|Credit: Suzanne Ford|
Welcome Suzanne! Black Rocks and Rainbows is a historical novel for young adults penned by your mother Susan Riford, a prolific author of children’s books and plays and founder of what is now known as the Rev Theatre Company in Auburn, New York. What can you share about your mother’s personality and her affinity for writing educational pieces of work?
It’s such a pleasure to talk about my mother! She was a woman of amazing talents in so many areas, as well as writing. She was a whiz at designing clothes and costumes, making scenery, editing music (this when it meant cutting and splicing lengths of audio tape on a clumsy reel-to-reel recorder) and a million other arcane skills that were, I later realized, especially impressive in a woman of that era. She was funny, loved to laugh, and gave great parties. She could arrange flowers beautifully in two seconds flat between making an omelet and tying a kid’s sneaker. She was always deeply involved in some gigantic project. When I was just a baby (in the early 50s) she started a little girls’ dress design business named after me: “Sooki Custom Mades” (My nickname is Sooki — spelled that way because she had an assistant who had no idea how to spell it when she was ordering stationery, then there was no time to reorder, so the spelling stuck!). The company became so successful that her designs were featured in Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar, with me as the model, at the age of 3, and we even made a trip to NYC to appear on the Today Show. She at one point had 25 seamstresses working in her “factory” — a converted one-room schoolhouse on the farm near Auburn where I grew up. And this is just ONE chapter in her eclectic entrepreneurial history.
But by far, her biggest love and lifelong passion was working with children and the arts — specifically theatre. She was a “kid whisperer.” There are adults now living and working all over the country whose characters were strengthened and whose lives were forever enriched by her, through being childhood members of Auburn Children’s Theatre. She was a champion of the young mind, and passionate about helping young people grasp their unique individual power through theatre and all forms of artistic expression.
As a writer, she translated that passion into narrative. Her understanding of the mind of Henry Opukahaia is of course conjectural, but it rings true because she recognizes and empathizes with his kind of mind: the brilliance, curiosity, zeal and courage of a young man who can’t help but follow his destiny.
Suzanne, what type of literary works and art forms did your mother introduce you to while growing up?
So many. She and my Dad (also a voracious reader) introduced me to the classics when I was very young — Stevenson, Kipling, Stowe, Alcott, as well as young adult popular stuff like Nancy Drew and The Bobbsey Twins (Remember the Bobbsey Twins? You’re probably way too young!) I devoured everything and was constantly getting in trouble for reading late into the night. My mother loved the fine arts, too, and was a brilliant sketch artist (just her doodles while on the phone were fantastic). We went to museums often, and I studied oil painting at our local museum, which was great fun despite my lack of talent in that area. But the main thing was theatre. She was in love with theatre history and with the traditions of stage acting, and they became my passions as well. She wasn’t an actor — not because she didn’t have the gift for it, but I think because, frankly, she was not narcissistic enough. Instead, she shared and spread her enthusiasm. When she founded Auburn Children’s Theatre in our hometown of Auburn, NY in 1958, it became and remained her obsession for almost 40 years. She designed the curriculum and hired the teachers, mostly experts recruited from nearby colleges. We kids studied acting, theatre history, movement, improv, stagecraft, and make up. Tuition for all of this was a whopping $10 a year per child. My mother wrote or adapted all the plays — many of which have since been published. She did the publicity, printed the programs, and made most of the costumes. And she raised money like a demon, very successfully.
When it began, ACT had classes every Saturday at the Cayuga Art Museum’s Annex. It was a real little theatre with a proscenium and footlights! I remember glamorous old cast pictures on the walls from 1930s community theatre performances. It looked, felt, and smelled like the theatre: magic, romantic, mysterious.
I fell deeply in love with the art form then and there and have remained so all my life.
What were a few critical components in her portfolio of literary works that made her work distinguished among other writers?
My mother always loved writing, but had not started life as a writer, rather a designer. But she made up for it and for most of her adult life studied writing, first in college (Wheaton College in Norton, Mass — from which, many years later, her granddaughter, my daughter Caroline, graduated as well) and later at nearby Wells College, at Cornell University and privately. Almost all of her works were plays, meant to be performed and enjoyed by young people. A hallmark of those plays was the humor, along with the kindness. She was never cloying, but a deep vein of generous good will combined with gentle comedy ran through all her plays. She also wrote short stories, a few of which were published in magazines over the years, but in fact Black Rocks and Rainbows was her first full length novel. It’s deeply sad for me and for the rest of the family that she died so relatively young (just having turned 70), partly because we all realized that with this book, she had truly come into her own as a writer.
