Authors Posts by Melissa Arnold

Melissa Arnold

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By Melissa Arnold

The Stony Brook University Orchestra invites kids and adults alike on a musical journey with their annual Family Orchestra Concert on the Main Stage of the Staller Center for the Arts ton Tuesday, Feb. 27 at 7:30 p.m. The free hour-long performance allows even the youngest children to experience classical music and see where their imaginations lead. 

This year’s theme, “Musical Splendor in Nature,” showcases the wide variety of orchestral sounds — strings, woodwinds, brass and percussion — in ways that are inspired by natural beauty.

Orchestra conductor Susan Deaver comes up with a new theme each year, then scours her music library to see which songs work best together.

“There are so many pieces influenced by nature, and the decision making process was hard for this one — what to choose?” said Deaver, who’s been with the university since 2000. She also has to consider the length of each piece, the variety of instruments required, and how long ago it was last performed.

Among the more well-known selections is “Jupiter” from “The Planets” by Gustav Holst, which might make the listener feel as though they’re soaring through space and contemplating the majesty of the universe. In “Carnival of the Animals” by Camille Saint-Saëns, kids will enjoy listening for the slow can-can that represents a tortoise and the shrill “hee haw” of donkeys played by violins. Professor of Music Emeritus Peter Winkler will serve as narrator. 

Other songs will bring concertgoers to a field of cornflowers and a forest in Finland covered with snow. 

Along the way, Deaver will take time to talk to the audience informally about each song, introducing the different instruments in the orchestra and explaining how they’re played. As always, there will be a relaxed atmosphere, plenty of surprises and even an opportunity for the audience to participate.

The concert’s featured violin soloist is 16-year-old Joanna Huang, a junior at Ward Melville High School in East Setauket and this year’s Young Orchestral Artist. A few exceptional high school students are invited to perform with the orchestra each year.

Huang and her siblings are the first ones in their family to play an instrument.

“When I was very young, I would sit in on both my brothers’ violin and piano lessons. Watching and hearing them made me say, ‘I want to play, too!’ It was a huge motivator for me,” she said.

Huang’s relationship with the university began as a fifth grader, when she took part in the Young Artists Program and a music summer camp. After that, the desire to perform with the orchestra only grew.

“When she was in eighth grade, Joanna reached out to me and asked about joining the orchestra, and I had to turn her down because she was too young yet, but she was persistent,” Deaver recalls. “She loves piano but is also passionate about the violin, and is a really fantastic performer. We’re excited to have her.”

Huang will play the final movement of Dvorak’s Violin Concerto in A, Op. 53. She has already performed at Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center, held the coveted position of concertmaster with numerous ensembles, and hopes to study violin performance once she’s finished high school.

“I love the violin and I love collaborating with others in music. I have always had an interest in playing violin with an orchestra or a chamber group,” she said. “Hearing great pieces of music and then having an opportunity to play those masterpieces, as a soloist or in a group, is the best thing that could ever happen to me.” 

The orchestra is comprised of 70 Stony Brook University students with varied music backgrounds and academic majors. Many are heading toward careers in science, technology, engineering or medicine.

“I think for a lot of the students, music has been a part of their lives for so long that they wanted to stay with it, no matter where their careers take them,” Deaver said. “It’s a nice break for them to get away from the pressures of academics for three hours a week [to rehearse]. Some do study music, but others may go on to join community orchestras or just enjoy the arts and share that with their families.”

The Stony Brook University Family Orchestra Concert will be held on the Main Stage at the Staller Center for the Arts, 100 Nicolls Road, Stony Brook on Tuesday, Feb. 27 from 7:30 to 8:30 p.m. Admission is free. For more information, call 631-632-2787.  

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'Hope and Freckles: Learning to Live in a New Land' cover

By Melissa Arnold

Author Bill Kiley

Four years ago, Bill Kiley of East Northport published his first book for children, Hope and Freckles: Fleeing to a Better Forest. The book follows a mother deer, Hope, and her young fawn, Freckles, as their lifelong home in the Olden Forest becomes increasingly dangerous. Food is also scarce, and the pair have no choice but to run away in search of a safer place to live.

Now Kiley has published a second book in the series, Hope and Freckles: Learning to Live in a New Land.

As the newest residents of the Big Pine Forest, Hope and Freckles each struggle in their own ways to adjust to life in their new home. The language spoken in Big Pine Forest is unfamiliar, and while young Freckles catches on quickly, Hope lags behind and needs help communicating with others.

Big Pine’s reaction to Hope and Freckles is mixed, and not all of their neighbors are kind. Some are curious about the newcomers, who have a different fur color and eat strange foods, while others are suspicious or even rude. Hope and Freckles have to make daily decisions about when to blend in and when to honor their own ways of doing things.

As in the previous Hope and Freckles installment, this story gives young readers a first glimpse into the difficult choices made by refugees and immigrants seeking a fresh start in the United States. The book gently and compassionately explains concepts like asylum-seeking, discrimination, cultural traditions and assimilation in an age-appropriate way.

There’s something for everyone in this book — toddlers will love the vivid wildlife art and adorable faces of the characters. Illustrator Mary Manning has a classic style that’s perfect for a children’s book, and it’s hard not to think of Bambi while moving through the story.

For older readers who are ready to explore the book’s deeper message, a useful collection of vocabulary words, questions and resources will help kick off discussions about real-world issues. Teachers, parents and other adult leaders can easily build a lesson around this material.

Kiley spent more than 30 years in law enforcement and was profoundly impacted by the experiences of immigrants and refugees he met. Their reasons for leaving home spanned from famine and drought to political upheaval and oppression.

