Sandra Robbins, the founder and artistic director of The Shadow Box Theatre (SBT) was born in Brooklyn at the height of the depression to Russian immigrant parents. While food wasn’t plentiful, they always saw to it that a flower graced the dinner table, and music played on the radio. “There is always a rainbow after the rain” her father told her often, and his words not only sustained the family during lean times, they became the vision for See-More’s Workshop (SMWS), the publishing company Robbins would grow from SBT.
For more than three decades, Robbins has been dedicated to “bringing rainbows” into the lives of children, using the mediums of theatre, music, and the written word to impact their creativity and growth. She began SBT in the “idealistic 1960’s” as a multi-ethnic troupe that presented musical puppet plays, and today, the award-winning non-profit repertory company has reached more than two million children and is recognized as one of New York City’s major art resources.
SMWS was created in 1992 in response to requests from teachers, parents and children to bring SBT’s stories and music from its productions into their homes and classrooms. Robbins has transformed ten of her plays into children’s books, and the read-aloud stories from the publishing arm have joined forces with companion audio tapes, production show videos and soundtracks, teacher’s guides, educational workshops, and the live performances to bring “the stage to the page,” melding the singular experience of theatre with the excitement of reading.
“The books aren’t only about reading, because my aim has been to make them a living creative entity to take children to another place,” Robbins told FTW. “We want to help them learn to read, but also experience the stories from a dramatic standpoint so they can read out loud and become storytellers. There’s an interactivity and a real philosophy in the way our books and audio go together; they can stand alone, but combined, they are exciting, creative in a way that’s been an outgrowth of my vision for the theatre.”
See-More’s Workshop books (the name comes from the mascot character, See-More, who appears in every stage show) are intended for reading aloud and being acted out. They are geared for ages two through about nine years, as an activity to be shared by teacher and student, or parent and child. The illustrated storybooks and accompanying audiotapes and CDs continue to be used as the basis for Shadowbox Theatre’s mini-musical storytelling performances and creative arts workshops. Because the books are based on SBT’s musical puppet productions, they are easily dramatized for classroom use.
One of Robbin’s favorite examples of how SMWS works is its version of The Growing Rock,
which is based on a Native American tale. Vita Community Services, a Canadian organization, presented a dramatized version of the book that was acted out by their developmentally-disabled adult clients, featuring costumes and props they made, and with the companion tape providing the soundtrack. The effort earned a standing ovation, drew acclaim for Vita, and enriched the lives of the participants in the process. Robbins received feedback from the event’s coordinators that the show had “deeply touched” performers and audiences alike, and a few years later, she conveys evident pride as she recounts the story.
“That is still so exciting for me, to know that our story served as a creative touch point and opened up doorways,” she said. “What we’ve done is a true grassroots publishing effort for everyone who wanted a book of our shows and by putting them out as a package, we could maintain the creativity of the theatre while helping kids become authors and readers of their own.”
New projects for SMWS include Little is Big and The Earth & Me, both of which feature Robbin’s favorite theme of “bringing peace to the earth.” Little is Big, for example, is the story of how a small fish and a larger, bully fish each find courage and become friends, learning to live together in the ocean. The accompanying CD features international songs of harmony, such as “We Look Different on the Outside,” and “People of Many Colors,” and Robbins plans to promote both the audio and book components at the Book Expo America coming up in June.
“The most challenging aspect of what I do is figuring out how to get these wonderful book and tapes out into the world, beyond the kids who come to the theatre and libraries that are so good in supporting us,” she stated.
“This is not a venture about making money, but there is that aspect of participating in the commercial world, to accomplish the teaching in the world I want to do. I’ve dedicated my life to kids, because I worry about the world we’re handing over to them. The only power we have in our hands is to live with commitment in the work we do and the way we live, so that every drop of energy helps to make change happen. When kids tell me they loved our shows or our books, I feel the immediacy of what I see in their reactions, and I know there’s a bigger plan out there for what we’re doing. That’s why I hold onto the rainbow as our symbol; it tells us to enjoy our differences and to see how things are supposed to be.”
by Nancy Sundstrom, editor