Thursday, November 10, 2022

Introducing “Songbook,” a Kennedy Center web series starring nonprofessional kids

I’m thrilled that I can finally announce a project I’ve been working on for more than two years—and it’s unlike anything I’ve done before.

During the lockdown of the first COVID summer—2020, not that anyone could forget—my friend and fellow author and Newbery recipient Kwame Alexander asked if I would like to brainstorm virtual programming ideas for young people that he and I could pitch a beloved cultural institution 20 minutes from where I live—the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington DC.

Of course I did.

So I prepared ten concepts to start, and more after the initial batch. All were an attempt to blend education and entertainment, and all prominently featured nonactor kids. 

We narrowed down the ideas to three. On 2/11/21, by Zoom, Kwame, fellow author Mary Rand Hess, and I presented the selected ideas to the Kennedy Center Director of Education David Kilpatrick and Director of Music Education Jennifer Bowman—truly stellar people. The idea they chose to produce:

logo designed by Piumi Perera

It’s unlike anything the Kennedy Center has done before.

Each episode, a middle schooler who wrote a poem inspired by a book of her choice works in person with a professional musician to set that poem to music—then performs it with the musician. And a surprise guest (different each time). 

In short, it’s a musical comedy reality show for kids. 

More precisely, it’s an unscripted/scripted hybrid. The child (and special guest) are just being themselves—no formal scripted lines. The host and musician are partially scripted but have the freedom to adlib throughout. 

We’re launching soon with three episodes, each running about 10 minutes. They will stream for no charge on the Kennedy Center site, YouTube, and Facebook.

The host is the indomitable Vaughn Ryan Midder. He and I had not met before. I liked him instantly and he is a collaborator’s dream—clever, reliable, quick-witted, great with children.

The professional musician is a perpetual mensch—Randy Preston, who often works with Kwame (and who has also worked with Vaughn). Randy is the full package—talented, warm, flexible, great with children. 


In addition to writing the scripts, I was honored and challenged to take on roles that I didn’t envision at the start—director and producer. (They even gave me a director’s chair on set…but I ended up standing the whole time.)


Throughout the rest of 2021, we developed Songbook remotely (and once, in August, in person). We originally planned to shoot all three episodes over one weekend in December, then moved it to January 2022, then to June, due in large part to Omicron. 

We did a full-court press to solicit submissions from kids in early 2022, primarily in March. I asked DC-area education leaders and literacy organizations including PEN/Faulkner Foundation, An Open Book, and Turning the Page to blast out to their networks and they kindly obliged. 

I also contacted teachers directly, asking them to “hand-deliver” the opportunity to the avid writers (and musicians) among their students. Occasions like this often require an adult to encourage a child one-on-one; sending a flyer home in a backpack often results in nothing more than a crumpled and forgotten flyer at the bottom of a backpack.

The submissions we got were pure gold. 

In May, we had the immense pleasure of notifying the young poets whose work we selected and clandestinely confirmed our special guests. 

Originally we planned to film episode 1 on June 11 and eps 2 and 3 on June 12. This would give us a full-day cushion for the learning curve of the first shoot. But due to circumstances beyond our control, we ended up having to do two eps on our first day and schedule the third for another week entirely.

Those circumstances included a Pride celebration and an anti-gun rally, both of which would take place nearby. I didn’t want our talent to get stuck in traffic or to have to get up extra early to avoid the crowds.

I was a bit nervous to commit to shooting two—in particular, the first two—eps back-to-back on the same day. 

Film dates were set for June 12 and July 11. Each episode took three hours to shoot (and additional time, of course, to set up and break down, then later edit). 


Our primary filming location was Studio K in the REACH, the gorgeous standalone extension of the Kennedy Center that opened in 2019. We also shot a key scene in front of and in the Grand Foyer of the original building. We filmed the outdoor scene at different times of day, which lent each show different light.

The songs Randy and his young partners crafted for Songbook are truly fantastic—catchy and distinct. What makes this even more impressive is that the duos met for the first time on camera and had to begin converting the poems to lyrics almost immediately after—plus had less than an hour to bang it out. The only other person I’ve seen create musical magic in such a short time (though, of course, I was not in the same room) is Paul McCartney...

The special guests have a role related to the song…but not as singers. 

Estimating how long it would take to shoot each ep was essentially a shot in the dark, but I was proud that we managed to stay on schedule.

THE SHOOTS

episode 1 (shot)/episode 3 (numbered): 6/12/22 morning

young poet: Alexandra from Virginia
special guest: ?

Snafus:

Due to light rain, we could not film the opening scene in front of the Kennedy Center as planned. Luckily, Plan B looks good, too!

The plan was to shoot in sequence, with one exception. Both the opening and closing scenes take place in the Grand Foyer so I intended to film both of those scenes at the start. But I forgot about the second scene so we went back and squeezed it in before lunch.





episode 2: 6/12/22 afternoon

young poet: Samaya from Washington DC
special guest: ?

Snafus:

For the first scene, we needed a copy of the book that inspired Samaya’s poem…but due to minor human error, we didn’t have it. I learned this 10 minutes before we were supposed to start filming. Because we had so many wheels in motion, we were able to get a copy only 30 minutes later. 







episode 3 (shot)/episode 1 (numbered): 7/11/22 evening

young poet: Isabel from Virginia
special guest: ?

Snafus:

Nothing! Learning curve navigated!






These last three photos are a sequence.

All three episodes shared certain highlights: the joy exuding from all the on-camera talent, Vaughn’s ace improvisation, the beauty of watching the creative process, the heartwarming look on each child’s face when the surprise guest showed up, the big finale... 

As you will see, a centerpiece scene in each episode involves an unexpected interruption—well, unexpected to one person. (No spoilers yet!) However, we filmed at least three takes of most scenes, just to be covered. That meant that this person did expect the interruption the second and third time…but by then we’d already captured the person’s genuine (and priceless) reaction the first time.

Speaking of surprise, the final form of the show almost exactly matches my original pitch. 

Comments from parents of the young stars:

  • (when I described the show) That sounds amazing! Such a wonderful opportunity for the kids. Any opportunity to get kids seeing all the ways that music can be part of their life and their career is always a win in my book.
  • This girl will have a ball! You guys are awesome. Thanks for creating this unique opportunity.
  • (after filming) Thanks for a truly special day. What an incredible experience. We are so grateful.

I can’t thank Kwame, Mary Rand Hess, the cast, the crew, and the KC staff enough for singing this song(book) with me. Special mention (again) to David Kilpatrick and Jennifer Bowman, both of whom greenlit and nurtured us, as well as Tony Donghyuk Yoon, Regis Vogt, Harry Oakes, and Rachel Hahn.

The nimble and patient crew.

A space transformed, approximately 10 minutes after we wrapped.

Fingers crossed for a season two!

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