Write to the Point!

A Neighborhood Studios Program at the Mark Twain House

Archive for the tag “Cecilia Gigliotti”

Twain Studios 2013 Anthology

Anthology cover

This is the cover of the 48-page anthology of work by the Writing Apprentices of Twain Studios. You can see the whole thing by following the link below.

For six weeks in July and August, 2013, a dozen teenagers from diverse backgrounds, different schools and towns, came together as a group at The Mark Twain House & Museum.

This group, the newest of the Neighborhood Studios of the Greater Hartford Arts Council, originated with a great conversation between the arts council and Julia Pistell, who is part of the Mark Twain House communications team.

Led by Master Teaching Artist Jackie Majerus, the teens practiced reporting, interviewing and writing creative non-fiction. They learned about Mark Twain, his Nook Farm neighborhood and neighbors past and present and about each other. Lasting friendships formed. They explored Nook Farm and the state Capitol and learned from an array of guest speakers.

The program was called Write to the Point! and the students, who were writing apprentices, called themselves The Jakes, their shorthand for “Journalism Kids.”

The teens, who ranged from age 14 to 18, worked individually and cooperatively on all sorts of non-fiction writing. They wrote a lot. Most of it is on this blog. Much of their best work was printed in a 48-page anthology – their crowning achievement distributed at their showcase last month, where the youth read their work aloud to an audience of family, friends and others interested in the arts.

Besides the written work, and some artwork of the youth in the studio, the anthology also includes many photographs of these wonderful young people throughout their summer adventure. It is impossible to fully capture a lively group of creative young people on a blog or on a printed page, but this blog, and the anthology, should offer a glimpse into an amazing summer experience.

Thank you for taking time to explore this blog and the anthology.  Comments are welcome, too!

To see the anthology in PDF form, follow this link:

 Twain Studios 2013 Anthology

‘Hello, Dolly!’ at Goodspeed Opera House a Total Delight

By Cecilia Gigliotti

Writing Apprentice

Twain Studios

I love theater. Especially musical theater. Few of God’s creations can top the surreal world that allows people to sing and dance their way through their troubles and triumphs. And few establishments celebrate this creation better than the Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam. It’s been around since 1876, and, after numerous lifetimes, has been home to the Goodspeed Musicals company for fifty years this year.

This commemorative season included a special summer treat – Jerry Herman’s 1964 classic Hello, Dolly!

I was fortunate enough to snag a student-rush ticket to the show. I’ve always enjoyed this one, but my school’s band director, who played trombone in the pit, really sparked my interest to come by saying it was one of the best shows he had ever played at the Goodspeed, and he has played many.

Overall, I rank it among the top 10 Goodspeed productions I’ve seen, and that’s saying a lot.

One of the Goodspeed’s features is an amazing ability to fit so many people and so much activity onto a relatively small stage. There’s a ton of action, especially in a high-spirited show like this one.

The two major dance numbers in the second act blew my mind, partly because of the complexity of the dancing, and partly because of the spatial confines in which it was happening. It was a wonder to behold.

I have also always known the Goodspeed for its seamless scene transitions. The set transforms effortlessly from piece to piece, and many set pieces serve as creative doubles for other backdrops. It looks like a snake shedding its skin.

Given that so many productions are slowed down by hauling bulky sets on and off, the Goodspeed’s changes are always refreshing.

And the performances were truly standout this time. All the actors had excellent comic timing.

I can hardly remember a moment throughout the whole two and a half hours when I wasn’t smiling. The ensemble was energetic and synchronized, which is tougher to achieve than one might think. And the woman singing the role of Mrs. Molloy had a voice to die for. I hope my music studies in college will bring my singing ability nearer to hers. The whole cast had the audience hanging on every note.

Hello, Dolly! was one of the highlights of my summer. Catch a show at the Goodspeed and you might grab some of the magic, too.

Distinctly American, Twain’s Style Celebrated the Vernacular

By Cecilia Gigliotti

Writing Apprentice

Twain Studios

Do you speak American?

Mark Twain did. In fact, he is credited with pioneering the presentation of a distinctly American language as literature.

At the Mark Twain House & Museum in Hartford, Patti Philippon, chief curator, and Steve Courtney, publicist and author, had much to say about the forward-thinking 19th-century literary superstar. According to Philippon, Twain’s use of the vernacular – “slangs and colloquialisms” peculiar to certain geographical regions and races – is what makes books like Adventures of Huckleberry Finn stand out.