Following his retirement, political issues and humanitarian crises around the world led Kiley to do more research on refugees. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates there are currently 37 million refugees around the world.

“I became frustrated by the negative opinions held by some people toward all immigrants, and I wanted to do what I could to change those views. So I thought, what if I wrote a book series geared toward children that could introduce them to the difficulties faced by refugees, while also making an impact on the adults who read along with them?” he recalled.

Since then, he’s spoken in schools and churches about immigration issues, and even visited college students to talk about writing children’s literature.

While the Hope and Freckles books are geared towards younger readers, one especially poignant memory for Kiley came from a visit to a local high school. He told the students to imagine coming home from school and being told they needed to leave their home forever in 30 minutes, and could only bring a backpack.

Their teacher had the students do the exercise at home, then write a reflection about what items they packed and how they felt throughout the process.

“I was so impressed by the feelings they shared about that experience … most importantly, that they had never considered what it would be like to have to leave everything you love behind and that their eyes were opened to what other people are facing,” Kiley said. 

The author hopes that his books encourage readers to reach out to people who are different from them, including those of various races, cultures, economic backgrounds and social identities.

Kiley is currently working on a third Hope and Freckles book that focuses on what causes “othering” and discrimination. He aims to include animal characters with disabilities, as well as different family structures and religious beliefs.

“I have a deeply-held belief that we are all brothers and sisters,” he said. “We can choose to ignore people who are suffering, we can choose to reject or demonize them, or we can educate ourselves, talk to one another and work to find solutions.”

Hope and Freckles: Learning to Live in a New Land is available at your favorite online booksellers. For educational resources, updates and more from Bill Kiley, visit www.hopeandfreckles.com.

Jeffrey Sanzel returns as Ebenezer Scrooge for the 39th annual production of 'A Christmas Carol' at Theatre Three Photo by Steven Uihlein/Theatre Three Productions, Inc.

By Melissa Arnold

Sure, it’s freezing outside and there’s probably a million things you need to do before the holidays arrive. But here’s a thought: before hunkering down to binge watch the newest Hallmark movies, why not enjoy some live entertainment?

Whether it’s an old classic or something new, local theaters have plenty of options for spreading holiday cheer. Here are just a few.

Community Playhouse of Northport presents ‘Elf’

Perhaps no modern character embodies the Christmas spirit more than Buddy Hobbs, famously played by Will Ferrell in the 2003 blockbuster Elf. The musical adaptation has all of the zany antics from the original film, along with fun music and some plot differences that make for a fresh experience even if you’ve seen the film.  

Life at the North Pole is all Buddy the Elf has ever known. He doesn’t know that he’s really human, raised by elves far away from his birth family. When he learns the truth, hyperactive Buddy sets out on an epic journey to find his father in New York City. Elf is a heartwarming and hilarious tale of self-discovery and family ties.

Budd (Gage Deoquino) and Jovie (Maeve Barth-Dwyer) star in ‘Elf.’ photo by Suzie Lustig

“There’s a timelessness to Elf, and Buddy has a way of charming people and making everyone feel good. Even though there’s a Christmas theme, it’s really about coming together as a family and I think everyone can relate to that,” said producer Suzie Lustig. 

Now in its 2nd season, the Community Playhouse was founded by a group of theater families who wanted to keep those traditions alive in Northport. The cast of Elf is comprised of 50 actors, giving as many people as possible the chance to get involved.

“Our youngest performer is 6 and the oldest is around 75, so there are opportunities for everyone. The relationships and connections that we’ve made are so important — we’re intentional about mentoring young performers and making everyone feel like they have a chance to grow here,” Lustig said. “Elf really fits into what we try to do with all of our shows — a multi-generational cast and a story that you can bring the entire family to. Live theater is fueled by the interaction between the performers and the audience; their enthusiasm and their laughter is what makes it such a fun and magical experience for everyone. We may be a streaming generation now, but there’s no replacement for being with a group of people and being entertained in person.”

If you go: Elf show dates are Nov. 9, 11, 12, 17, 18, and 19 at the Brosnan Theater, 158 Laurel Avenue, Northport. Tickets are $20 for adults and $15 for students and seniors. An opportunity to meet the cast, including Santa, will precede Sunday performances at 1:30 p.m. Visit www.communityplayhousenorthport.org or call 631-683-8444 for tickets.

The Minstrel Players of Northport present  ‘A Christmas Carol’

Ask five people about their favorite version of A Christmas Carol and you’ll probably get just as many answers. Charles Dickens’ classic novella has spun off countless adaptations for the stage and screen, and it’s even common for small-town productions to add their own special touches.

Money-hungry Ebenezer Scrooge couldn’t care less about the Christmas season — he’s got no family and it hurts his business. But then he’s visited by three ghosts who show him how his bad attitude affected him and others in the past, present and potential future. It’s a deeply moving story about the choices we make, facing consequences and seeking forgiveness.

At The Minstrel Players, siblings Ray and Tara Palen were inspired to combine elements from their favorite versions of A Christmas Carol while writing their adaptation. This year’s narrator role will be split into two parts, with a male and female actor each taking a turn to tell the tale.

“In our show, we run the whole gamut of Scrooge’s life. We take a close look at his time in boarding school, including his falling in love for the first time and the end of that relationship. Ultimately, Scrooge falls in love with money instead,” said director Tricia Ieronimo. “I think the general message of hope and redemption, and seeing the change of heart for someone as crotchety as Scrooge, really resonates with audiences.”

The production has run successfully for nearly 20 years, with both audiences and actors returning regularly.

