This Is Rutherford
This is Jeff and Gina Statile
By Jennifer Ersalesi
Rutherford is fortunate enough to have a community filled with artists of all kinds Jeff and Gina Statile are two artists who were drawn to this community. For many years, both Jeff and Gina were involved in theatrical productions and now they have both found their own roles as educators of the Performing Arts. This is Rutherford spoke with Jeff and Gina about how theatre, dance and music brought them together and has shaped their lives and careers.
TIR: When did you discover you had an interest in pursuing a career in theatrical arts?
JS: I was fortunate enough to have a thriving community theater in my hometown (Yorktown Heights, NY) that offered year round workshops and produced professional quality productions. My parents signed me up for classes when I was 10. I continually found ways to be involved, be it on stage, or backstage — filling cups behind the refreshment stand, ushering, or assisting backstage. It was a place that got my whole family involved, and introduced me to the world of theater, both on and off the stage.
GS: I grew up in Atlanta and started taking dance when I was about 4. I continued dancing and by high school was dancing almost daily. At age 10 I knew the stage was where I belonged. It was and is my happy place.
TIR: Which college did you attend? Which degree did you earn there?
JS: I attended Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Drama, and earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Acting/Musical Theater.
GS: My path was a bit non-traditional. I put off going to college to get my feet wet teaching and save up for the big move to NYC. Some years later I attended SUNY Empire State College while performing on Broadway and earned a degree in Dance and Theatre.
TIR: Who are your influences?
JS: I have had to learn to be a very adaptive teaching artist, working with grades 5 through 12, including disciplines ranging from creative theater to advanced scene study. The teaching pedagogy at Rosie’s Theater Kids gives license to its teachers to create opening and closing rituals, to engage students through physical commitment and that has opened my eyes up to the alternatives to traditional acting classroom structures. The dedicated staff at RTKids has had a large influence on how I approach an arts classroom and manage students.
So many great teachers over the years have influenced my style of teaching. Starting with an emphasis on truth and commitment, the acting techniques I learned from my professors in Undergrad are the foundation for my classroom teachings, at all age levels. The improv and comedy training I received as a performer at the Upright Citizen’s Brigade Theater was also very influential.
GS: My early influences are the performers from the MGM Golden Age; Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, Eleanor Powell, and Ann Miller just to name a few. Watching the films of that era instantly drew me in. As an educator I am highly influenced by the many teachers I had in my youth. They instilled a strong work ethic and the confidence to follow my dream.
TIR: What have been some of the highlights of your professional career?
JS: I’ve had the joy of performing professionally in regional and New York theater, as well as numerous commercials and industrials. One of my favorite experiences was touring North America with the first national tour of “Scooby Doo”. I was the dance captain and Male Swing, and had the most insane time portraying cartoon legends — Shaggy, Scooby, Fred and the other supporting characters. But, the highlight of highlights was being cast in a production of “42nd Street”, where I earned my equity union card, and met my wife!
GS: Performing in three productions of "42nd St" was wonderful. But my third time in that very show is where I met my husband Jeff. We were 'kids in the chorus' in the Westchester Broadway Theatre's 25th anniversary production. Performing with Jeff on tour in 'Scooby-Doo Live' was such a blast. I understudied Velma and had a ridiculous time playing a cartoon character. To top it off, Jeff was the dance captain on that tour and literally taught me the show. Performing on Broadway in Disney's "Beauty and the Beast" was definitely a highlight. I was once again cast as a swing and understudied five dancers and 3 singer tracks. During my five years with the show I was able to go on maternity leave and return for the closing of the show's thirteen year run.
TIR: Both of you are currently teaching, how do you think theatrical arts education benefits children?
JS: An arts education experience gives a child license to express and create. In a time where much emphasis is put on test results and grades, the non-quantifiable, non-competitive environment of an arts classroom can give every student a voice and opportunity to synthesize ideas. It fosters an environment of respectful collaboration and empathy.
GS: The Arts are truly transformative. Children need to move, to communicate and learn how to problem solve. Theatre and dance teach children empathy and opens their minds and hearts through story telling and team building.
TIR: Jeff, You’ve been a teacher with Rosie’s Theater Kids for 15 years. Lori Klinger, Artistic and Executive Director of Rosie's Theater for Kids, told TIR, "I have known Jeff for many years. He was instrumental in building and shaping this program. Before Jeff came on board and took over the program, it was not as structured as it could have been. He turned it into a prestigious program. I do not know what we would do without him. He goes above and beyond and is completely devoted to the program and his students." What do you enjoy most about teaching there?