“It’s putting into words how people from that era sounded,” Philippon said.

Of course, oftentimes people didn’t sound so nice. Huckleberry Finn is defined today by the censorship and controversy surrounding Twain’s extensive use of the racist word “nigger.”

At New Britain High School a few years ago, a teacher in an American Lit class began to teach the novel – but not before closing the door. She introduced the book in hushed tones and told students not to mention it if they ran across the principal. She never said why.

Today, teachers across the state and the nation are working to combat this sensitivity.

Prof. Kerry Driscoll, who teaches English at the University of St. Joseph, is a longtime Twain enthusiast. She taught a summer class on Huckleberry Finn at the Twain House, where she has lectured a number of times.

Kerry Driscoll

Prof. Kerry Driscoll

In her experience teaching the book, two major dialectical barriers have stood in Driscoll’s way.

“At the level of comprehension,” she said, “It’s hard for students to understand.”

Sometimes, it helps students to hear the language rather than read it.

“What I recommend is that if there’s a word or sentence that you don’t understand, say the sentence out loud,” Driscoll explained.  For instance, when the character Jim says “gwine,” what could g-w-i-n-e possibly mean?

“Sound it out,” Driscoll said, and the reader realizes that Jim is saying ‘going to.’

The accuracy of Twain’s characterization through dialect is astounding. Driscoll often asks her students’ opinions on why Twain includes, before the first chapter, a list of the seven dialects used throughout, such as ‘rural Pike County.’

“This is a realist book,” Driscoll said.

In using local dialects, Twain is holding a mirror to the lifestyle of those regions.

The other obstacle in Twain’s use of dialect is harder to conquer. The racial slur, Driscoll said, is what “makes the book so controversial.”

But she said it is key to understanding the “evolution of [Twain’s] own racial attitudes” and those of the times.

A recent edition of Huckleberry Finn in which the word ‘nigger’ is replaced with the word ‘slave’ is “an appalling decision,” Driscoll said. “That’s not the book Mark Twain wrote.”

As a teacher, she said, it is her responsibility to use the word in class discussion and stay true to Twain’s motives.

“The word appears 219 times in the book for a reason,” she said. “I’m going to read what Mark Twain wrote. It’s deliberately ugly, and I want students to hear it.”

Her determination has occasionally come at a cost. A student once complained that she was a racist teacher forcing the class to read a racist book.

But Driscoll has no intention of abandoning her approach.

“There’s no magic cure or fix,” she said, adding that the best teachers can give their students is “background preparation” – the word’s historical context and the obvious differences in tolerance of the word between the 1880s and now. Still, this is sometimes not enough to alleviate the soreness.

There’s been soreness for a while, and for a number of reasons. Since its publication, school districts and libraries in 28 states have banned the book.

But in 1885, public outrage stemmed from the opinion that Huck was not a proper role model for children. People were taken aback at Huck, the “irreverent” narrator, said Driscoll.

Driscoll described Huck as a “white-trash kid [allowed to] tell his own story on his own terms.”

In a pivotal scene, Huck decides to protect his friend Jim, a runaway slave, despite childhood teachings that the act would condemn him for eternity.

“All right, I’ll go to hell,” the boy resolves.

Huck was “a bad boy,” said Philippon, and Twain’s adult readers had a problem with that.

Driscoll pointed out the irony that while the objection in 1885 was not to the language used but to Huck’s offensive behavior, it has only been since the New York City school board banned it in 1957 that Huck’s character is celebrated and the language is found offensive.

The civil rights movement of the ‘60s, Courtney said, was a turning point for the racial slur. That was when it evolved into “a fighting word,” he said.

But Driscoll holds fast to her image of Twain as a “careful wordsmith.” Whatever words he chose, he wanted, she said.

In an 1888 letter, Twain wrote, “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter – it’s the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.”

Lightning can be both amazing and frightening to behold. It is an energetic force capable of destruction, but it plays a necessary role in the ecological cycle, and nature certainly would not be complete without it.

Using his charged language, Mark Twain infused our literature with a little more lightning, a spark that is uniquely American.

Writer Rae Martin, A Young Man of Many Words

Profile interview, Rae and Cecilia

Writing Apprentices Rae Martin, left, and Cecilia Gigliotti, in a peer profile interview.

By Cecilia Gigliotti

Writing Apprentice

Twain Studios

Rae Martin isn’t your average 15-year-old.