“The cast is up to 33 people now, with new adults and new children getting involved. We love welcoming new faces, whether they’re acting or helping out at the theater, and watching our audiences grow as well,” Ieronimo said. “We’ve really become a family over the years and that comes through in our productions.”

If you go: A Christmas Carol will be held at 8 p.m. Dec. 8 and 9, and at 3 p.m. Dec. 10. Minstrel Players perform at the Houghton Hall Theatre at Trinity Episcopal Church, 130 Main St., Northport. For tickets, call 516-361-7232 or email [email protected].

Theatre Three of Port Jefferson presents ‘A Christmas Carol’ and ‘Barnaby Saves Christmas’

From left, Sean Amato as Fred Halliwell and Jeffrey Sanzel as Ebenezer Scrooge in the 39th annual production of ‘A Christmas Carol’ at Theatre Three.
Photo by Steven Uihlein/Theatre Three Productions, Inc.

Theatre Three has a longstanding tradition of performing “A Christmas Carol” each year since 1984. In fact, executive artistic director Jeffrey Sanzel has played the role of Scrooge more than 1,500 times — and he’s not tired of it yet.

“I’ve said these lines literally thousands of times, but we’re always working with new people who are bringing their own readings to their roles. Sometimes a line will strike me differently than it has before, which changes my thought process,” Sanzel said. 

The full group of 28 actors is split into two casts. The 10 adult actors will appear in every show, while the younger actors will alternate. Several of the cast members have played in the show for many years, and some have even gone on to take adult roles after making their debut as children.

They have also put their own creative spin on Dickens’ storyline.

“The script is re-adapted every year, so it’s always evolving. Sometimes it can take several years for an idea to take shape and eventually work its way into the show. What’s great is we have people come year after year because they want to see what’s different. It’s always fresh and new.”

Please note, no children under 5 are permitted at this show.

If you go: A Christmas Carol runs from Nov. 11 to Dec. 30 at Theatre Three, 412 Main Street, Port Jefferson. Tickets are $25 per person in November; $40 adults $32 seniors and students in December. To purchase tickets, visit www.theatrethree.com or call (631) 928-9100.

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If you’re looking for something lighter, Barnaby Saves Christmas has become a holiday classic in its own right since its debut performance at Theatre Three in 2004. This original children’s production was written by Douglas Quattrock, the theater’s artistic associate and director of development.

In the early 2000s. Quattrock spent some time helping out in the sales office and found that they were always getting calls asking about a show for younger children.

“I play piano and I’ve always loved writing songs, so I had this idea to write about Santa’s littlest elf. It’s a story I would tell to my nieces and nephews when they were growing up,” Quattrock recalled. “After the first performance in 2004, [Theatre Three executive artistic director] Jeffrey Sanzel started working on it with me, and the script continued to evolve into what it is today. The camaraderie between Barnaby and Franklynne is really special, and there’s a powerful message about never giving up.”

Barnaby, the littlest elf, has always been told he’s too small to make a difference. But when trouble strikes at the North Pole, it’s up to Barnaby and his pal Frankie (the littlest reindeer) to stop Christmas from being canceled. The hour-long show is a sweet and magical story of self-confidence, friendship and resilience. Barnaby even gets to meet a Jewish family on his journey, who teaches him about Hanukkah and believing in miracles.

“Doug puts his whole heart into this show. It’s like Rankin and Bass caliber – beautiful, funny, heartwarming, with catchy music and a wonderful message that it doesn’t matter who you are, you can make a difference,” Sanzel said. “There are kids who have grown up seeing it and it’s one of our best-received children’s shows, which is why we bring it back year after year.”

If you go: Barnaby Saves Christmas runs from Nov. 18 to Dec. 30 at Theatre Three, 412 Main Street, Port Jefferson. All seats are $12. To purchase tickets, visit www.theatrethree.com or call (631) 928-9100.

Smithtown Performing Arts Center presents ‘Every Christmas Story Ever Told (And Then Some)’

Some people love classic holiday movies and make it a tradition to watch them annually. But if you’re looking for a fun twist on those old favorites, the Smithtown Performing Arts Center (SPAC) has you covered.

This year’s holiday production, Every Christmas Story Ever Told (And Then Some), was actually chosen for practical reasons.  

“We’re putting on a production of Frozen Jr. [for kids] during the winter, so we also wanted to do a show for adults that could run in the evenings while using the Frozen stage and set,” explained Kelly Mucciolo, managing director of SPAC. 

Productions like these are also known as “trunk shows” because they can be performed on any stage, feature a small cast, just a few props and little to no set decoration.

This three-man show introduces the audience to three burned-out actors that are sick of repeatedly performing A Christmas Carol year after year. They vent their frustrations to the audience before deciding to take matters into their own hands, piecing together a madcap performance that includes all of your Christmas favorites, carols, seasonal traditions from around the world and more.

“This is an off the cuff-style collection of every Christmas story you’ve ever heard of, put together in a very silly and slapdash way so you get a little bit of everything,” Mucciolo said. “This is such a happy time of year, but it can also be stressful and overwhelming. I think this show is a fun way to spend an evening and get away from some of the hustle and bustle while still being out with your family.”

Come prepared for a little audience participation and maybe even some singing. 

Please note, this performance is recommended for ages 12 and up.

If you go: Every Christmas Story Ever Told (And Then Some) runs from Nov. 25 to Dec. 23 at the Smithtown Performing Arts Center, 2 E. Main St., Smithtown. Tickets are $32 for adults, with discounts for students and seniors. For showtimes and to purchase, visit www.smithtownpac.org.

