Category Archives: Teenagers

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!)

Tomorrow Is Election Day. Wherever You Live, A Westport Teen Can Help You Vote.

On Election Day, young people get a bad rap. They vote in lower numbers than any other age group — and Americans’ turnout for all ages is pretty pathetic to begin with.

Ella Berg is on a mission to change that.

Last year — as a Staples High School junior — she created an online primer for Westport voters. It included links to registration and voting information, plus short, factual descriptions of the positions of candidates for governor, senator, congressman, state representatives, and all other races.

This year, Ella’s gone national.

Ella Berg

Months ago before she turned 18, while trying to figure how to pre-register to vote, she noticed that information specific to one state was tough to find.

So Ella got to work. She researched all 50 states — plus Washington, DC and 4 US territories — and then created a website, filled with information and links.

For every state, she had to find a general information page that provides details on voter identification requirements; how to vote online or cast an absentee ballot, and — crucially — offers a polling place locator.

It was hard work.

“Many state-sponsored voting sites are disorganized, outdated, or missing key information,” Ella says.

The result — VoteAcrossAmerica.org — is clear, coherent, easy to use. Click here to access it.

But Ella did not stop there.

As a young voter, she wants to make sure her peers know how and when to cast ballots. She emailed the website to deans of students at the biggest public universities in each state, suggesting they offer it as a resource. Most wrote back, saying they were happy to do so.

Ella is also marketing the site through Twitter (@VoteAcrossUSA).

A screenshot of the home page.

Amid all this she is a typical Staples senior, with all the excitement and stress of applying to college. She hopes to study public policy there — with the goal of reforming the electoral system, “to make American elections more accurately reflect the will of the people.”

She adds, “I believe that equal voter access is one of the most important factors in a strong democracy. Even though I am still in high school, I’d like to do everything I can to boost voter turnout.”

She’s already doing it. When it comes to civic responsibility and engagement, Ella Berg gets my vote.

(PS: Live in Westport? Click here for a quick link to all local voting information.)

Did You Miss Staples’ Fall Music Concerts? Here They Are!

With so much going on every day, you might have missed the Staples High School music department’s 3 fall concerts.

Or maybe you’re an alum, living far away.

No problem! Thanks to the magic of former media lab instructor Jim Honeycutt, all 3 are available now.

The chamber, symphonic, sophomore and freshman orchestra’s concert was called “Something Old, Something New.” It featured music from the Baroque era, to contemporary works.

The choral concert highlighted music of the Renaissance.

Meanwhile, the symphonic band and wind ensemble presented “Winds of Change.”

Finally, here’s an extra feature: an interview with Phil Giampietro. The new bands director talks about his plans for the pep band:

Let the music play!

Bassick Band Needs Music Men (And Women)

In Westport, our schools’ stellar music program is a given.

Just a few miles away in Bridgeport, it’s a gift.

Bassick High School struggles with the basics. Recently, administrators found enough money to hire a band leader. Jon Garcia is eager to teach students, who are just as eager to learn.

But they can’t play without instruments. The band closet was almost empty.

Bassick High School band director Jon Garcia.

When Westonite Martha Deegan heard about the situation, she called a meeting with her Sky’s the Limit Foundation board of directors. They voted to take on the project.

They ask area residents with instruments languishing in closets, attics and basements — in other words, plenty of Westporters — to donate them to the Bassick marching band.

The foundation will clean them, and replace cork, pads and valves — whatever is needed to get the instruments in working order.

It would be great, Martha says, to get donations to buy new ones. But that’s expensive: a new tuba costs up to $7,000. So they’re concentrating on used, semi-forgotten but desperately needed instruments.

She has a personal desire to provide saxophones: Her father played sax with Stan Kenton and the Paul Whiteman Orchestrsa, back in the day at Cedar Point, Ohio.

Martha will pick up any instruments — anywhere in Connecticut. She’ll also reimburse shipping costs from out of state.

She’s off to a great start. A lawyer friend called, and offered an accordion, violin, sax, conga drum and cymbals from foreclosed houses that are being cleaned out.

Donations have already begun: trombones, trumpets, woodwinds, keyboards, euphoniums, electric guitars, and a clarinet, banjo and grand piano (!) from Westporters, and a flute from a Weston family.

Local residents involved include Dr. Jennifer Baum Gruen, opera singer Lucia Palmieri, “What Up Westport” founder Marcy Sansolo, Sue Connors, Shirley Hwang, Sue Daly and Kristana Esslinger.

Bassick High School band members.

Norwalk’s AAA Band Rentals shop — owned by Weston resident Mike Spremulli — has offered to recondition (free!) all donations.

Members of the “Bassick Big Band” will play at Barnes & Noble on Saturday, November 9 (3 to 5 p.m.). They’ll accept contributions (of money and/or instruments). The store will donate a portion of its profits from sheet music and music books to the school’s program.