I was shocked from the start to learn his age. The description that crossed my mind as I sat down with him is “mature beyond his years.”

He is precocious, well-read, and a realist. In telling me about his school – the Metropolitan Learning Center, a magnet school in Bloomfield – he termed his classmates “not my kind of people.”

But then, it seems, it’s tough to find people who are.

Martin is a writer – a serious writer, banging out one short story and several poems a week. While his subjects have thus far been based in reality, his newfound fascination with George R. R. Martin’s fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire has inspired him to write with a slightly fantastical slant.

He has never really been a fan of the obvious – the Harry Potter series – but he believes today’s consumers might find fantasy more attractive and “entertaining.”

His familial relationships contribute largely to his work. His parents are no longer together, and while his ties are closer to his maternal relatives than to his paternal, they have both played a pivotal role in his development.

Rae Martin 2013

Rae Martin

They taught him common sense, he says. Through their lessons and his own convictions, Martin has come to believe that “while [people] have sympathy for fellow man, what they do … is self-serving.”

He is not religious, but quite philosophical: he often marvels at the way some people float through life without pondering the “deeper things.”

Then again, he acknowledges, in a world of squalor and injustice, some people can’t afford the room in their day to sit and “marinate on the world” for even a few minutes.

Who has spurred him to do some marinating of his own? What literary figures drive this aspiring novelist forward?

“I take a lot of inspiration from Charles Bukowski,” said Martin. In the style of Bukowski – whose 1982 novel Ham on Rye is one of Martin’s favorites – Martin endeavors in his own writing to “keep it real, keep it raw.”

Martin has a creative attitude toward his craft.

“If a poem is a feeling, then a short story should be a scene,” he said. “And a novel should be a whole movie.”

Whatever activities Martin pursues, he always returns to writing.

“I tried very hard to be good at [sports],” he admitted, but those odds always seemed to be against him. Besides, the school is only a decade old: many of its teams are fledglings, and there is no newspaper or literary magazine. I asked him if he has considered starting one.

“Maybe for senior project,” he said.

Martin doesn’t mind all this – he plans to build a life for himself just writing books. He hopes to get a jump start on this path in a couple of years by attending a small liberal arts school – out-of-state would be ideal – but he won’t be surprised if financial conditions keep him in Connecticut.

In any case, wherever he winds up, I am convinced of his imminent success.

The world might just have another Charles Bukowski on its hands in the very near future.

Without Challenges, Cecilia Gigliotti Wouldn’t Be Herself

By Rae Martin

Writing Apprentice

Twain Studios

When one hears of a girl suffering from a rare and debilitating disease, the first thought from an empathetic mind would be one of pity. People jump to the assumption that each and every day, she must either be in physical agony or some form of mental anguish, that she must curse fate and scorn all the gods for cursing her with genetic mutations or exposure to some deadly pathogen. Right?

Cecilia Gigliotti and balloons

Balloons enhanced Cecilia Gigliotti’s fun-loving spirit as a summer Writing Apprentice at The Mark Twain House & Museum.

Wrong. Most people don’t want to be defined by a condition they had no control over.

One extraordinary individual is Cecilia Marie Gigliotti. She is a victim of one such disease, one that many people would be at a loss to spell, or pronounce for that matter; Bilateral Retinoblastoma.

Symptoms of this condition typically appear within a few years of birth, and if not treated, it not only leads to blindness in both eyes, but increases the odds of the individual to develop a myriad of cancers. In short, while it doesn’t directly lead to death, it can still result in a slow, painful, and ultimately nasty death.

Gigliotti’s parents recognized by her first birthday that something wasn’t right with her. Her eyes didn’t follow people when they entered a room and she never took to reaching for objects of interest to a baby.

By age three, she underwent surgery that would save the vision in her right eye, unfortunately only her right eye. Her left had to be removed and is now a prosthetic.

People are commonly referred to as the sum of their memories and experiences. Her set of memories and experiences might equal bitterness and loathing, yet in this case it’s not so.

“If I could see like everyone else, then I wouldn’t be me,” she said. “My whole ordeal has given me an acute sense of how precious life is.”

Her words echoed in my mind a reoccurring narrative among the disabled. The one statement they constantly say in varying ways is that through their tribulations they gain an understanding of how valuable existence is.

It’s beyond disappointing that we can’t all know this without experiencing trauma of some form or another. A life lesson as valuable as that should be known inherently.

‘Lesson’ is not the best term to describe when this truth is acquired; virtue is more appropriate.

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