‘Black Rocks and Rainbows’ represent the literal beauty of the Big Island that Henry reveres from afar during his global travels and stay in the United States. What memories of Hawaii piqued your mother’s interest in exploring the history of Henry Opukahaia?
Her parents had often vacationed in Hawaii. She had first visited the islands with them in the early 60s and had been captivated by both the place and the people. At that time, she began to study Hawaii’s history and culture, especially its ancient myths, legends and ceremonies. Years later, as it happened, my brother (who also went into theatre as a lighting designer, trained at the Yale School of Drama) married a girl who had been born and brought up in Hawaii, an archaeologist who worked at the famed Bishop Museum. These two connections cemented my mother’s interest and curiosity.
But I think what supplied her strongest motive for writing about Henry Opukahaia specifically was the fact that she had been born and raised in New Haven, Connecticut — where Henry eventually was educated and had created the Hawaiian written language. He had intended to bring it back to his people, and to educate them in the writing and reading of their ancient spoken tongue. Tragically, he died of typhoid in 1818, before he could make the trip, and he never saw his homeland again. He was buried in Cornwall, Connecticut.
Her fascination with Henry’s amazing story began when she and my Dad moved to Maui, Hawaii in the late 1980s. In the course of her research, she made connections with Hawaiian historians and other experts on Opukahaia, and became informed about the ongoing, lengthy crusade to bring Henry’s remains home to Hawaii from his grave in Cornwall and to reinter him at Kahikolo Cemetery on the Big Island, near the spot where he was born. She joined in this effort, which, in 1993, was finally successful. Henry’s remains were brought home to Hawaii, and my mother made a speech at the ceremony of his re-interment. It was one of the great honors of her life.
|Credit: Black Rocks and Rainbows|
Black Rocks and Rainbows recognizes the history and heritage of indigenous people which resonates with the youth of many cultures. Hiapo (Henry) Opukahaia, a Hawaiian boy orphaned as a result of war between two rival island chiefs, decides to accept an invitation to go to America which entails a year long journey leading him to dock in New Haven, Connecticut. What is unique about Henry’s character hosting an insatiable appetite for knowledge which would later significantly change history?
It must have been — in the isolated world of 1807 Hawaii — absolutely unimaginable for a boy with his advantages, first as the adopted son of a king and then as a kahuna in training, to choose to leave everything and everyone he knew behind, to launch himself into a world that was completely foreign to him. In doing so, he was risking permanent alienation from his homeland and its people. But he simply couldn’t help it, because (as my mother imagines it) he was insatiably, irrepressibly curious. And curiosity, as we know from so many examples through the centuries, leads to discovery, knowledge and, finally, invention that can sometimes change the world. There’s a lovely section in one of the narrations I do at Griffith Observatory that is relevant to this concept: “Our cities blaze with light because Thomas Edison was curious about something that once seemed utterly mysterious: electricity. We human beings have survived not because we are particularly strong, or fast, or fierce … but because we are curious. And inventive.” I think this hypothesis is especially true for Henry, whose thirst for knowledge drove him to grasp and embrace the idea and value of reading and writing, and whose natural generosity and goodness led him to create the written form of his native language as a gift for his people.
Because of Henry having created the written Hawaiian language, as well as having influenced the first group of New England-educated Americans to travel to Hawaii, the islands became a place where its history could be written down in its own language, where children could read about their heritage, and where generations could treasure written works that detail and preserve their culture. It’s a gift of infinite value. And all because young Hiapo was curious enough to dive into the sea.
Henry is an adventurer who settles in New Haven, Connecticut where he continues his education by learning how to read and write English. His pursuit of knowledge doesn’t stop there. He desires to translate the written works from English to Hawaiian yet a Hawaiian language doesn’t exist. He relies upon the foundation of phonetics and the works of Noah Webster to create an alphabet-spelling-grammar system which Hawaiians apply in the present day. How was Henry able to transition from a young inquisitive boy into an elite scholar mentored by the President of Yale College?
My mother imagined, and I think it must have been true, that Henry possessed a very strong, charismatic presence. Certainly, he must have appealed to the missionary instinct in these descendants of the Puritans in New England, with their zeal and dedication to learning and discipline. Because Henry had grown up in not one but two very strict, demanding arenas — as a young warrior prince expected to be a brave and highly skilled example to his people and then as an apprentice kahuna required to memorize and perform hours of ancient chants and ceremonies — the power of his personality must have been profound, and his abilities proved equal to it. This strong personality, combined with his prodigious memory, his modesty, generosity and innate curiosity, must have held such appeal to President Dwight of Yale College that he was compelled to take Henry on as his student. Then, as Henry thrived and improved by leaps and bounds, he proved to be worthy of this highly irregular experiment.