JS: I started with RTKids in 2004 and was a part-time drama teacher (I am currently Artistic Director of Drama and the Musical Theater Program at the Professional Performing Arts School). The organization has grown significantly since then, reaching more and more NYC Public School students, while maintaining its core set of values; to introduce students who otherwise would not have the opportunity to be involved in theater and inspire each student to pursue excellence, while instilling a lifelong appreciation of the arts. We have our own building with three studios on 45th street in Manhattan, where our full scholarship students study acting, singing and dancing. RTKids invests in the whole child, offering them tutoring services, ACT/college preparation, numerous scholarship opportunities, at little or no cost to their families. All of our students attend college and it’s always a proud celebration when we get word that a student has been offered a seat in a conservatory program. I recently had the joy of sending one of my seniors off to my alma mater, CMU to study Musical Theater. That was very exciting.
TIR: Gina, you are currently teaching dance in the Garfield public schools. Ali Bellenger, Curriculum Director at Garfield Public Schools, explained, "Gina is building a fine brand new dance program at Garfield MS and HS! Her expertise and talent has provided our students with a the opportunity to develop creative skills they might never have been able to obtain during the school day. We are fortunate to have her come to our district and look forward to seeing our dance program expand." How long have you been teaching dance and what do you enjoy most about teaching dance?
GS: I began teaching dance back in high school at my dance studio where I studied. While performing and earning my degree I taught with National Dance Institute in NYC. The last ten years I was teaching Dance at Snyder High School in Jersey City. I am currently in my first year in the Garfield School district. I am splitting the school year between the middle and the high school in Garfield. Dance is being well received and I am thrilled with starting the new program.
I enjoy my job tremendously so it is difficult to state what tops the list. What I enjoy most about teaching in the public school is that my class gets to be their "safe haven" (the class the students say that they look forward to). I often say that I could not do what my colleagues do. I have so much respect for all teachers of all subjects. However, I am honored to share what I absolutely love to do each and every day. I would be remiss if I didn't include how much I enjoy when the light bulb goes off and I see a student 'get it'. Be it a simple dance step or a creative breakthrough when students create their own work, it is pure joy to witness their success.
TIR: Why do you think it is important to expose children to theater and develop their interest in theater?
JS: There are so many benefits to participating in Theater. I’ll focus on two important ones:
Community: Theater is a group sport. No one can go it alone, and there’s truly a place for every skill set, and interested young man or woman. Theater is a place for creating and sharing stories. Immersing students in a theatrical experience or production is asking them to create new relationships with their peers and to work towards a common goal. It’s an arena for creative problem solving and outside the box thinking. And by working in theater, you learn about patience, respect, trust and compromise. Qualities that any community should aspire to embrace.
Students learn to taking risks: There is inherent demand for risk-taking in a theater class… whether you are asking a student to present a rehearsed piece, or simply come up with a spontaneous idea in front of their peers, for any student this can be daunting. But, by creating a safe space, one in which students can build a trust with each other, they learn to listen to their gut, take risks and, most importantly, to fail in front of others. “Please fail big!”, is what I will always remind my students. That’s all part of the creative contract. I want each student to see where the ‘failure’ takes him/her. The whole class will support them so we can all learn from it. This is such an important muscle for any young person to develop.
GS: Exposing theater to children is not only important for their awareness of others, but for their sense of self. Research states we learn by doing and the performing arts encompass much in the doing category.
TIR: How long have you lived in Rutherford? What brought you here?
JS: We moved here to Rutherford in the Summer of 2014. I think we had a pretty typical journey — Manhattan to Brooklyn to Jersey City to Rutherford. My recollection is that we were taking a detour off of Rte. 17 South, and it put us on the roundabout at the bottom of park avenue. I remember seeing the welcome sign — The Borough of Trees. We decided to drive around a bit, and were taken by the gorgeous tree lined streets and charming homes. We honestly knew within 5 minutes that we wanted to find a home here in Rutherford. We are so glad that we made the move!
GS: We have lived in Rutherford for nearly five years. Great schools, access to NYC and the community vibe had us soon looking for real estate.
TIR: The small community of Rutherford has found and is continuing to find many ways to bring the arts to everyone. Why do you think that it is important for our small town to appreciate and foster the arts?
JS: I would like to see the performing arts become more accessible to the residents of Rutherford. One way of achieving that is to repair and reopen the Williams Center - repurposed as a regional hub for performing arts training and performance. It could house a resident theater company that offers professional children’s theater productions, and arts classes after-school and during the summer time. It could also be a venue for booking touring professionals (musical acts and comedians), offering all residents a local ‘dinner and a show’ date-night option. It has the potential to be a meeting place for all happenings and a source of pride for all Rutherfordians.
GS: It is important to advocate for the arts in our own town not only with education, but through performance. I would love to see more theater in town and would welcome it. Imagine what a community theater in Rutherford could produce? Williams Center anyone?