Category Archives: Teenagers

Do You Hear What I Hear?

In the holiday spirit, there was music a-plenty downtown today.

The Staples High School Orphenians sang outside the Pop’TArt gallery …

(Photo/Mark Yurkiw)

… while across Main Street, the Suzuki School of Music played in front of Anthropologie.

(Photo/Mark Jacobs)

Words Matter: Jonathan Costello’s Video Goes Viral

Last week, a story about Joe Biden’s stutter gave Americans better insights into his speaking style and “gaffes.”

Also last week, a Westport 7th grader’s video about his own stutter went viral. It’s as personal as the vice president’s tale — and perhaps even more powerful.

Jonathan Costello’s stutter began when he was 5. He was bullied a bit in his New York City school — but there were moments of kindness too. When his 2nd grade teacher explained to the class that Jonathan was trying to get over his speech disorder, a girl said, “Don’t change! I like you just the way you are.”

His family — father Sean, mother Lauren and younger brother William — moved to Westport just before 4th grade. Jonathan was very nervous. He worried that kids would think he was “weird.” He might have no friends.

From left: Sean, William, Jonathan and Lauren Costello. They’ve got a “soccer room” in their Westport home.

Jonathan is an excellent soccer player. A week before school began, he went to Mickey Kydes’ soccer camp. He made a good friend.

On the first day at Coleytown Elementary School, Jonathan blasted a home run in kickball. “I got known as the soccer kid, not the stutter kid,” he says proudly.

Jonathan’s stutter is caused by his vocal cords shutting when he speaks. He has no trouble putting thoughts together. They just don’t always come out as quickly as he’d like.

For the past 5 years, Jonathan has worked with world renowned speech therapist Becca Grusgott. She was just minutes from his Riverdale Country School.

But he moved to Westport, and she to Kansas City. They’ve continued their work via FaceTime. Jonathan has flourished. Now a 7th grader at Bedford Middle School, he plays premier soccer for Inter Connecticut FC, basketball for the Westport PAL travel squad, and attends Hebrew school at Temple Israel.

Soccer — the world’s sport –has helped give Jonathan confidence and poise.

Last spring, as his bar mitzvah loomed, Jonathan wanted to do his “mitzvah” (good deed) project about his stutter. His mother suggested a public service announcement.

A project should involve “tikkun olam” — an element of “repairing the world” — Lauren explains. A PSA video could help repair not only the world around him, but also Jonathan’s world.

Lauren and Sean were happy to help. But, she notes, “we’re not helicopter parents. We did not want to do this for him.”

Jonathan loved the idea. But he felt nervous too.

He was a fan of John Green’s crash courses. (The novelist creates clever, quick videos that use words and illustrations to explain history and science.) Green is also a Liverpool soccer fan. Sean suggested to Jonathan that he use the “crash course” model himself.

Jonathan wrote a script. Through a website for graphic artists, the family found someone in Utah to add illustrations.

His parents recorded Jonathan in their basement (they put up a green screen background, just like the pros). He created a teleprompter, and read his script.

Jonathan Costello, with the improvised green screen in his basement.

He stuttered a bit. But that’s what the whole video is about. Jonathan explains what stuttering is. He talks about his own life (including a worker at Subway, who asks what’s wrong when he’s trying to order).

And he offers strategies for family members, teachers, friends and strangers: Be patient. Don’t finish sentences for someone. Be kind.

Plus: “Share this video.”

That’s a fantastic idea.

Jonathan’s video debuted at his bar mitzvah, earlier this month. Rabbi Michael Friedman agreed to show it during the ceremony.

It was a powerful moment. There was not a dry eye in the synagogue — and then everyone erupted in cheers.

Much of the ceremony involves speaking. Jonathan stuttered often. But he delivered his words with poise and confidence.

The next morning, Sean and Lauren emailed the video to everyone at the bar mitzvah — and all the guests who could not attend. Jonathan’s parents also uploaded the video to YouTube. Temple Israel forwarded it too.

Almost immediately, people shared it on Facebook and Twitter. Quickly, it rocketed around the world.

Speech therapists in Sweden and Portugal asked for translations. A girl watched it 4 times, then asked her teacher to show it to the class. An 18-year-old who had lived his life “in the shadows” said that Jonathan’s video perfectly articulated his life.