'Rest in Peace'

Reviewed By Melissa Arnold

No matter how old you are, there’s something fun about celebrating all things weird and spooky on Halloween. To get into the spirit with your family, consider Rest in Peace (Scoot Comics), an adorable rhyming picture book from debut author Tyler Ham. 

‘Rest in Peace’

The story centers around Ghoul who just wants to do is go to sleep after a long Halloween but his monster pals  — Dracula, the Werewolf, the Mummy, Frankenstein’s Monster and the Blob — want to keep the party going.  

Raised in California, Ham was not one for horror, but he loved Halloween and “slightly spooky” entertainment. Now a father of two, Ham has embraced that lighthearted spookiness with a cast of funny monsters and a positive message of friendship that even the youngest kids can enjoy. 

Tell me about your childhood. I assume that you loved horror movies.

I was a very timid child, but I loved Halloween, so “spooky” has always been my go-to genre. It’s funny how much I love horror movies now, because when I was a kid, they scared the heck out of me! I wanted nothing to do with it. But at the same time, I always loved Halloween and mildly spooky things. Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” video was about as far as I could go.

I read something in a book once about the array of emotions we can experience in life that really stuck with me. Basically, you can feel happy, sad, excited in the real world, but those emotions typically come from a place of safety. On the other hand, when you’re scared, it’s because you don’t feel safe. That’s not a feeling that you want. But when you watch a scary movie, you can tap into the experience of being scared in a safe way, and there’s something fun about that.

So did you do a lot of writing in that ‘spooky’ genre as a kid?

I was a creative kid, though more artistic – more into drawing, painting, papier mache, that sort of thing – but never writing. 

I wasn’t a great student.  I did the work but didn’t particularly enjoy it. And I didn’t like English class, either. But in high school, I had two really great English teachers who actually loved my writing assignments. They said I was a good storyteller and would even read my stuff in front of the class. 

When I graduated, I went to film school at California University of Monterey Bay wanting to direct, and the same thing happened. I wasn’t interested in the writing aspect, but was often praised in classes for my screenwriting so it was clearly an ability I had.

After college, I moved back home with my parents and was looking for work. My mom met someone at a charity event who had just opened a new school for 3-D art. I was always curious about that, but didn’t know how to begin learning about it. And then this opportunity came along. I took a tour and enrolled for the next semester, which was only six days away. That experience ultimately took me into the visual effects industry.  I spent about 16 years working in the digital effects industry as a 3-D artist for film studios, and then I switched over to the toys and collectibles industry. Writing was something I did for fun.

When did you start thinking about writing a children’s book?

My oldest daughter was one of those babies that just wouldn’t go to bed. She loved to be read to, so we would sit in our chair and read book after book. Over time, I learned that while some kids’ books are great, others are honestly just bad. I knew I wasn’t going to write anything legendary, but I figured I could at least do better than some of the books I’d seen.

So one night, I put my daughter to bed and went into my office. I knew I wanted to write about Halloween, since it’s my favorite holiday and it’s a fun time for kids, and I knew I wanted to have different kinds of monsters. As I wrote, I’d read it to myself and make sure the rhymes felt natural and not clunky. 

Did you pursue traditional publishing or self-publishing? What was the process like?

The first draft was actually completed nine years ago. I shopped it around, but no one was biting. I’d get discouraged and leave it for a while, rewrite parts and try again. Eventually I was working for a publishing company in product development, and they would occasionally have employee submissions. The woman who was reading the manuscripts contacted me and said that while my book wasn’t the right fit for our company, it was really good, and she invited me to join a writing group. She was my first mentor, and the book went through many revisions until it was really polished.

Ultimately, a friend of mine wrote a comic book, and his company was starting a children’s book division. I submitted my original Halloween story, along with ideas for other holiday concepts featuring this cast of monsters, like Valentine’s Day and the Fourth of July. They liked the ideas and agreed to publish me.

Do you relate to Ghoul, the main character of ‘Rest in Peace’?

Yeah! It doesn’t make me look great, but I share a little bit of that lighthearted grumpiness — my kids tease me and say “Hey, you’re grumpy like Ghoul is!” But he has good intentions, just like I do.

What was it like seeing the finished product after all those years?

It was just surreal getting those first copies of the book, especially after nine years of work. This story was meant for my first daughter, and it took so long that now I’m reading it to my second daughter’s kindergarten class. She wasn’t even in the picture when this all began!

How did you find the illustrator, Firulas Ilustra? 

I found Sâmara, who along with her illustration partner Thaís form Firulas Ilustra, on the social media platform reddit. She lives in Brazil — she had some pictures up and I really liked her style. I could tell right away that she really understood what I was envisioning and connected to the idea. 

Do you have plans for future books?

I have plans to publish several holiday-themed books with this cast of monsters! The next book in the series, The Yule Ghoul (available now!) continues the story of Rest In Peace, and has the Ghoul throwing his first Christmas party! He is very excited but is afraid none of his monster friends will come. The follow up Valentine’s day book is written, and a few more are in various stages of completion. 

What’s the target age group for ‘Rest in Peace’?

It’s interesting — originally the target age was 3 to 7. But then I read it to my daughter’s 5th grade class and they really loved it. The publisher also suggested that there are 9- and 10-year-olds that would get a kick out of it as well.

Is there a message you hope kids take away from reading this?

Ghoul has this difficulty where he gets so frustrated with his friends being in his space after a long Halloween, but they really just want to spend more time [with him]. It’s about accepting people into your life and being patient with them, even when they do things that you don’t understand. All of our friends have their own little quirks. And I also hope that people see that monsters can be fun!

