supplies, food, and water for the students. We told her that 100% of the ticket proceeds from our shows would go to her school to purchase these items.
The principal then asked to speak to all of us in her limited English. She said, “You were sent from God. We thought no one remembered us or cared anymore,” and we all cried.
With the education system at risk in our current political climate, Karen and I knew we couldn’t count on our government to do the right thing, so we chose to use our power as citizens and as theater artists to help these children. They need to be able to continue their education during this time of recovery and rebuilding.
This project was right in line with Karen’s love of teaching and fighting for human rights. Once again, her passion and commitment inspired action that made a difference in the lives of children. We held our benefit event in early December. It was a big success. We raised $3,700 for La Escuela Jaime L. Drew in just three weeks.
I am proud to know Karen. I’m proud of the work we’ve done together. I’m proud to call her my friend.
Good teachers matter.
We need teachers like Karen Sklaire.