Becca — Jonathan’s speech therapist — shared it with a number of professional groups. Many members said other people had already sent it to them.

Referring back to “tikkun olam,” Lauren says, “The reaction has been amazing. But we feel like we’re just getting started repairing the world.”

What a start! With stuttering in the news, the Costellos sent Jonathan’s video to the Biden campaign. A staff member quickly responded.

Soon, Jonathan will meet the former vice president.

It should be a remarkable conversation.

(Hat tips: Ben Frimmer and Frank Rosen)

Pics Of The Day #952

Over 100 Staples High School students spent 3 hours last night dodging the police.

It was hard to tell who had more fun: the kids or the cops.

These dodgeball players are actually Players: Staples Players. Two days after closing “Mamma Mia,” they (and a graduated ringer) headed to the fieldhouse for the time of their lives.

The event was the annual “Dodge a Cop” dodgeball tournament. Organized by Staples’ Teen Awareness Group and the Westport Youth Commission, in collaboration with Westport’s Police Department — and held in the dodgeball-friendly fieldhouse — it raises scholarship funds for Chris Lemone’s children. The founder of TAG died 4 years ago, age 49.

Some teams were coed. This one was loaded with Staples athletes.

Nearly 2 dozen teams competed. Each included at least one police officer. Staples staff and community members served as referees.

When Dana Seymour is not a referee, she is a Staples security guard.

Despite an evening of hurling balls at each other, no arrests were reported.

Like athletes everywhere, there was some fidgeting during the national anthem …

… and then the games began. (Photos/Dan Woog)

Staples Field Hockey 4-Peats As State Champs

Can you say “dynasty”?

The Staples High School field hockey team won their 4th straight state class L (large schools) championship yesterday.

And there was no doubt about it.

The Wreckers downed Darien 4-2, at Wethersfield High School. The win comes on top of a 2-0 victory over Cheshire last year, 1-0 against Darien in 2017, and a co-championship with Darien in 2016, the 2nd year of coach Ian Tapsall’s tenure.

Darien is a worthy rival. The Blue Wave won 3-1 in September, in the 2nd game of the regular season. The 2 teams tied 0-0 earlier this month, to share the FCIAC crown.

Yesterday’s victory was decisive. Sportswriter Rich DiPreta writes: “At times, it seemed like Staples had 20 players on the field against Darien’s 11.”

Congratulations, Wreckers. We look forward to the drive for 5!

(For a full story from the Ruden Report, click here.)

The Staples High School field hockey team celebrates, earlier this season. (Photo courtesy of Matt Dewkett for the Ruden Report)

Stars Shine For Staples Players

As remarkable as Staples Players is, they’re still a high school drama troupe. When they put on a show, the many “good luck” and “break a leg” wishes usually come from classmates, teachers, parents and other Westporters.

“Mamma Mia!” was not the usual show.

Before the curtain rose last Friday, the cast and crew enjoyed special well wishes.

Dozens of members of “Mamma Mia!”‘s Broadway and national tour starred in a pump-up video, produced solely for Staples Players.

The actors are all friends of Players choreographers Chris Myers and Rachel MacIsaac. Both were part of the national tour; Chris went on to the Broadway production as well.

The video — which the cast and crew saw right before opening night — is not some quickie, off-the-cuff job. It took tons of time to track down so many national tour and Broadway “Mamma Mia!” members.

They’re all over the globe now, doing all kinds of things. But all took time to tape themselves.

In the 14-minute video they tell stories, give advice and recount their own experiences. It’s clear they are all excited that Players is joining the “Mamma Mia!” family.

Watch the video here.

And if you want tickets to this weekend’s performances, there may be a few available at the door, 30 minutes before showtime.

(“Mamma Mia! runs this Thursday, November 21 at 7 p.m., Friday and Saturday, November 22 and 23 at 7:30 p.m., and Saturday, November 23 at 3 p.m. For more information, click here.)

Friday Flashback #168

In 1958 — prodded by a student named Christopher Lloyd* — Staples High School English teacher Craig Matheson directed “You Can’t Take it With You.”

Staples Players was born.

In the 61 years since, the drama troupe has earned national — even international — renown. (Their original production of “War and Pieces” was included in a United Nations traveling exhibit.)

But Players was not Staples’ first drama group.

