NEW YORK—The founder of the Tony award-winning Vineyard Theatre, Barbara Zinn Krieger, never intended to establish a theater.
Krieger was a board member of the newly developing concept more than three decades ago—when the theater had nothing but a name. Yet her friend, who had the original idea to create a theater, suddenly avowed that she had fallen in love with a pilot in San Diego and was moving there the next day.
She asked if Krieger would take over the establishment of the theater. There were no employees, bathrooms, or dressing rooms; there wasn’t even a building yet.
But Krieger said yes.
It was a seemingly random decision. Krieger holds a MA in speech and theatre from Teachers College Columbia University, but that did not translate to a résumé that would include theater management.
But she possessed the distinct qualities of audacity and openness that compelled her to accept the opportunity.
“I had no idea what I was getting into. I was too stupid to have any doubts. And [looking back] I think that was pretty awesome,” Krieger said. “Approach the world with your hands out and take what life gives you.”
Little did she know, it was a decision that would lead her beyond theater to create something even more unique.
Vineyard Theatre was founded in 1981. It’s a nonprofit company that premieres bold works by both new and established writers, and is home to the Tony Award-winning show “Avenue Q,” and Pulitzer Prize-winning shows such as “How I learned to Drive” by Paula Vogel and “Three Tall Women” by Edward Albee.
But after around 16 years, Krieger became disappointed with the general theater industry and its lack of child-friendly performances.
“I saw that there was nothing for family audiences, and that’s wrong,” she said.
So she created an educational nonprofit Making Books Sing, which turns popular children’s books into theater productions for children. The organization is known for performances that sensitively educate children on social issues such as homelessness, racism, and immigration.
It began as a family-friendly arm of Vineyard Theatre, but after four years it gathered enough attention to stand as its own nonprofit. That’s when Krieger left her 22-year tenure at the theater to run Making Books Sing.
The nonprofit only has two major productions a year, one for younger children and another for those aged 8 to adult.
All its productions are based on books with social and historical significance.
One of its performances last November was a musical about Jazz legend Louis Armstrong.
After World War II and through the early years of the Cold War, the United States Department of State sponsored Armstrong to go on global diplomatic music tours.
But when nine African-American students from Little Rock, Ark., were denied admission to a racially segregated school in 1957, Armstrong refused President Eisenhower’s request to visit Russia.
“He said he couldn’t be an ambassador if his people weren’t welcomed in this country,” Krieger said. “Most people know Louis Armstrong for his legendary contribution to Jazz, but few remember him for his civil rights work.”
Upcoming productions include the adaption of “The Dancing Pancake” by Eileen Spinelli. The book is about a young girl letting go of hatred toward her father after her parents’ divorce.
“It’s real for many, many people having to move and adapt to new circumstances with divorced parents,” Krieger said. “It resonates with today’s audiences.”
Making Books Sing also has a program called Literature and Play, where children choose a book they like and work with their class to adapt the story into a play or musical and then perform it.
Making Books Sing has now reached over 100,000 students, parents, and teachers with its productions. The organization has engaged over 400 public, charter, and private schools and community centers, and trained more than 2,000 teachers in New York City and California to integrate theater into their core curricula.
It has also given performances as well as literacy training for more than 115 homeless mothers and their children.
“For us it’s important because we adapt books. The literacy element in what we do is very important,” she said. “If you had a good time at the musical you want to go read the book.”
[b]Staying Young at 77[/v]
Krieger, 77, is returning to the theater she founded to see through the performance of “Wanda’s Monster,” a musical Krieger wrote that is based on Eileen Spinelli’s book. It will run from July 13 to Sept. 8 at the Vineyard.
“I have complaints, aches, and pains too but I don’t think about them. Forget about it and do something with your life,” she said.
When she isn’t working, she travels to play music with her amateur musician friends. She recently went on a trip to London to do so.
She and her husband have an organ, keyboard, and harpsichord in their apartment. Every year, they travel around the country playing at amateur music workshops.
“If you continue to be in life then you don’t get old. I have more in common with people in their 20s than people my own age,” she said. “I’m in life, I’m in the world. I think people who have a career in the arts don’t retire—If you love it, what are you retiring from?”