Theater, magic, and love

Theater, magic, and love

Deborah Roberts, head of the drama department at the Kaplen JCC, talks about her life and art

At a Stage Right rehearsal of Alice in Wonderland, 
Deb Roberts talks to Noa Lavi, playing the White 
Queen, as the Red Queen (Rani Ogden), the Mad Hatter (Avia Paz), and the Cheshire Cat (Liri Raz) look on.
At a Stage Right rehearsal of Alice in Wonderland, Deb Roberts talks to Noa Lavi, playing the White Queen, as the Red Queen (Rani Ogden), the Mad Hatter (Avia Paz), and the Cheshire Cat (Liri Raz) look on.

The magic of theater.

Yeah yeah yeah.

It’s a cliché, right? Underneath the glitter and tinsel and heavy pancake makeup, and the actors whose spit you see if you sit too close, it’s all make-believe, right?

Except sometimes no, it’s real magic. Under the glitter and tinsel and makeup and spit are real insights in the human condition, real camaraderie among players, real growth in each actor. Real love. Very real magic.

She was born as Deborah Smith in North Carolina; her father, Russell Smith, founded the art department at the University of North Carolina, and her mother, Ruth Hadfield Smith, was in the Carolina Playmakers Repertory Company, which still flourishes today.

It is not an overstatement to say that Deborah Roberts, the longtime head of the drama department at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly, has changed the lives, the dreams, and the career paths of many of the children, teenagers, and even adults she has cast, worked with, listened to, and directed over the many years she has been at the JCC.

Deb’s path to the JCC in some ways was logical, but she is not a typical JCC staff member.

Her backstory sounds tantalizingly nineteenth century, although its kick-off event was in 1906. Her “little English grandmother,” Isabel Hadfield, was an actress; “her father, George Gill, was a bookseller in London,” Deb said. (He also was a publisher, whose company was called George Gill and Sons.) “She ran away from home to join the theater, and she was disinherited. Then he relented, took her back, and said, ‘I will send you a governess,’” — not a chaperone, a governess, Deb said, to lend her legitimacy — “and my grandmother said ‘No no no, you can’t do that. Only women who have something to hide have governesses.’”

Deb’s grandmother, Isabel Gill Hadfield, ran away to the theater.
Deb’s grandmother, Isabel Gill Hadfield, ran away to the theater.

Soon she married Henry J. Hadfield, the manager of the company she’d run away to join, who later became Deb’s grandfather. The Hadfields moved across the Atlantic, and Henry played Macbeth, and offered a performance called “Evenings with Shakespeare,” thrilling audiences with monologues. They had one child, Deb’s mother, Ruth. But soon Henry developed tuberculosis; he went to a sanitarium in Saranac Lake, in upstate New York, and his wife and daughter moved close by. “My mother learned to skate up there,” Deb said, in that land of many lakes and long winters. But when Ruth was 12, her father died.

Henry J. Hadfield, Deb’s grandfather, an actor, asks “Is this a dagger which I see before me?”
Henry J. Hadfield, Deb’s grandfather, an actor, asks “Is this a dagger which I see before me?”

Isabel Hadfield knew the president of Smith College, a Scot she’d met when she still lived in England. “He gave my grandmother a job,” Deb said. Isabel and Ruth lived in an off-campus house with Smith students, and Isabel was more or less their dorm mother.

Ruth started college at Smith but left partway through, lured by the theater. “Her mother wouldn’t let her,” Deb said. Ironically enough, “she said it was a terrible life. But she was a terrific actress.” Soon, she married Russell Smith.

Deb’s father came from a family with roots deep into American history; she qualifies as a Daughter of the American Republic — she can trace her ancestry back to before the American Revolution — but never cared to join, she said (but only when asked, and with a reluctant laugh). He grew up in Concord, Massachusetts, a profoundly historic town, and graduated from Harvard College and then from Harvard’s architecture school. After a stint as an architect, he devoted his life to the arts.

As most likely is clear to readers — but often is not clear to JCC members — Deb is not Jewish. Her family was Anglican in England, and Episcopalian here. But she’s always been drawn to Judaism, and she thinks — or at least hopes — she knows why. “After my mom died, in 1982, my dad said to my brother — but not to me, and I would have asked more questions — that he thought that she was Jewish. It was because of some of the things she had said about her childhood. I think it was her mother who was Jewish — her mother had several different names, they got changed along the way.”