For decades, individual classes put on plays. They were modest affairs.

In 1950 — the year after the juniors and sophomores joined together to put on “Our Town” — the 12th, 11th and 10th grade classes combined to produce “Blithe Spirit.” Led by legendary English instructor V. Louise Higgins, they called themselves the Masque and Wig Club.

The entire cast included 7 students.

Because Staples — then located on Riverside Avenue (the current Saugatuck Elementary School) — had no auditorium,  the play was staged at Bedford Junior High (today, Kings Highway Elementary).

Little is known about that early effort, or any that followed. But alert “06880” reader — and Staples grad/Players fan/producer Fred Cantor — dug up some photos.

Director V. Louise Higgins (foreground) and cast member Lucia Kimber.

The entire cast of “Blithe Spirit” (from left): Hope Collier, Jane Schmidt, Wendy Ayearst, Lee Moulton, Priscilla Planten, George Barton and Lucia Kimber.

The simple, 4-page program for “Blithe Spirit” notes:

By the time the present Sophomores are Seniors, if the club continues, they will be a reasonably well-trained group.

Perhaps even by that time the school will have some sort of drama department, for before any more real progress can be made, a speech teacher and proper facilities are needed.

Tonight, the curtain rises for Staples Players’ elaborate production of “Mamma Mia!” Choreography, acting, the pit, lighting, sets — all will be near Broadway-quality.

Thanks in part to the Masque and Wig Club, our high school indeed has “some sort of drama department.”

* Yes, that Christopher Lloyd

(Hat tip: Fred Cantor)

Half of the Masque and Wig Club program for “Blithe Spirit” …

… and the other part.

“Persona” Of The Week: “Mamma Mia” Cast And Crew

Staples Players‘ “Mamma Mia” opens tomorrow. It’s another fantastic show, from the nationally known high school troupe.

If you’re like me, you go to Players’ musical every year and wonder, “Who are these kids? And how do they put on such an amazing show?”

Persona’s Rob Simmelkjaer went backstage to speak to some actors and crew members, as they get ready for opening night.

Candlelight Tickets On Sale Soon

The weather may be cold.

But it’s the hottest ticket in town.

The 79th annual Staples High School Candlelight Concert will pack the auditorium for 3 performances next month: Friday, December 13 (8 p.m.), and Saturday, December 14 (3 p.m. and 8 p.m.).

This annual gift to the Westport community showcases the diverse talents of Staples musicians (and their teachers). There’s music from around the world, and of course the opening “Sing We Noel” processional, inspiring “Hallelujah Chorus” and creative production number.

Performers include choral and chamber groups, orchestras and bands. This year marks the Candlelight debut of band director Phil Giampietro.

Because it’s a gift from the Staples music department, tickets are free. But they go very fast. They’re available to the public starting at 9 a.m. on Monday. November 25. Click here then to get yours!

The timeless “Sing We Noel” processional. (Photo/Kerry Long)

Madelyn Spera And The Bitter End

The Bitter End calls itself “the oldest rock and roll club in New York City.” Since 1961, the classic red brick stage in the heart of Greenwich Village has hosted Stevie Wonder, Bob Dylan, Lady Gaga, Jackson Browne, Neil Diamond, Gavin DeGraw, Woody Allen, Jon Stewart, Randy Newman, Billy Crystal, Tommy James, Norah Jones, Donny Hathaway, Curtis Mayfield and thousands more.

Including Madelyn Spera.

The Westporter has already played there twice, during Saturday open mic sessions. The first was last year, as a Bedford Middle School 8th grader. Now a Staples High School freshman, she performed again last month. It was a fundraiser to support music and art in underfunded schools.

Surrounded by School of Rock-type bands, Madelyn stood out as an acoustic guitarist. She also plays piano.

Madelyn Spera at the Bitter End.

Madelyn’s route to the Bitter End began in Westport. She started playing at Sweet Frog — the now-shuttered frozen yogurt shop next to Fresh Market.

Her repertoire includes ’80s pop songs, and originals. She wrote one of those songs — “Underneath It All” — about an issue she cares deeply about: positive body image.

Before she headed to the Bitter End, Madelyn knew little about the iconic club. But she looked it up online.

She learned that her idol Taylor Swift had played there. That was good enough for Madelyn.