What lesson can youths of all cultures extract from witnessing Henry’s tenacity to acquire skills/education in order to improve the living conditions of his local community?
It seems to me, as I’m sure it seemed to my mother, that this story is too vivid a lesson for a young person in today’s world to ignore. In fact, I think Henry can be a sort of guiding example for young people of every culture. Here is this very raw, unschooled, inexperienced and, in our modern eyes, ignorant young man who, in spite of these handicaps, managed to conquer both his fears and his disadvantages through will, courage, determination and (probably most important) the desire to do good. That’s the example and the lesson: if you have the courage to follow your destiny, to do what you love and believe in, and pursue it with your whole being, without giving up, miracles can happen. It’s a wistful exercise to imagine the benefits and enlightenment Henry himself could have brought back to the islands had he lived to fulfill his desire to return there to share his knowledge with his people.
What qualities make Henry unique in a sense that he depicts a ‘solutions oriented’ mindset which led him to give birth to a new language?
What a good question! Of course, we have only a vague idea of the real Henry’s character and qualities, but logic leads us to imagine that he must have had one of those lightning quick, eager, imaginative minds that, having understood something on one level, instantly looks for another tangent or realm or use for it. He fell in love with English letters and words — loved the idea that they are used visually to represent both sounds and physical objects, and then, most amazing of all, thoughts, and feelings. It must have been a wonderful new mental adventureland for him, and his active, voracious mind reveled in exploring it. Then as a natural result of this whole revelation, his mind turned to his own native language, and, realizing it didn’t have the same way to express itself, he decided to make one! It’s so audacious it’s almost funny, but obviously his audacity, and his resolve, paid off.
Are there any aspects of education and culture that are overlooked in today’s society?
Ha! How much time do you have? I think the great gap in our society (and I know my mother would agree) is its paucity of real arts education. I probably sound like an old codger yelling “Get off my lawn!” but it does seem that what used to be a given in our society — the educating of children and young people in the various arts — is just woefully neglected today. And I’m not talking just about subjects like art and music appreciation, but also about those pursuits that give young people the self-knowledge and confidence one can get only from actually pursuing an art form, and understanding its traditions — whether it’s music, theatre, painting, puppetry, singing, dancing, or performance art. I believe that active participation in the arts is a vital element in a child’s full development. As I put it, in my speech a few years ago honoring the 60th anniversary of my mother’s theatre, “So often a timid new kid, getting into costume and makeup for the first time, would suddenly blossom into a happy, confident young person. Because the thing about acting is, it ‘takes you out of yourself.’ Literally. Plus, it’s definitely a team sport! If we learned anything, we learned that in the theatre, other people depend on you. Theatre folks have to work together.”
Learning is the gateway to innovation and changing societies as a whole. What types of risks are the general youth encouraged to entertain?
As far as risks for youth in general, possibly not very many. In fact, I think kids should be encouraged to take more risks — not of course with their health or safety, but with their creativity, aspirations, and imagination. “Thinking outside the box” in terms of one’s purpose in life is something possibly not encouraged enough in our culture in general, although there are wonderful pockets of creativity scattered throughout the world. I realize that’s easy for me to say as a privileged American, but I do believe that letting one’s imagination fly can work wonders.
How can the general youth better apply their power of voice and learning in their local communities today?
It seems to me that the great opportunity now lies in social media. Yes, there are dark aspects of this ever-changing arena, and lots of down sides, which bring risks. But think about this: how amazing is it for a child to be able to write, direct, produce and perform their very own work? It’s miraculous. The technology is there for everyone to use. Through this amazing technology a person can actually instigate change. Every day I see and hear things someone somewhere has created on social media that affect me and slightly (or sometimes greatly) change my mind, inform or enlighten me about something. It seems to me that that kind of limitless creative outlet aligned with and augmented by more classic forms of being involved with one’s community through institutions like libraries, schools, theatres, museums, sports teams, etc. may prove to be extremely powerful.
Suzanne, what was the most challenging part in your roles as the editor and the narrator of the story?
I think I found it most challenging to rise to my mother’s standard of excellence in finishing the writing of the book. I felt that it was an enormous honor and that, frankly, I was a little presumptuous to take it on. But I was encouraged by my Dad, who had watched the book take shape during the last years of my mother’s life, and who was, like the rest of the family, hopeful that in its completion her wish for it to be “out in the world” would be realized.