‘Rest in Peace’ is available now through your favorite online booksellers. Follow Tyler Ham at his official website, www.tylerham.com.

By Melissa Arnold

One can hardly travel a half block on Long Island without seeing a bag of Tate’s Bake Shop cookies, but that’s not a bad thing. The ubiquitous green bags are a sure sign of impending happiness.

Tate’s Bake Shop founder Kathleen King opened her first bakery when she was just 21 years old. The dream began long before that, though. Young Kathleen baked her signature thin and crispy cookies from age 11 on, selling them at her father Tate’s East End farmstand and using the profits to buy new school clothes each year. Today, the multi-million-dollar business has made Tate’s a nationwide favorite. 

This summer, King released a children’s picture book called Cookie Queen: How One Girl Started Tate’s Bake Shop [Random House] co-written with Lowey Bundy Sichol and illustrated by Ramona Kaulitzki. It’s King’s first book for children — she also has two cookbooks of baked goods.

Cookie Queen is an autobiographical reflection of Tate’s humble beginnings in a simple home kitchen. Young Kathleen is tired of the puffy and gooey cookies she sees everywhere — what she really wants is a thin, crispy cookie, But King’s process of trial and error shows young readers that reaching a goal isn’t always quick or easy. Kathleen makes batches and batches of cookies that she doesn’t like, experimenting and struggling to find the perfect recipe.

These important lessons of patience, hard work and following your dreams are coupled with beautiful illustrations from Kaulitzki. She captures the sprawling farm, Kathleen’s house and the family’s market with polished, detailed scenes. Little ones will enjoy pointing out farm animals, a house cat, a tractor and other thoughtful extras.

At the end of the book, older readers can learn about the real Tate’s Bake Shop with an easy to digest, single page history. Perhaps the best inclusion is Kathleen and Tate’s personal recipe for molasses cookies to make at home. Who knows, maybe a young reader in your life might discover their own love of baking.

My godchildren, ages 4 and 2, were big fans of the book when I read it to them. No surprise there — after all, what kid wouldn’t like a book about cookies? That said, the vocabulary and overall message would be better understood by elementary school readers. 

Age aside, this book is best enjoyed as a family, then immediately followed by some hands-on time together in the kitchen, especially with dessert-heavy holidays approaching. To order, visit amazon.com, bn.com or your favorite online retailer.

Meet Jeff Corwin at the Smithtown Performing Arts Center on Aug. 27.

By Melissa Arnold

‘We cannot protect what we do not cherish, and we will not cherish what we do not know…’ — Jeff Corwin

Jeff Corwin has been a vocal and passionate advocate for wildlife and the natural world since the 1990s. The celebrated biologist and conservationist is a recognizable face on television, hosting shows including Disney Channel’s Going Wild, Animal Planet’s The Jeff Corwin Experience, and more recently, Ocean Treks and Wildlife Nation on ABC.

From a cobra festival in India and unexplored jungles in South America, to the African savanna and beyond, Corwin continues to teach audiences that our incredible world deserves protection.

On Aug. 27, Jeff Corwin will partner with Sweetbriar Nature Center to share stories from his adventures around the world and highlight the challenges faced by a variety of endangered species.

The special event, held at the newly renovated Smithtown Performing Arts Center (SPAC), will serve as a wonderful education event hosted by Sweetbriar, a not-for-profit corporation. 

“The Smithtown Performing Arts Center board is always seeking out opportunities to help out community-based nonprofits and share our beautiful, historic space.” said Michael Mucciolo, board president for SPAC. “Our theater has a long history of attracting families with young kids, and I think they’ll have a wonderful time seeing something they’ve never seen before and learning from such an expert like Jeff.”

Sweetbriar Nature Center is situated on 54 acres of garden, woodland, field and wetland habitats on the Nissequogue River. Hundreds of species of plants and animals call the center home — many arrived as part of their extensive wildlife rehabilitation program.

“Everything that we do here is for the benefit of the animals,” said Janine Bendicksen, curator and wildlife rehabilitation coordinator for the center. “Many of the animals that get brought in to us are often at death’s door, sick enough that they allow a human to pick them up. About half of them are successfully rehabilitated and released back into the wild, which is fantastic.”

A lot of the patients they receive have similar stories, Bendicksen explained. A concerned member of the community might stumble upon an injured animal on their property or while out on a hike and contact their local Animal Control department, which then reaches out to Sweetbriar.

Whether it’s a wounded eagle on a bike trail or a couple of rabbits playing chase in a mechanic’s garage, the staff at Sweetbriar have seen just about everything.

Around 100 of Sweetbriar’s permanent residents are animals that are permanently injured or otherwise unreleasable. A few birds, including a great horned owl named Lily, have been there longer than Bendicksen has — more than 20 years.

Bendicksen studied fine art and art history, eventually finding her way to Sweetbriar as curator. In addition to her work with rehabilitation, she is responsible for creating art displays and supervising creative projects around the property.

“I was one of those kids who people were always bringing their animals to, and I tried my best to help them. Sweetbriar hits on everything that makes me happy,” she said.

The center’s educational team works hard to instill that same wonder and love of nature in people of all ages. This is especially evident during the summer, when hundreds of children from around Long Island come to the center for weeklong enrichment programs or day visits.

Throughout the school year, Sweetbriar also host field trips, opportunities for families, and in-school presentations.

The dual mission of education and rehabilitation is what makes Jeff Corwin the ideal guest speaker for the event, said Sweetbriar board member Maureen Calamia.

“Jeff has a great reputation and deep care for wildlife, especially those species that are borderline extinct. His enthusiasm is such an asset,” she said.