The first time, she was nervous. But one of her songs made an audience member cry. She knew she belonged.

Bitter End bookers agreed. Madelyn will play there again, in late winter.

Taylor Swift, eat your heart out.

(Can’t wait until then to see Madelyn Spera? She’s part of the Bjorn ensemble in Staples Players’ upcoming production of “Mamma Mia!” Click here for information.)

Mamma Mia! Curtain Rises On Another Great Staples Players Show

There were many reasons David Roth and Kerry Long chose “Mamma Mia!” as Staples Players’ fall musical.

It’s a popular jukebox show with great music and non-stop laughs. Though ABBA was a ’70s band, the Broadway show debuted in 1999 and the film was released in 2008, teenagers in the cast and crew know it well. They — and audiences of all ages — love it.

But one of the most compelling reasons for Roth and Long — co-directors of the high school’s award-winning troupe — is that both of Players’ choreographers danced in “Mamma Mia!”‘s North American tour.

In 2010, Christopher Hudson Myers was cast as a swing. The next year, Rachel MacIsaac — who, in another key role, is Myers’ wife — joined the tour in the same role. Myers, meanwhile, was named dance captain.

In 2011 Myers joined the Broadway show. He covered the roles of Pepper and Eddie — and continued as dance captain — until the show closed in 2015.

The couple signed on as Players’ choreographers that year. It was only a matter of time before “Mamma Mia!” came to the Staples stage.

(From left) Annamaria Fernandez, Colin Konstanty, Ryan Porio, Sammy Guthartz, Owen Keaveny and tomaso Scotti perform. Benny Zack leaps. (Photo/Kerry Long)

Myers and MacIsaac bring great knowledge about details not in the script, Roth notes. (Players also enjoyed a visit last week from Felicia Finley, a lead in the Broadway production who chatted with the cast about the show.)

Some of Myers and MacIsaac’s choreography is “an homage to the original cast,” Roth adds. Other parts are unique to Players. The show — which opens November 15, and runs through November 23 — is recognizable to anyone who has seen the musical or film. But it’s also fully Staples’ own.

Roth and Long chose “Mamma Mia!” this year in part because they’ve got some very talentd dancers. Junior Jamie Mann (double-cast as Sky) studied at Alvin Ailey and the School of American Ballet. He danced with New York City Ballet in 3 productions, and as Billy Elliot in theaters from New Hampshire to Florida.

Senior Erin Lynch (double cast as Sophie) studied at Ballet Etudes in Norwalk for 7 years. Junior Camille Foisie (Donna) has trained in ballet since she was 3, and added other genres from New York to Trumbull.

Besides dancing, there is plenty of singing in “Mamma Mia!” (From left) David Corro, Anna Maria Fernandez, Camille Foisie, Tobey Patton, Jamie Mann, Erin Lynch, Samantha Webster, Sammy Guthartz. (Photo/Kerry Long)

“The dance numbers in ‘Mamma Mia!’ are highly energetic and athletic, with some very precise and technical dance mixed in,” says MacIsaac.

“We try to push the students beyond what they believe their limitations to be,” adds Myers.

It’s not only the actors, singers and dancers who have pushed beyond their limitations. The stage crew — under the direction of new tech director Jeff Hauser — has created an enormous, dynamic set. One of the highlights: a very cool turntable.

Audiences have learned that — whether it’s a foot-stomping musical, a Broadway classic or a serious show — Staples Players is far more than a high school drama group.

Anna Maria Fernandez and Benny Zack, in a tender (?) moment. (Photo/Kerry Long)

Tickets for “Mamma Mia!” sold so quickly, in fact, that Roth and Long added an eighth performance. That matinee — the show’s third — is set for Saturday, November 16 (3 p.m.).

“Take a Chance On Me,” ABBA sings toward the end of the show.

Audiences don’t have to take a chance on “Mamma Mia!” They know it’s already a winner.

(“Mamma Mia!” will be performed on Friday and Saturday, November 15, 16, 22 and 23 at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday, November 16, 17 and 23 at 3 p.m., and Thursday, November 21 at 7 p.m. The best seats now are for the November 16 matinee, and Thursday, November 21. For tickets, click here. Tickets are always available in the Staples High School lobby 30 minutes before showtime — first come, first served!)