JUNE PANAGAKOS

June Panagakos Podagrosi talks founding ‘Child’s Play Touring Theatre,’ art fostering kids’ creativity and upcoming projects

“Kids put it on the page – we put it on the stage.”

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June and Ben Vereen, a renowned Broadway performer who recently honored her company

By Patricia de Pastors

12: 15 AM PST 3/22/17

June Panagakos is the Founder and Executive Director of Child’s Play Touring Theatre, a groundbreaking company that has developed award-winning theatre programs, summer camps and endless initiatives aimed at promoting children’s creative skills throughout its 37-year-old history.

A magna cum laude graduate of Brooklyn College with a Master’s degree in Dance at the University of Illinois, the New York native has not only dedicated her life to the arts by sitting on many arts-in-education panels for various conferences and much more, but also taken it upon herself to make sure children understand the importance of reading, writing and thinking outside of the box. And it seems to work just fine – from an Emmy Award for the “Kids for President!” program and invitations from the Office of Education to performing at Hillary Clinton’s book signing or partnering almost once a year with new institutions, Child’s Play Touring Theatre has only kept growing since its beginning in 1978.

If you are wondering how I met June, the story might surprise you. It was in early January, on my very first night in New York City. Waiting for my credit card to be enabled after a whole day travelling from Spain, I sat at the hotel bar to kill time. I have great memories of the staff and some guests I got to know, but no one put me at ease like the smiling woman sitting to my right, June.

We introduced ourselves and started talking about art. She told me about her career, her beloved son Michael and late husband Victor, her trips across the country… I told her about my formation thus far, how excited I was to finally visit New York, my love of comedy, and almost two hours flew by.

Her many projects nationwide, visible passion and cool stories (many including Tina Fey!) made my need to get some rest fade. Then, after meeting her again a couple of times during that week, we agreed to do this interview. And yes, I only have myself to blame for it having taken so long. However, I hope you absorb as many amazing facts as I did and, upon hearing it first hand from her, acknowledge even more how essential it is both to defend the role of creativity in an increasingly pragmatic society and to foster children’s involvement in art.

Currently working in Chicago, June chats with me about the world of the theatre, her varied trajectory, artistic roots, and answers some fire-rapid questions including cooking, epitaphs and the Oscars flub.

This story appears on the WordPress blog and Facebook page “Inglés de Cine.”

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Child’s Play Touring Theatre

Patricia de Pastors: Hi, June. Good to greet you again. 39 years have gone by since Victor first staged children’s writings. What was the original conception behind your company and is it still the exact same one or has there been an evolution in your aims, given kids’ new habits and the rise of technology?

June Panagakos: We always were and still are pioneers. We are the first to do so many programs, including our original mission, which has stayed true. It is a guiding light: “To share, encourage and validate the creative writing of children by performing plays, songs and dances.” Since children are the focus, core and driving force behind everything we do, it is their creativity and ours combined – a synergy that makes each writing unique. I remind all of our employees, interns and students that I work with that it is a treasure hunt to find the right writing, that special quality that made it rise up to the top of the batch. That writing dictates the form it will take whether a mime and masked piece or a mini musical. Our programs have evolved over time and we listen (and respond) to the information (and feedback) we get from the reviews and evaluations. We started in the age of the typewriter before computers.

In 1999, we initiated the ‘Writing Our World’ (‘WOW!’). There were a couple-few click(s) to donate sites at that time. We partnered with Poverty Fighters and raised over $10,000 for Microlending programs, each writing getting a $1.00 from the Calvert Fund to help women around the world get much needed loans. I had read stories from Rwanda and cried tears for the aftermath of the numerous tragedies of the genocide. I just could not bring myself to bring those writings to the stage.

The circle of life I cried tears of joy as we read poems from students in Rwanda whose lives were transformed by alternative energy, like wind and solar. We wanted to share those poems and we read them word for word from the original writings. They were showcased in one of our newer shows: ‘Global Energy the Musical!’ That show was co-created with the Stepping Stones Children’s Museum in CT. The students in their after-school programs–Skyped with students in Jordan and exchanged their writing and ideas to reduce the carbon footprint. Our team conducted workshops and got writing from throughout the country in addition to getting the Rwanda poems.

That show has digital drops with video embedded, which keeps the interest of a broad audience and is geared for families. We continue to explore the digital drops and plan our next Peace show to use them, too.

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A group of young pupils proudly show their creativity certificates 

PP: How did your NYC roots prepare you to run your own company?

JP: Greatly. I was named June by accident – my mother and father thought I was a boy because I was kicking and moving around so much. They only had Steve picked out and were quite surprised. I thank God I was born in June. Move over Johnny Cash! (He sang about a boy named Sue). I would have been a girl named Steve.