(It’s all very Daniel Deronda, and how much better could that get?)

So Deb’s early childhood was spent in North Carolina. She remembers “that I spent time on Manteo” — on the Outer Banks — “and that every time it rained we would put pots under all the leaks under the roof.” Then the family — Deb has one sibling, her brother, Harry Smith, who is a psychoanalyst — moved to Boston, where her father became the head of the Boston Museum School of Arts, and her mother acted and directed in local theater companies. “I remember her playing Hermia in ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream,’ Regan in ‘King Lear,’ and one of the madwomen in ‘Madwoman of Chaillot,’” Deb said. She didn’t play leads, but hefty supporting roles.

Deborah Smith when she graduated from high school.
Deborah Smith when she graduated from high school.

Deb went to private schools on scholarship — a progressive school called Shady Hill and then the Milton Academy, where she was a day student — and then, like her mother (and in so many ways Deb is like her mother) to Smith, where she majored in religion and minored in art.

She’s always been “committed to religion,” she said. Once, at a conference on religion, “I remember having a religious experience, where I felt somehow surrounded by light. At dusk, we went to a hilltop, and I remember feeling the presence of God so strongly.” Sometimes she still feels warmth in her hands, she said, and the ability to heal comes along with it. But she cannot control that power in any way, she added; she cannot summon or direct it, has no idea what to do with it, and most often chooses to ignore it.

There was no theater program at Smith, but during the summers, Deb acted with the Peterborough Players, earning her Actor’s Equity card when she played the sister in the “Diary of Anne Frank.”

Deb’s mother, Ruth Hadfield Smith, before she married.
Deb’s mother, Ruth Hadfield Smith, before she married.

“I didn’t know what I wanted to do, but I knew that I didn’t want to act,” Deb said. “When I went to college, I told myself that I wanted to leave it all behind. Mom was a very complicated person, and I think that you don’t necessarily want to become your mother. So it wasn’t my goal at all.

“I wanted to be a doctor. I took pre-med courses. I did well on the math SATs, and I said ‘Okay, here I am at college, and what does God want me to do?’ I was at the stage where I said that a lot. And I decided that God wanted me to be a doctor. I took the MCATS, and I did just fine.

“I graduated from college” — summa cum laude — “in 1959, and I was ready to go to medical school — and then somehow I worked at this summer theater and did really well at it.” And, well, as Deb says, somehow by now she is very much like her mother.

First, though, she went to a graduate program at Union Theological Seminary, just up Broadway from Columbia University. The program was religious drama, and she traveled the country performing Christian drama. When she was done, she got a job in New York, and a miniscule apartment, like something about of “My Sister Eileen,” just more uptown. She took acting classes, went from job to job and tiny sublet to teenier sublet. She went to England to act, had the kinds of adventures that young women in their 20s had in the 1960s, and eventually came home. She was introduced to Dick Roberts — more formally Dr. Richard, now a newly retired internist who specializes in infectious diseases, spent most of his career teaching at Cornell Medical School, and still spends some part of most days continuing his research.

And, dear reader, she married him.

Two of Deb’s children, Bryan and Hannah Roberts, pose by the Brooklyn Bridge; Deb took the picture for a photography class.
Two of Deb’s children, Bryan and Hannah Roberts, pose by the Brooklyn Bridge; Deb took the picture for a photography class.

Deb had three children — Bryan, Gwyneth, and Hannah. About 1972, the family moved to Alpine, at the estate called, then as now, Rio Vista. Then, it held the main house and outbuildings; the Robertses lived in the old dairy. Their rent, Deb recalls, was $150 a month, and it was on a month-to-month basis, although they lived there for about a decade. Other families lived in the other outbuildings — the stables, the cottages that had housed the large staff that served the main house — and they formed a community that Deb remembers with great fondness. And then, in the early 80s, the estate was developed, and everyone left.

“I was a full-time mother,” Deb said. “And then one of my friends got me into teaching at Bergen Stage.” That was it. From there, at the invitation of friends she’d made through Bergen Stage, she moved to the JCC, and she’s been there every since; she’s headed the drama department for most of that time.

Deb and Dick Roberts with their daughter Gwyneth.
Deb and Dick Roberts with their daughter Gwyneth.