With only four dedicated staff members, Sweetbriar relies on the ongoing support of volunteers and donors. 

“A lot of people unfortunately don’t know what’s going on in their own backyard, or how to treat nature or wildlife. Sweetbriar does a tremendous service through their programming, both in person and also through their social media, which has a global following,” Calamia said. “They are great stewards, and everyone knows to turn to them if there’s an animal in need. This event is a wonderful way to support their hard work.”

“Tales from the Field with Jeff Corwin” will be held on Sunday, Aug. 27 at the Smithtown Performing Arts Center, 2 East Main Street, Smithtown at 7 p.m. General admission tickets are $50 and can be purchased online at www.sweetbriarnc.org or at www.smithtownpac.org. This event is made possible by a grant from the Suffolk County Department of Economic Development and Planning.

Sweetbriar is always in need of donations and volunteers, regardless of experience or skills. Visit their website or call 631-979-6344 learn how you can help.

The cast of 'Pippin'. Photo courtesy of The Community Playhouse of Northport

By Melissa Arnold

When a playwright starts working on a new script, they carefully describe the setting, time period, and each character. They may provide information about a character’s intended gender, age, physicality and singing voice. These traits are meant to serve as guides for directors as they select actors for the show.

All this might sound simple on paper, but in reality, it means that an otherwise talented actor may not be a good fit for certain roles. This is especially true for older adults, where opportunities for people in their age group are unfortunately few and far between. 

The Community Playhouse of Northport (CPN) works hard to create an atmosphere that’s welcoming to all kinds of actors, especially those with little to no experience. Each summer, they host a special “Bucket List Production” of a classic musical with a unique twist – all the lead actors are over 45, and all the ensemble members are over 30.

For people who have passed the age threshold for many theatrical roles, the accommodation is a dream come true.

The Bucket List shows began last summer, when a dedicated group of theater families formed the not-for-profit Community Playhouse of Northport. Their predecessor, the Northport Community Theater, was dissolved in 2021. 

“Many of us were friends before CPN formed — some of us were previous performers or had kids who knew each other from community theater,” said Amy Schombs, who handles publicity for the group. “We thought it might be fun to create an opportunity for those of us who’d like to be onstage but are often not in the right age group, or maybe they’ve never had any theater experience before.” 

This year’s Bucket List Production is Pippin, an energetic and surprising tale following the son of the historical King Charlemagne as he searches for fulfillment in young adulthood.

It’s also a show-within-a-show — the majority of the characters are part of a talented, sometimes zany group of performers who bring Pippin and Charlemagne’s story to life. This dynamic allows smaller ensemble roles to take center stage, which isn’t typical in a musical.

Schombs is also an ensemble performer for the show and admitted that getting onstage for the first time since high school was a big step out of her comfort zone.

“My mother took me to musicals all the time as a child and I grew up loving theater. I did some shows during high school and took a few acting classes in college, but that was it,” she recalled. “About 10 years ago, my then-teenage son decided to try out for his high school’s musical, and my whole family fell in love with theater.”

But it hasn’t been easy, she noted.

“At first it was really hard and intimidating, especially as someone who can’t read music and has no real experience. It’s been like speaking a foreign language at times,” Schombs said. “But it’s so much fun and I’m so glad I took a chance and decided to challenge myself.”

Scott Stevenson is in his early 70s, and thanks to Bucket List he’s making his theatrical debut as a comedic ensemble member.

“I’ve always enjoyed going to theater performances, and I’m comfortable onstage because I sing in a barbershop chorus based out of Five Towns College. I found myself going to shows and thinking, ‘You know, I bet I could do that,’” said Stevenson, who worked in the maritime industry prior to retirement. “My wife saw an advertisement for the Bucket List auditions in the paper and encouraged me to go for it.”

Stevenson showed up to audition and sang a few fast-paced bars of “I’m Gonna Live Till I Die” by Frank Sinatra. Not long after, he learned that he made the cast of Pippin. 

“I’ve been so impressed with everyone in the group, and they’ve been so welcoming to me as a newcomer,” he said. “It feels wonderful to try something new. To anyone out there who has ever had the dream of performing, I would encourage them to get out there and do it. Don’t let the chance pass you by.”

Seizing the opportunity comes up often for the Bucket List cast, the majority of whom have day jobs, families and other responsibilities. Executive director Suzie Lustig couldn’t be happier to have them.

“It had always been a hope of mine to bring this [Bucket List] idea to the Playhouse,” said Lustig, who is also the organization’s CEO. “There’s a lot of incredible talent on Long Island, and it’s very competitive. It gets harder as you get older — someone who’s a novice at an older age may not have a shot at participating in some shows elsewhere.”

The cast includes teachers on summer vacation, an IT professional, stay-at-home parents, a psychologist and many more.

“This cast is phenomenally committed — everyone is so enthusiastic and brings so much heart because they really want to be there, even after working all day and sacrificing their summer nights and weekends to make it happen,” Lustig said. “They come from all walks of life, but the cast has become great friends through this production.”

Schombs hopes that visitors will take a chance on the unconventional performance, and maybe even consider auditioning in the future. 

“I think there’s a bit of surprise for those who come to see us, because some people come in knowing we’re not experienced performers, but by the end we impress them with how hard we’ve worked and what we’ve been able to achieve,” she said. “Everyone should have items on their bucket list that push them and encourage them to try new things. I think the Playhouse provides an amazing way to do that.”

The Community Playhouse of Northport will present Pippin at 7:30 p.m. July 20 through July 22, with an additional 3 p.m. performance on July 22. Performances are held at the Harborfields High School Auditorium, 98 Taylor Ave, Greenlawn. Tickets are $15. To purchase or for more information about CPN and future Bucket List Productions, visit www.communityplayhousenorthport.org or call 631-683-8444.