Still needed:

  • 4 flutes
  • 1 obe
  • 1 clarinet
  • 4 alto saxophones
  • 3 tenor saxophones
  • 1 baritone saxophone
  • 5 trumpets
  • 2 French horns
  • 5 trombones
  • 2 baritone euphoniums
  • 1 tuba
  • 1 concert bass drum
  • 1 concert snare drum
  • 1 pair of crash cymbals
  • 1 timables
  • 1 pair of congas
  • 1 pair of bongos
  • 2 electric bass guitars
  • 1 electric guitar

“The Good Book teaches us to ‘make a joyful noise unto the Lord, all the lands,'” Martha says. “This is my holiday wish and mitzvah for the Bassick High School marching band.”

(To donate, email marthadeegan@rocketmail.com)

 

“Westport Together”: It Takes A Village To Raise Our Kids

As long as there have been teenagers, adults have worried about them.

In 1996 the United Way organized 2 townwide forums on youth issues. They led to the formation of Positive Youth Development: a collaborative effort to support youngsters and their families in their homes, at school and throughout the community.

The goal was to prevent risky behavior by providing parental education and support, rather than correcting challenges after something happens.

PTAs helped too.

Dialogue between groups resulted in new programs, including Toquet Hall, Community Service Corps, school psychologist meetings, Suniya Luthar’s research, a schoolwide substance abuse survey, and Risky Behavior Forums.

Now, 20 years after its formation, Positive Youth Development is being revitalized. Teenagers face new challenges (along with the old ones). Town organizations and non-profits have changed.

Information comes at us all in a firehose. In a torrent of emails, meeting notifications and online platforms, it’s easy to miss important ideas.

It’s time for the community to help its young people in different ways.

This morning, at Human Services’ 23rd annual breakfast for mental health professionals, the department will launch “Westport Together.”

It’s a new alliance that advocates for resilient youth, healthy families and strong communities; provides education through programs, presentations and resources, and enhances connections among families, schools and the entire town.

The PYD philosophy remains the same. But Westport Together hopes to enhance links between town and school programs; improve communication among partners and community members, and increase participation and information sharing.

A new website brings a number of youth, parenting and community programs together in one place. There are also pages for upcoming events, and a rich array of resources.

Westport Together alliance members include:

  • Westport Public Schools
  • Westport PTA
  • Town of Westport (Human Services, Police, Fire, Parks & Recreation)
  • Earthplace
  • Westport Library
  • MoCA
  • Positive Directions — Center for Counseling and Prevention
  • RULER (parent group)
  • Wakeman Town Farm
  • Westport Museum for History and Culture
  • Westport Prevention Coalition
  • Westport Weston Health District
  • Westport Family YMCA

Second selectman Jennifer Tooker

Second selectman Jen Tooker helped lead the project, along with Human Services director Elaine Daignault, youth services program director Kevin Godburn and school district coordinator of psychological services Valerie Babich.

Tooker says, “This is more than a revitalization of PYD. It’s a declaration of our commitment to, and prioritization of, the health and well-being of our youth.

“We want Westporters to know this is not an easy topic to tackle. We understand it takes a village to support this initiative. The village is ready and working!”

Back in the day, Daignault adds, “when a kid walked through town, people knew him and looked out for him. There was less chance of risky behavior.

“With Westport Together, we hope to get back to that time when everyone looked out for our kids — together.”

Billie Eilish: The “06880” Connection

You may not have heard of Billie Eilish.

But your teen or tween certainly has.

The 18-year-old is a pop sensation. In 2017 her first EP, “Don’t Smile At Me,” hit the Top 15 in the US, UK, Canada and Australia. This year’s album “When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?” contined Billboard Top 40 singles, including the #1 “Bad Guy.” She is the first — and so far only — artist born in the 2000s to record an American #1 single. Billie already has 8 gold and 4 platinum singles.

She lives in LA with her brother Finneas — a frequent collaborator — and her mother and father.

So why is the entertainer — whose full name is Billie Eilish Pirate Baird O’Connell “0688o”-worthy?

Because “O’Connell” comes from her father. Patrick O’Connell — who grew up at the top of Compo Hill — is a 1975 Staples High School graduate. He was an active member of Staples Players, best known for his role of John in “The Crucible.”

Billie Eilish and her father, Patrick O’Connell.

Patrick went on to Juilliard, and a career as an actor. He’s appeared in “Iron Man,” “The West Wing” and “Baskets.”

So even though you have not heard of the teen sensation until this moment, casually tell your kid, “You know Billie Eilish’s dad is from Westport, right?”

Your cool factor will rise exponentially.