Its offerings have expanded; there is a large roster of classes for children, ranging from very young ones through teenagers to adults. There are classes in straight drama, musical theater, and filmmaking, among other things; there are classes for would-be professionals that lead, with surprising frequency, to careers in the arts.

Deb has a coherent philosophy. “I feel that drama can be a life-changing experience for children,” she said. “They can believe in themselves in ways that they never thought possible. You watch them grow.

“When you see children on stage, you can see two kinds. Some of them are thinking, ‘Oh, what am I going to do?’ Those are the shy ones. They tend to be much more truthful. You have to help them believe that, yes, this is you, Alice, drinking tea with the Mad Hatter. You don’t have to pretend, you just have to be it. That’s much more exciting and real, and everyone will believe what it is that you feel.

“And then there are the highly energetic, wildly creative ones, who just love being on stage.”

Note that there are no children, in Deb’s universe, who are bad, cold, or unable to believe in magic. It’s not at all that she’s so starry-eyed that she can’t see clearly; Deb has a quick, jagged-edged wit and startling clarity of vision. But it’s always tempered with goodness and often with love.

Deb does not pick the plays that her children’s classes work on — and it is fair to say that although she loves all the areas her department offers, her heart is most with the children — until a few sessions in. “I chose plays that fit the mix and complexion of the class,” she said; she gauges their interests, abilities, and sophistication, as well as how many of what size parts each offers.

She also does a great deal of tailoring on the plays she directs. For one thing, she breaks down some big parts so that more kids can have more opportunities for songs, dialogues, and monologues. “If someone is good at learning lines, I can enlarge their part. If it turns out that they’re not so good, I don’t give as much to do.”

And also, she said, “values are very important.” In fact, they are overwhelmingly important. She works on the plays to tone down the meanness, the misogyny, the bullying that are part of so many of them.

Think, for example, of “Grease,” where the heroine, Sandy, gets to be cool and get the guy by shedding her innocence. Her sweetness has to go. In Deb’s version, it doesn’t — but as an audience member, you’d never know it. The sweetness that remains is never ever allowed to turn to treacle. “Kids love ‘Grease,’” Deb said, and she often produces it. “A mom told me that her 11-year-old daughter, who was in it, invited four of her friends over to see the movie, which they had never seen.” Shock and dismay ensued.

In Deb’s version, “I adapt it to something that we can enjoy together.” When she divides the parts, “Sandy is still Sandy, and all the girls who play her still have all the Sandy qualifier, but we pool the lines and songs and share them. And I try to have the song make sense to the person who is singing it. We try to share the wealth.

“People who come to see ‘Grease’ see that it is the real ‘Grease.’”

And then there is, say, “Carousel,” which has brilliant music but whose message — wife abuse is okay, really, if the abuser is sorry in the end, even if the end comes after he dies, and at any rate his wife should know that he really loves her — is irredeemable. Deb never produces — never would produce — “Carousel.”

It is important, she said, for families “to know that they’re safe here.” That includes religiously observant families, who are vigilant about what they’d like their children exposed to, but it is not limited to them. All children have to be safe; they need to be able to expand their imaginations in a protected environment.

Among the theater’s values — and this is both Deb’s theater and the outside world’s — “is respect for all different types of people, and all kinds of talent. People become friends. A bond occurs when you are in a show together and rely on one another. That bond is priceless. If you can use it for good, that is one of the most important things you can do.”

She told the story of a boy who is “definitely challenged.” When he started in her program, no one would talk to him. Later, things changed. At one point, “one little girl looks at him, and she says, ‘I think I’ve known you from somewhere before. Maybe it’s just that you look like my best friend.’ This is a boy who no one would talk to two months earlier.”

Deb also relishes teaching adults. “I’ve taught a play reading class for years and years,” she said. “It’s so much fun! The only way people leave the class is by moving away. “We have extremely intelligent people in the class, and they come up with insightful ideas.” The group often studies the work of contemporary playwrights.

Palisades Players, another of the department’s programs, took advantage of the election year to offer “1776,” a piercing look into the politics of idealism and compromise, both at our nation’s founding and by implication today. “It is a powerful play,” Deb said.

Doug Chitel and Susan Vardy play John and Abigail Adams in the Palisades Players’ version of “1776.”
Doug Chitel and Susan Vardy play John and Abigail Adams in the Palisades Players’ version of “1776.”