Goat yoga participant Phoebe Barnett with a baby goat on her back. Photo by Colleen Kelly

By Melissa Arnold

Picture this: It’s a balmy summer evening, and you’ve gotten the chance to take a yoga  class on the sprawling grounds of the Smithtown Historical Society. The lush grass springs back under your bare feet as you roll out your mat. The wind blows gently through the trees. As you move from pose to pose, surrounded by nature and gorgeous historic buildings, serenity wraps around you like a blanket.

And then, a baby goat nuzzles against your backside, attempting to climb you like a mountain during Downward Dog.

Scenes like this one play out all summer long at the historical society, which has hosted wildly popular goat yoga classes for the past several years. It’s one of many ways executive director Priya Kapoor is inviting the community to come and explore.

“When I first got here, I fell in love with the community and the property. I’m always thinking about what else we can do and create to make this place as welcoming as it can be,” said Kapoor. “We have a beautiful 22-acre property and we want to be able to showcase this gem that’s in their own backyard.”

Goat yoga originated on a farm in Oregon less than a decade ago and the trend caught on quickly nationwide, largely thanks to social media. When the Smithtown program launched in 2017, the first class had a wait list of more than 700 people.

It’s a joy for Karen Haleiko, owner of Steppin’ Out Ponies and Petting Zoo, to watch her animals interact with people of all ages. The traveling pony ride and petting zoo company focuses on both education and entertainment, as well as animal rescue efforts — they’ve done more than 500 animal rescues in the last eight years.

About 15 goats come to each yoga class. Haleiko said the goats decide for themselves each time if they want to go for a ride.

“My goats are very social, they crave people and genuinely enjoy being a part of this experience,” Haleiko said. “Goats have a calming aura … It’s common to include goats as companions with race horses in between races. They’re also very comical, and being with them makes you laugh, helps you relax and forget about the worries of the world for a while.”

Each 45-minute yoga class is led by Haleiko’s aunt, Doreen Buckman, who’s taught yoga for the last 20 years. Buckman said she admired the strength, flexibility and overall vitality of female yogis in India, where the ancient practice began.

“The environment at the [goat yoga] classes is warm and welcoming. It doesn’t matter if you’ve never done yoga before or if you can’t do the poses exactly,” she said. “No one is judging anyone else. We want people to have fun and do what feels most comfortable for them, whether that’s an advanced headstand or spending the time sitting quietly and taking deep breaths.”

The goats are allowed to roam freely and interact with students throughout the session. Bigger goats might cuddle up next to you and let you lean on them for balance, while more spunky goats might bounce around you, climb on you or frolic together. 

This summer’s classes include some animal newcomers, including five baby goats — triplets Punky Brewster, Finn, and Evie; twins Captain America and Loki — as well as an alpaca named Mazie. Once yoga is finished, there’s time to mingle and pet the animals, take pictures and explore the grounds. Keep an eye out for the sheep and chickens that live on the property, too.

Buckman said that many goat yoga attendees are repeat visitors, and she’s not surprised. “One of the things I hear most often is, ‘I really needed this,’” she said. “I call goat yoga a laugh fest — it’s a hilarious time, and laughter really is the best medicine.”

Outdoor yoga will be held throughout the summer at 5:30 p.m. and 6:45 p.m. in the field behind the Frank Brush Barn at the Smithtown Historical Society, 211 Middle Country Road. Upcoming sessions include July 7, July 21, Aug. 7, Aug. 21 and Sept. 7. Tickets are $30 per person and pre-registration is required at www.eventbrite.com. Children ages 7 through 17 are welcome accompanied by an adult. Please bring a mat, towel and water bottle. Yoga mats will not be provided. For more information, call 631-265-6768.

By Melissa Arnold

Spending any amount of time in a hospital setting is bound to be taxing, not just physically but emotionally. Sometimes, a little reminder that you’re being thought of and supported can make all the difference. 

Since 2008, the Stony Brook Stitchers have volunteered their time and skill to knit, crochet and sew gifts for patients that could use a pick-me-up.

Melissa Shampine

In the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU), families might receive a cute knit cap for their little one. In difficult situations where a baby passes away, a special wrap for the baby can be used to take treasured photos, and parents are given a memory pouch to hold mementos like a lock of hair. Patients in other departments, such as the cancer center or pediatric hospital, might curl up with an afghan, lap blanket or prayer shawl during their stay. Residents at the nearby Long Island State Veterans Home receive donations as well.

The project is a grassroots effort that began with hospital staff who wanted to brighten patients’ days.

Stitchers co-director Melissa Shampine grew up attending a small parochial school in Manhattan, where the boys were taught chess and the girls learned to crochet. 

“Even though it was mandatory, I found that I actually liked it, and eventually learned to knit as well,” she recalled. “I really enjoyed being creative in that way.”

Shampine now works as a teaching hospital staff assistant at Stony Brook University Hospital. One of her former coworkers, Shakeera Thomas, was also a knitter, and together they began to brainstorm ways they could use their talents to benefit patients.

The idea spread through word of mouth, first among hospital staff, then across the street to the university. Nurse directors and health care providers identified patients who might want a gift. Students and employees from both campuses began donating yarn and got to work. Their numbers grew, and over time, even the surrounding communities got involved.

Jan Tassie

While the project is united under the Stitchers title, there are no official members or meetings. Some people work together at their churches, libraries or other small group settings, but countless others simply knit at home when they have the time. 

