It’s unusual for a theater director to have mentored young performers in the same school for almost 20 years, and, as a result of that commitment, to garner a cadre of adoring students and grateful, admiring parents.
Simonie Levy has done this through staging dozens of live musical productions, assisted by student stagehands and student technical crews. This is not easy work, yet Levy, known to one and all as “Ms. Sim,” set the bar for working creatively and patiently with kids of many ages and abilities who want to perform. “It was my whole world,” she says, emphatically.
All of Levy’s student shows at AJA were upbeat musicals with expansive casts. For Levy, it was important for each child to have a chance to be on a stage with a live audience.
“Every student may not feel comfortable on a sports team, and some kids don’t even care about sports,” Levy notes. “However, every student who wanted to be in a play at AJA was given a role and a costume. Everyone in a show is an important part of the show’s success. The entire cast is in it together, and kids help one another learn lines and songs, help with each other’s costumes, and have fun together. Being part of a group that puts on a play builds individual responsibility and provides the right team for these kids. The bond of kids in a play is their team.”
For Levy to fulfill her mission of inclusion, she made sure that every girl and boy had significant stage time, even if they didn’t have big roles. She always chose shows that included group numbers and lots of smaller parts so that all the actors were an integral, essential part of the shows. Her innovative approach to dealing with leading roles was to double-cast the leads, giving two performers a chance to star in alternate performances.
Acknowledging the possible long-range impact of youth theater, Levy asserts, “Being in a play is a great way to build a young person’s confidence.”
To this end, Levy used public speaking exercises and theater games, and even encouraged students to write their own plays. She mentions recently hearing from a former student who attributed his abilities as a lawyer as stemming from his experiences in Levy’s productions. Former students, who are now parents of young children, recall their own positive experiences of being in AJA shows, and they thank Ms. Sim for patiently helping them to become better singers and actors over the years.
Levy directed two acting groups, one for lower school students, and the other for middle school students, and she carefully chose plays most suitable for each, weighing the difficulty and sophistication of the staging, scripts, and songs. Her goal was to maximize inclusiveness and minimize disappointment. Levy’s cheerful, supportive personality served as her magic power, ensuring a successful show and happy performers every time. Levy admits that she had to discipline an occasional student, but she always did it calmly and gently, and many parents were sure that Levy had degrees in child psychology or social work!
Levy’s naturally positive personality became unexpectedly necessary when her husband died at the age of 40 in 2008, and she was left with four young children to raise by herself. Suddenly a widow, Levy summoned her resiliency and carved a new path for herself. She became a grief counselor and helped other widows “who had a common need,” as Levy explains. Along with offering individual counseling, she created podcasts and organized social events in which widows formed strong friendships.
Levy started working at AJA in 2002 when her oldest child, Bianca, was in their preschool (at that time, it was named the Greenfield Hebrew Academy). Levy approached the administration and convinced the school to start a theater department. She was the right person to accomplish this goal; it didn’t hurt that, at home in South Africa, Levy studied at the Johannesburg Art, Ballet, Dance and Music School and was a graduate of Trinity College of Theater and Communication in London, where she earned a BA and MA, respectively. She successfully grew the fledgling AJA theater department into one which today is universally respected.
Now, Bianca, who is getting married soon, and her other children, Hannah, Ariella, and Saul, are adults, all starting out on their own. After close to 20 years at AJA, Levy reflects, “It took a lot of hard work to get the theater department where it is today, and I feel that my legacy is to leave the school with a fully functioning theater department. Now, it’s time for me to reinvent myself!”
Levy is stepping into this phase of life with plans to renew her impactful counseling work. When discussing her future and reflecting on the past two decades, she hastens to add, “I have so many wonderful memories of directing shows at AJA. I will always love, support, and be helpful to the AJA theater department. It is definitely at a strong, solid point, and now someone else will be able to step in.”