Kiara Lazarus Saxena of Tenafly, now an undergraduate student at NYU, began taking courses with Deb Roberts when she was about 6 years old. “I think that the first year I was a lost boy in ‘Peter Pan,’ she said. “I ended up falling in love with the theater, and that ended up being my route.

“I started taking Deb’s classes seriously when I was a little older, 9, 10, 11, 12. During those formative years I was sort of introverted and shy and kind of insecure, so being able to be in shows and play characters was an outlet, a kind of catharsis. I was able to be so fearless when I started doing her shows.

“I think that the more secure I became with myself, somehow, the more difficult it was to be on stage. Being on stage builds your confidence; it is such a rush, especially when you are a kid, experiencing it purely. You have a chance to escape yourself. You are your own instrument.”

And then, related but different, “there is such a sense of community,” Kiara added. “I never lost the love of that community.

“Deb took it very seriously,” she continued. “You didn’t ever think that she thought that this was cute. She was really invested in it, not as a cute children’s thing. She didn’t treat us like little adults, and she also didn’t talk down to us.”

Kiara is studying drama at the Lee Strasberg Institute, part of NYU’s Tisch School. She credits Deb with that. “I came out of my shell with Deb. Once I got into high school and wasn’t in her classes any more, I really wanted to focus on academics. I didn’t think I would do theater any more. I didn’t realize how much I missed it until my junior year. Then I saw how much it affected who I was and how I communicated with people. That’s when I realized what I really wanted to do.”

Ariel Abergel of Fort Lee, now a high school junior, worked with Deb until he aged out of her children’s classes; this summer, he co-produced the JCC’s version of “My Name is Asher Lev.” The play sold out for every performance.

“Deb is pretty different from other theater educators I’ve come across throughout my childhood,” he said. “She doesn’t care as much about putting on a show that she can show off, but instead she cares deeply about each kid having a great time, growing intellectually and as an artist. She is invested in each kid’s development, and it’s hard to find that in the theater education world.

“I’m sure that if it weren’t for my years with Deb I wouldn’t be as confident, as poised, and as determined as I am today,” he continued. “She made clear that there is a world outside the JCC that is waiting.

Tweedle Dum (A.J. Horowitz), Alice (Neta Segal), Tweedle Dee (Avia Paz), and Dinah the kitten (Ella Baraket) dance onstage at the JCC.
Tweedle Dum (A.J. Horowitz), Alice (Neta Segal), Tweedle Dee (Avia Paz), and Dinah the kitten (Ella Baraket) dance onstage at the JCC.

“Deb doesn’t treat kids like kids who she is being paid to watch,” Ariel said. “She treats them like artists, who deserve every opportunity. Even if they don’t enter the theater, I think that every kid who has worked with Deb will use what they’ve gotten from her throughout their lives.

“I don’t know what magic it is she does that makes kids so comfortable on a stage and in front of an audience, but she does it,” Ariel concluded.

Ariel is preternaturally grown up for his age, but he has used the confidence that he got from Deb to allow him to move in directions that surprise him. He’s know all along that he wants a career in the theater, but more immediately, and perhaps to his surprise, he also chose to run for the student government at school. He is now president of the student body at the Solomon Schechter School of Westchester, in Hartsdale, N.Y. His plan is to bring the school more arts, particularly more theater.

Dr. Sandra Gold of Englewood, a psychologist, advocate of humanism in medical school education, and a past president of the JCC, has known Deb for decades. “My kids went through Deb’s program, and they attribute their ability to stand up and talk to people, to present themselves as they do, to the experiences they had there,” she said. “Deb didn’t look for stars. She found a place for every child who came into her program. Whether or not they had talent was irrelevant. It was the experience of being part of this crowd, this team, of putting on this performance together.

“She was there to enhance the life experience of each child. As an educator, I found it thrilling to watch.”

But it’s not that the product was sacrificed for the process, Sandra added. “Deb has such a high standard. I never saw a production that wasn’t good. I never saw one that didn’t hold together, or that I thought needed more work.

“How she could get these disparate kids for every production, some seasoned, some new, I don’t know, but she could mold them and influence them so they work well together and feel good about themselves.

“Every kid will get a part that’s good for them — no matter what their mothers think,” she concluded.

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