In 2015, Jan Tassie responded to an email from Shakeera Thomas, inviting hospital employees to learn to crochet. 

“I always wanted to learn to crochet, and someone tried to teach me years ago when I was pregnant with my first son, but it didn’t work out,” said Tassie, who recently retired from the university’s Office of Financial Aid and Scholarship Services. “When I met Shakeera, she promised that when she was done with me, I’d be able to crochet. And at the end of one day, I could.”

Thomas relocated shortly thereafter, and Tassie stepped into the role as co-director for the Stitchers.

“In the hospital and university settings, you always have people who come and go, so the numbers wax and wane. But Jan is motivated — she is the kind of person who will chat up people in the yarn aisle at craft stores, or through networking, so there are always hands to help. Our website is a labor of love for her, too. She’s done so much,” Shampine said.

The Stitchers come from all walks of life and skill levels. Some have been knitting for decades, while others learned recently with the intent of supporting the project.

Among them is Jack Domaleski, a 24-year-old from New Suffolk who took up knitting during the pandemic quarantine.

Jack Domaleski with two knitted baby hats.

“During COVID, I taught myself to knit by watching videos on YouTube because I was bored and looking for something to do. It was easy to learn,” said Domaleski, who works in the restaurant industry. “My mom did it when I was younger, and it’s nice to end up with a finished product that you can share with others. I thought that it would be nice to donate to the hospital in some way, and when I wrote to them, they told me about the Stitchers.”

He was also inspired to knit by his own story. Domaleski was born several months premature, and spent nearly 90 days at Stony Brook’s NICU before he was strong enough to go home.

Today, he knits baby hats while thinking of other families going through similar circumstances.

“It helps me to feel connected to my own story, and anything you take the time to make is especially meaningful for the people that receive it,” he said. 

For information about volunteering or donating yarn or handmade items to the Stony Brook Stitchers, visit www.stonybrookstitchers.com or send an email to Jan Tassie at [email protected].

A scene from the 2020 Harry Chapin documentary

By Melissa Arnold

Throughout the 1970s, singer-songwriter Harry Chapin built a high-profile music career that included more than a dozen hit singles, 11 albums and a host of awards, including two Grammys. Despite his sudden death in 1981 at only 38 years old, Chapin left behind a massive legacy through both his music and a profoundly generous spirit.

Most people know Harry Chapin for his prolific contributions to the world of folk and rock music, but the “Cat’s in the Cradle” singer was also involved in a variety of charity efforts. He was especially passionate about ending hunger around the world. In 1975, he co-founded Why Hunger, a non-profit that supports grassroots organizations in 35 countries. He was also committed to making a difference in his backyard on Long Island, and in 1980, he founded Long Island Cares, which runs food pantries throughout the area.

The documentary Harry Chapin: When in Doubt, Do Something will be screened on Saturday, May 6.

On Saturday, May 6, the Long Island Music and Entertainment Hall of Fame (LIMEHOF) in Stony Brook will host a charity food drive and film screening of Harry Chapin: When in Doubt, Do Something.

“Like many people, my earliest memory of Harry Chapin is when my dad would have our family listen carefully to ‘Cat’s in the Cradle’ on the AM radio in our family station wagon,” said Tom Needham, LIMEHOF’s vice chairman and host of the Sounds of Film radio show on 90.1 WUSB-FM. “Harry wrote songs about everyday people and their struggles, and he had a way of connecting with his audience on a personal level. His life and career serve as a testament to the ability of music and advocacy to bring about positive change in the world.”

The documentary, released in 2020, follows Chapin from a young boy in the shadows of his jazz musician father to finding his own success. When in Doubt, Do Something paints a new picture of the singer-songwriter who used his fame as a launching point to help others and influence politics. It also features testimonials from Chapin’s family, along with fellow musicians including Billy Joel, Bruce Springsteen, Kenny Rogers, Pat Benatar and many more.

“I always believed that at some time in our history that there would be a documentary film made about Harry’s life and dedication towards ending hunger,” said Paule Pachter, CEO of Long Island Cares. “Half of his annual concert [revenue] was used to raise funds to address food insecurity, and many schools reference Harry when discussing hunger, poverty, and social justice. I was honored to be a part of the film to discuss the founding of Long Island Cares and how we work to continue his legacy.”

According to Long Island Cares media relations specialist Peter Crescenti, there are 230,000 food-insecure individuals on Long Island today, including 68,000 children. The organization’s food pantries have seen significant increases in visitors over the past several years, a trend they anticipate will continue. But Crescenti said they are continuing to expand their reach and programs to meet the growing need.

“In addition to providing millions of pounds of food a year to more than 325 food pantries, soup kitchens and shelters, we also run a pantry for pet supplies and a variety of programs for young people, veterans, the homeless and others seeking support,” he said. “We are dedicated to being the voice of those who have no voice, and addressing why poverty, immigration status, racial discrimination and other root causes of hunger still exist.”

Following the film screening, Tom Needham will lead a Q&A session with members of Harry Chapin’s family and staff from LI Cares.

The event will be held at 2 p.m. May 6 at the LIMEHOF Museum, 97 Main Street, Stony Brook. Tickets are $19.50 for adults, with discounts available for seniors, veterans and children at www.limusichalloffame.org. Each ticket also includes admission to the museum. Food donations are strongly encouraged.

LIMEHOF is a not-for-profit organization — ticket sales support scholarships for high schoolers and music programs in local places of need, including hospitals and senior centers. For more information and upcoming events, visit www.limusichalloffame.org/museum. To learn more about LI Cares and how to support their mission, visit www.licares.org.