As a narrator, frankly what I found rather difficult was not dissolving into tears during some of the more emotional sections of the story. Just knowing how my mother felt when she wrote it, and what she was going through at the time, was affecting. But luckily, I’ve been taught by people like Bill Esper and Stella Adler, who managed to train me to channel strong emotion and to use it in service to the story, rather than let it carry me away self-indulgently. Without that training, I would have been a puddle on the studio floor!
What have you learned about the editorial process while preparing your mother’s final literary work for public display?
I already knew this from having been an advertising copywriter, but the process of preparing this manuscript for audio production reminded me: never count solely on your own proofing skills. No matter how many times you read something through, your personal involvement with the words will obscure and conceal "misteaks". (See what I mean?) But seriously, that’s a lesson that bears repetition.
Also, it’s a lonely process. For the audiobook, I did my own editing. But for the print publication I’m really looking forward to working with an experienced editor who has both a feeling for the material and a dispassionate eye. For my mother’s sake, I’d like to make it perfect.
What is the Rev Theatre Company and what role has it played in your life?
How fun that I’m answering that question at this moment in time (mid-July 2021), because The Rev has just emerged from their enforced pandemic lock-down with a truly triumphant opening production of a classic musical: “42nd Street.” Its reviews have been wildly enthusiastic, and I’m so pleased for them. They are today one of the most respected producers of musical theatre in the country, with a state-of-the-art facility and production values, and an Actors Equity company of Broadway-caliber actors, singers, and dancers.
It all started in 1958 as Auburn Children’s Theatre (A.C.T.), providing weekend dramatic classes for local children. Over the years, under my mother’s direction, it grew to a state-wide educational resource for children’s arts education, touring schools and institutions far and wide. Its many divisions encompassed a traveling mobile stage (patterned after medieval traveling theatre troupes), several permanent theatre houses, a clown school, adult theatre productions, experimental play writing and performance spaces, and always extensive training in acting, theatre history, improvisation, movement, pantomime, voice, scenic and costume design, and all the other theatre arts. The Merry Go Round Playhouse, now The Rev Theatre’s summer playhouse, was an actual vintage merry-go-round, renovated and turned into a theatre by my mother and a team of board members and volunteers in 1971. Over the years the organization steadily increased in status and reputation, becoming a full professional theatre company just before her retirement in the mid-1980s. Since then, Producing Artistic Director Brett Smock has done the company proud, developing it into a pre-Broadway house for new musicals, the first of several being a musical version of “From Here to Eternity,” destined for Broadway next year. What began as a children’s theatre in 1958 has grown to become a multi-venue, multi-million dollar operation. The Rev Education Division is now one of the nation’s largest resident touring youth education programs. The breadth and depth of the company’s artistic activities have set new standards in the region and industry.
|Credit: Suzanne Ford with Susan C. Riford|
Back in 1958, as a nine-year-old girl, a little shy but curious, trusting, and enthusiastic, this fledgling organization opened my eyes to the magic and power of live theatre. Here’s a picture of my mother and me at that time. She’s altering my costume for “The Snow Queen,” one of our first productions.
Over the years as I grew up, I continued to act in almost every ACT production. When I went away to school (Kent School in Kent, Connecticut) I immediately became involved in drama there, doing Shakespeare and modern plays, and graduated having won the Drama Prize. In the summers I did summer stock all over the place. I went on to Ithaca College, majored in drama, then studied opera (briefly!) at Eastman School of Music in nearby Rochester, and then moved to New York City where I did tons of theatre and my husband, and I spent many happy years before moving to Los Angeles so I could pursue film and television. Since then, I’ve been a working actor here in Hollywood, grateful not only for my current and recent opportunities, but also for the long ago chance to enter this magical world in such a positive and welcoming way.
Please share with audiences how they can support the works of your mother Susan Riford and yourself.
My two brothers and I have started a foundation in my mother’s name, called the Susan C. Riford Children’s Arts Education Fund. All proceeds from the audiobook of Black Rocks and Rainbows: The True Adventures of Henry Opukahaia, the Hawaiian Boy Who Changed History will be donated to this charity, as will revenue from the eventual hardcover printed version and all versions thereafter.
With this reservoir of funds, however modest or substantial it may eventually become, we plan to contribute as often and as much as we can to the cause our mother embraced throughout her life: the enrichment of the lives and minds of young people through learning about, loving and pursuing the arts.
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