(Hat tip: David Roth)

Elle Vail: Young Westport Author Inspired By — And Inspires — Others

Elle Vail is a writer and blogger. So are many Westporters (including yours truly). 

What makes Elle special is that she is only 13 years old. Here — in her own words — is her story.

Ever since I was in 1st grade, I knew what I wanted to be when I grew up. I wanted to be an author from the first time I found joy in writing at Saugatuck Elementary School where my teacher, Ms. Bader, made us write about our weekend every Monday.

As the years went by my passion grew greater. Once I reached 4th grade I practically rewrote “Dork Diaries” in 53 pages. Not the best first story, but it motivated me to write more.

Once seventh grade approached I was ready to write another long story. Luckily I had another life-changing teacher, Mrs. Hallama, to help me out. I told her I wanted to finish a book by the time I was 13 (which was the next year).

She helped me get to work by contacting her literary agent with questions, FaceTiming with her author friends and helping me bring out what I had into my writing.

Elle Vail is now a Staples High School freshman.

I was surprised she wasn’t already published. Soon after I left her classroom she emailed me that she got a book offer for 2 of her books to come out on Halloween of 2020 (knowing Mrs. Hallama, they will not disappoint).

By December in her classroom, I gained the confidence to commit to my first published novel, “adVerse Wishes.”

Through this journey, I had so much support from my friends and family especially author Howard Greenwald (the dad of a good friend of my dad’s), who influenced me to finish the book.

With so much help I completed the book by August 2018. I had written 75 pages but I was ready to write more.

November was National Novel Writing Month (I have to thank Ms. Rao for informing me about it at Bedford Middle School).

By the end of November, I had written 49 pages. With my 2 novellas done I was ready to self-publish.

I wish I could say I created the 2 beautiful covers for my books but really my amazing friends, P. Pretty and H. Fiarman, did it all.

By March 29 and 30 my books were out to the world. Although it took a while I eventually got them onto Kindle, Amazon, the Barnes &Noble website, the Bedford Middle School library and the Bookcycle.

Elle’s books, at Compo Beach’s Remarkable Bookcycle.

I am working on getting my books into the Barnes & Noble store, Westport Library and the Staples High School Library.

During this process I began to publicize that I was working on publishing 2 books, through Instagram, Twitter and Facebook. I post at least once a day on my social media accounts.

Local bestseller Emily Liebert inspired me to get on social media for writing and to blog. I met her when she did a speech at a National Charity League event as an author. I was intrigued by her story.

Soon after I reached out to her. We had coffee at Aux Delices. She talked with me about my books and how to go to the next level.

As I am starting 9th grade at Staples High School, I am sadly more short on time for writing, so writing another novella or writing a novel can be hard. Because of this, I started my blog. I now post at least once a week on evailwrites.com. I enjoy blogging so much and I hope to continue it for as long as possible.

After having coffee with Emily she released another incredible novel called “Pretty Revenge.” I was lucky enough to go to one of her book signings to meet her very kind friends and fellow authors Jane Green, Liz Fenton and Lisa Steinke.

Elle Vail at a book signing with authors Liz Fenton (left) and Lisa Steinke.

From the experiences with Emily Liebert, I learned the significance of reaching out to those you look up to in the profession you would like to pursue. This can help you plan for the future, and get some wise words from those who are more experienced than you.

I 100 percent recommend more kids go for it and advance their dreams at a young age. For all of the young aspiring authors, find someone who can motivate you and just write! Anyone can self-publish like I did with a couple of guidelines; all you have to do keep writing.

Great Team Triumph At Triathlon

Last year, only 1 myTeamTriumph captain participated in the Westport Kiwanis Club Triathlon at Compo Beach.

MTT is a program for children, teens, adults and veterans with disabilities who otherwise could not participate in endurance events like triathlons and road races. Volunteers “ride along,” helping them compete in — and enjoy — those endeavors.

What a difference a year makes.

Last weekend, there were 10 captains. Five got out of their wheelchairs and — with assistance from their angels — walked across the finish line. One — a frequent participant in MTT events — crossed on her own feet for the first time.

Another captain completed the entire 5K run by herself. An angel ran beside her.

Over 40 angels and volunteers took part. Nearly half were Westporters.

Here are some scenes from that great day.

Setting up at sunrise.

Captain Wolf finishes the swim.

Another leg of the triathlon.

Many captains are non-verbal. The friendship between Captain Austin and Andy is beyond words.

Captain Alexei switches events.

A determined Captain Sami completes her first walk across the finish line.

Captain Wolf enjoys her trophy.

Captain Bella and her angel are all smiles.

Captain Charlotte and her equally proud dad.

Captain Jack and angel Adam share a special moment.

(For more information on myTeamTriumph — including how to get involved — click here. Hat tips: Karen Strauss-Ziebell, Curtis Lueker and Andy Berman.)