Joe Burby, Pied Piper parent, director, and volunteer, reflects on change, making theater, and raising a family in Inwood.
In 2001 my wife Leslie and I chose to move our family to Inwood in search of a neighborhood we could make into our long-term home. We were seeking a safe place to raise our two sons, with interesting and welcoming neighbors, and a community not quite as transient as the Columbia area we were leaving behind. A place where we were not the only parents playing in the sandbox with our kids. We wanted (but didn’t expect to find) a community with artists and opportunities to share our artistic explorations. Taking the unpopular course of home schooling our kids, we had heard whispers of other families doing that in Inwood.
The suburbs, so inviting to so many Manhattanites as soon as children arrive did not really call to us. We looked at a couple of places in the river towns, but Leslie grew up in a small town on Long Island and my childhood was spent on a farm in upstate New York. We both came to the big city to pursue acting careers, so returning to the ‘burbs felt like a step backward, although I still feel a driveway and garage would have been a vote for sanity, parking here being what it is!
As we settled in to our new apartment, we quickly found a home we did not expect, which would become a hub for our comings and goings for the next 16 years: Pied Piper Children’s Theater at Holy Trinity Church, the brainchild of Reinaldo Martinez-Cubero.
Over the years our sons Henry and Adam challenged themselves and stretched their limits on dozens of shows learning to act, sing, and dance. More importantly they learned teamwork and community building in a supporting and caring environment. They have grown as people and made many friends. Leslie and I, too, have had many opportunities to make theater together with our neighbors and with our kids, which, to an actor is a very great gift. We have also made life-long friendships within these walls.
Beginning with The Miracle Worker, Leslie launched into her newest artistic pursuit in that hallowed hall: that of stage director. She has honed that skill, making beautiful theater at Pied Piper, touching the lives of so many young actors over the years. She has gone out into the city at large to win two directing awards, and brought those skills back home to direct again. Shakespeare, opera, performing living art!
My own many hours painting Alan Spaulding’s inventive scenery for the shows have been sometimes stressful, usually very gratifying, solving problems and indulging the secret Michelangelo in me :).
Mother Johanna Johansen created Delphi Theater, the grown-ups’ branch of the Pied Piper when she was the vicar of Holy Trinity when we first arrived. I’ve had the opportunity to practice my chosen craft by acting in several Delphi shows learning many plum roles, from the levelheaded Doc Gibbs in Our Town to the murderously unhinged Macbeth.
This great hall has sheltered us as the container for our communities’ theater, acting as an incubator for hundreds of talented children who struggled and grew together into young adulthood affirmed and cradled by the applause of a loving community.
I have been honored to direct the next generation of kids in this past year.
I have, of course, been aware of the crumbling of the building, and voluntarily pitched in with paintbrush and roller when the sanctuary and the hall got new roofs.
As the reality of the loss of this home was becoming clear and imminent, I find I have distanced myself from it, refusing to think about it. I am glad to have had this chance to pause and look back at the magic this community has created here. I am grateful to Father Jake and the staff and friends at Holy Trinity who have worked so hard to nurture the success of Pied Piper over the years. My “sanctuary” at Holy Trinity was the one with a stage at one end! The gratitude I feel toward all the parents I have sold brownies beside and painted scenery with, and whose kids I have directed, acted beside, applied make up to and made amazing theater with is beyond my ability to express.
The theatrical arts changed the trajectory of my life when I was a kid, and I am honored to have this opportunity to pass on the gifts I have gained. I hope that somehow the Pied Piper community will be able to find a new home** to keep making magic, but it will be different without this crumbly old building and its beautiful quirks and history. If Pied Piper’s legacy is to continue — and it can — the playhouse will be shiny and new, but it’s soul will be breathed into it by the dreams of the community that makes magic there. Same genie, new lamp!
I fear that as the population changes, if Inwood becomes another wealthy glass-tower bedroom community, that Holy Trinity Church and Pied Piper — like all amazing moments of Manhattan’s storied history — will make way for the next layer and fade from memory. I can release the building knowing this: the Pied Piper kids are the seeds that will carry the gift forward into new cities and neighborhoods (and little, quiet forgotten church halls) and share with their own children the magic they found here.
March 24, 2017
** Vicar’s note: the future of Pied Piper and its relationship to Holy Trinity is currently being studied by a blue-ribbon task force comprised of members of both the Holy Trinity and Pied Piper communities.