Working for Answers
by Jane Ledwell
Jan Rudd has been renovating her Charlottetown house and reluctantly getting ready to sell her New York City apartment off Central Park. There, she spent much of 13 years, nine of them teaching in Harlem. A storyteller, writer, actor, comedian, and teacher, every act is a story. She is telling me – acting out, really – a DIY horror story about getting pinned alone at 3:00 a.m. under a heavy piece of cementboard in a bathroom, using all her might to escape.
“Once I get that bee in my bonnet that I think I can make something happen… Once I get going, I don’t sleep. Then, as you crawl out nine years later…” she laughs. “I’m not a very balanced person. I’m almost afraid of getting into something... I’m on high-speed or off.”
Leaving her post at Pedro Albizu Campos Public School 161, “PS 161,” in Harlem was another case of out-from-under the cementboard. She says, “I felt like I was on all fours getting away from this school” – and yet, she emphasizes (perhaps to herself), “Lots of good things had happened.”
That’s quite an understatement. Jan began as sole music and drama teacher for a school of 950 kids in K–8 “Actually,” she says, “the first year was hell. But I’m of that Protestant background raised to believe that if things are horrible, they are probably good for you; you’re probably learning something important!” The school was another culture, another world. Observing her fellow teachers, she says, “A lot of classes, the teacher’s role would be to stand at the door to keep students from getting out.” Teaching in the school, she says, “took every bit of my performing abilities and storytelling.”
Fortunately, Jan Rudd’s abilities are substantial. She finished her time at PS161 in a department that had two full-time music teachers and one full-time drama teacher. The school had started band and strings programs, hustling up dozens of musical instruments. Students had participated in projects with Rosie O’Donnell’s foundation for musical theatre, with Yo-Yo Ma and his Silk Road Ensemble (“Yo-Yo Ma is an amazing person,” she says “He even came to committee meetings”), and with the Berlin Philharmonic.
The Berlin Philharmonic performed “with 25 kids from my school and 75 kids from other schools dancing to ‘The Rite of Spring,’ with choreography by an amazing choreographer from Berlin.” The students from Jan’s school worked with two dance teachers. “The project was crazy,” she says, not least of all because it included students from two violently duelling high schools. “We couldn’t even rehearse where we were supposed to… we needed a neutral space.” Jan says, “I love teenagers. I tried everything, but they were just awful, awful, awful. And it was so beautiful when they actually came together. But,” she admits, “it was the beginning of the end for me.”
She says with remembered exhaustion, “The last two years were almost funny.” She recalls her last day at PS 161: “My last day was 104 degrees (Fahrenheit), and I knew I was finished. Everything was good, our school had become a model school for music, but my last day, there was a memorial service for a student. A student from our school went to Columbia on scholarship, and she went on a school trip – and she drowned. It was awful.”
Jan was coordinating the memorial service in the heat, trying to make it meaningful. “The family came and the kids had poems…” Emotions were running high. “I was setting out the sound system and couldn’t get anyone to help me. In the heat, I almost had a stroke. Finally, I had it all set up, and the service started, and someone tripped on the thing and unplugged it. I went to play the piano and … nothing.”
Jan had seen students who would never otherwise have had opportunities get scholarships, go to college, or travel the world with choirs. Today, through a partnership with Carnegie Hall's Weill Music Institute, PS 161 is, literally, a “model school” for comprehensive music instruction, music curriculum, and incorporating music into all aspects of teachers’ professional development and students’ learning.
Jan says, “We had top musicians from Carnegie coming, doing master classes with the band and the strings program. We had students in the Young People’s Choir of New York that toured the world. We had students getting scholarships.”
Being a Carnegie Hall model music school for K-8 music meant a program with “comprehensive music education for all classes from K-8, professional development for all the teachers to the eight grade on how to incorporate music into other subjects – math, social studies…” Jan says, “The repercussions of it are huge – the students making friends with students they would not have met. The students are in another world.”
Being a model school also means “bringing in other schools, to show how they make it happen: How to get it so every single class has music.” Even though some of the other programs Jan was involved in ended before or after she left New York, Carnegie is still there.
As Jan says with conviction, “Even if you get music and nothing else, it forges really important connections in the brain.”
Years she wasn’t teaching in NYC, Jan’s one-woman play, Safety in Numbers, played off-Broadway and ran at the Midtown International Theatre Festival in 2004 – until, Jan says, “I had a health scare. I thought I had ovarian cancer. I played Safety in Numbers for a week knowing I had to have surgery at the end of the week.”
She recalls, “I had some really cool things happen. I met Sidney Poitier’s daughter, and she wanted to talk – but I was going in for surgery, so I couldn’t. There are things I wonder about myself. Things I have not followed up on… I wonder about myself, if I’m being afraid to succeed,” she muses. Thinking about the dynamic Safety in Numbers, she says, “It’s not like a normal first-person show, because I am talking to myself all the time. That was really difficult. I don’t think I could do it anymore.”
Through the summers, Jan was returning home to Charlottetown to teach the Confederation Centre Young Company, and through that came her most recent gig at the School of Performing Arts, where she’ll return next semester to teach. She teaches the Michael Chekhov Acting Technique that is her specialty as well as other acting styles and improv. After New York, she “almost thought of an adventure for a year, then I met the kids at SOPA, and I could almost look down and see myself outside of my body,” clapping delightedly, “saying, I can’t wait to have you in class.”
When her students last year proved marvelous improvisers, she worked with a group to create a sketch comedy show, “Ladies and GentlemAn,” to run late-nights at The Guild. “I really enjoyed helping with the kids – doing some writing, getting those chops back, finding gems in improv, seeing them shining. I love that,” she says.
“I love comedy. I love that place where tears and laughter are right there. Life is wonderfully, hilariously absurd. I can’t take it all too seriously. It just doesn’t seem right to,” Jan says.
“My background is so much about helping other people… I love teaching what I teach because I love the kids – I’m much more interested in the person, that expansion (of their lives), how they touch all those things…
“I was a minister, and now I am still not in any way an orthodox anything, but I’m still really interested in philosophy and theology and how we create meaning.”
Jan Rudd concludes, “Art is where the rubber of the soul hits the road. Touching something bigger than ourselves: it’s a need. It’s a human need. It has to be answered.”