My father encouraged my tom boy nature – he taught me to swim-paddle, ball, and even to box. My grandmother saw I would spin when the music would play and recognized that I was a dancer. Sweet Mama Jean got me on the stage in the Senior Citizens Center, where she was President before I started kindergarten. She is still my inspiration and my role model. She was a Mensch a person who really cared for you and made you feel so special.

I was so fortunate to be able to take dance classes. The first local studio I studied in was Blanche Curtis. She was a former Rockette and the thing she would say, I still carry with me today:

“Smile, girls, so the people in the last rows of Radio City Music Hall can see you.”

I smile all the time and especially on stage.

Another circle of life story: the first place that dance studio performed was my grandmother’s senior center. My father did not want me to be a dancer. He used my dance classes as a punishment and I had to pay for them myself.

In addition to seeing Broadway plays on a regular bases a friend of mine’s father worked at a TV studio in Brooklyn I saw ‘Hullabaloo,’ a music and dance show. I majored in dance and studied every form and technique with the masters: from African and Haitian with Fred Benjamin to jazz with Luigi, to ballet and many different forms of Modern. Alvin Ailey, Merce Cunningham, Jose Limon, Martha Graham… (we did technique with her company). The person whose dance got me was Hanya Holm she was with the German school of expression and brought Pilates to the country, which we all called warm-up. I studied with her at her studio and followed her to Colorado for her intense summer program.

I apprenticed with Stephanie Evaninsky, who created the multi-gravitational aero dance group. Wow, we defied gravity in the beautiful sculptures she created. It was one of the most difficult things I ever did.

My first big job was an eight-week summer camp using the Brooklyn Museum as an inspiration for children to have an arts and crafts intensive course. The campers were from Bed-Stuy, a rough neighbourhood. The children created their own performances throughout. That is the model for what we teach at CPTT. Once I graduated, I got a job as the receptionist in Ford Modelling agency. That is another story. Eileen Ford trusted me and taught me a lot. (I became friends with Jerry Hall and attended parties for Leonard Bernstein. It was a magical time).

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A stage performance on Child’s Play Touring Theatre

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PP: Which of your countless initiatives and partnerships are you most proud of, and what city did you enjoy most working in?

JP: Hmmm… That is a hard one. On my 25th birthday, I was in my dance studio in Champaign Il reading a journal I had written when I was 17 and, like most 17-year- olds, full of angst. I had written down the big dreams that seemed as far away as the moon.

I wrote I wanted to find a place that would nurture creativity and be a part of a creative group. I dreamed that I had my own dance studio and that I would be married to my spiritual partner and we would work together. All of that had come true. The idea that writing something down helps you get there, whether you know it or not, is amazing. I burst into tears and felt God/Spirit around me.

 I sure wished I had added money to the picture. Lol, time for a new wish list!

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Poster for the ‘Animal Tales and Dinosaur Scales’ program

PP: Big entertainment talents like Oscar-winning director Adam McKay (Anchorman,’ ‘The Big Short’) or Emmy winners Tina Fey (‘Saturday Night Live,’ ‘Mean Girls’) and her husband Jeff Richmond (’30 Rock,’ ‘Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt) have been distinguished alumni of yours. What did they each contribute to the company and what did it mean to award Adam and Jeff the Victor Award?

JP: Oh wow. I have to start with Jeff Richmond, who brought both Tina and Adam to us while he was Associate Artistic Director with Victor. They were two peas in a pod. Victor had the highest respect for Jeff’s unlimited, excellent skills in everything artistic and in marketing. Jeff was hired as Music Director and he quickly rose to the occasion to do just about everything (from writing scripts to the text in our marketing brochures).

He was a great painter and visual artist who also laid out the graphics for the brochures. He made masks that we are going to bring back.

     Jeff Richmond receives the Victor Award

 

     Adam McKay receives the Victor Award

Adam was so funny. His short time in the company left a great impression on both Victor and I.

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Tina Fey poses with June

Tina was one of those too hot to handle when she worked with us. Her intelligence and wit were so obvious. She wanted to be a playwright, but we did not have money for that position – Boy, do I wish we had had. She went out into the at risk schools to help with our violence prevention programs.

I am going to ask her to get the Victor Award for our 40th legal anniversary. We incorporated it in 1980, so in three years keep posted and keep thinking positive thoughts.

PP: In 1994, Child’s Play Touring Theatre was invited by John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation to participate in Strategic Planning Initiative. This is one example of how a creative institution is asked to join forces with governmental causes. What do you think the arts have to contribute the system, especially during this administration?

JP: Great question. The arts offer life skills that are quantifiable. Yes, they can be measured – arts are not the only form that creates money directly (with people coming to towns for their arts activities like Broadway plays, which are booming at the moment) – but restaurants, nightclubs, hotels… They all bring income to the city because of theatre, music or dance. I was on the National Endowment for the Arts peer panel and this governmental agency is the most frugal in its budget.

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A stage performance for ‘Global Energy – The Musical!’

 

Promo for ‘Global Energy – The Musical!’

PP: Child’s Play Turing Theatre has performed the original works of over 20,000 young writers. What message would you convey to the young people reading us about the importance of reading, writing and expressing yourself creatively?

JP: It is as important as eating and keeping yourself healthy. Reading brings you to places you can go to without leaving your own. It also can teach you anything you want to learn – lucky to have the world at your fingertips. Writing is equal to reading, but different: you can express yourself and communicate. Writing down your dreams and goals actually gets you there.

Creativity can just about do anything – take a dark place, add some light and add some color. We are creative beings and everyday there are creative decisions we make, from the clothes we wear to whether we are going to comb our hair or not. The way we can let our creativity loose by arranging things on our desk or in our home office differently, for instance, is healing.

PP: How do you look back on your legacy, the people you have worked with during your career, and how do you hope your labor continues on to the future?

JP: I just taught a class for college students on how to do what we do. I want to do that everywhere – professional development for educators, too – to train the trainer. That is the next part of my life. We are looking to start a group in NYC. If there [was] an individual or group that has the same values, I would be very interested in figuring out the way to proceed and make it work. We can start with a percentage of the income for groups that have the structure in place.

Now that I love Flamenco (a Spanish dance), it would be great.

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Actors in full costumes pose together for a picture

PP: What is the most meaningful award you have received?  

JP: Shortly after Victor passed, I was asked if it would be okay to start an International Award in his honor.

It is given out each year at the International Performing Arts for Youth-IPAY conference. It is a people’s choice award for the best of showcase.

The first one was given to performing group in Mexico, then Canada, Australia, the Netherlands… And yes, even the United States.

To wrap up the interview, I ask June some rapid-fire questions.

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  1. Favorite sitcom and drama series: Seinfeld (1989-1998) and NCIS (2003-).

 —

  1. The #1 destination on my bucket list: Spain or Australia.

 

  1. What I learnt the most studying my Master’s Degree: I was editor of the school newsletter and we helped stopped the weigh ins that were so unhealthy. I met Victor during that time and we created more opportunities for students to perform with the Student Dance Acton Group. (With all the incredible classes I took – Beverly Blossom was a brilliant choreographer. I toured with her as one of her best “Blossoms” and I was the first to perform one of her solos. She was my Dance Mom.)

 

  1. The one person in the business who never fails to inspire me: Tina Fey and Jeff Richmond – [Has to be both!].

 

  1. Perfect caption for my epitaph: Followed her heart, lived fearlessly and with (selfless) love. Agape.

 

  1. If I had an Oscars flub moment, I’d award Best Picture to… Network (1976) instead of Rocky (1976). Great old film. I watch old movies a lot now, like. The line “I am mad as hell and I am not going to take it anymore” is more cathartic today than then…

 

  1. Best gift I’ve given and been given: Lifegiven to me by my dear parents, and the life I birthed my dear son Michael along with his late father.

 

  1. My favorite NYC and Chicago spots: In New York I love water-hanging out by the river if I am in Manhattan, but my favourite place is the boardwalk between Coney Island and Brighten Beach. The ocean is truly healing. The handball players play ball all year. In Chicago, again, it is by the water- the LSD (Lake Shore Drive). It has a path of the entire length of the city. Come and visit me and I will take you there.

 

  1. I’d die satisfied if I was played in a movie by: Tina Fey. Easy

 

  1. My most gratifying and my most challenging career decision: When Victor died I had thought about letting go. It was a difficult decision; not nearly as difficult as these trying economic times, though. Back then we were at the top of our game – three troupes, and everyone who wanted healthcare got it. Now with no state budget, we are almost extinct. However, I got to come up with a money-making project.

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  1. One memorable movie line: As Time Goes By (from Play It Again, Sam) was our wedding song.

 

  1. How I like my coffee: I do not drink coffee, but I love white tea.

 

  1. This is a toughie: ‘SNL’ or ’30 Rock? Do I have to choose?

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  1. Favorite book: There are so many, but one I go back to on a regular basis is I Ching. I read it randomly for advice and help to become a “superior person”.

  1. No one can resist it when I cook… Baklava.

 

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June photographed with other Flamenco dancers in 2014

Follow June on Facebook, YouTube and her website.

 

All the pictures are taken from Facebook and CPTT’s website.

This story also appears on Facebook, TwitterInstagram and Pinterest.

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