When Ann Marie (Gardinier) Halstead ’98 set out to write what she describes as “a little play about kindness,” she had no idea where it would lead. Since then her work, Have You Filled a Bucket Today?, has taken Halstead to Australia and inspired a song on iTunes, a musical, and a streaming production by Syracuse’s own Peaceful Schools. It has created jobs, motivated children to pursue theatre, and given young people their first roles on stage. Beyond that, it has allowed the Le Moyne alumna to work with both old friends and new, and brought her tremendous joy.
She is, she says, “still pinching herself.”
An assistant professor at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Halstead’s foray into playwriting began 11 years ago, when her oldest son, Trey, now 15, was in preschool. The pair read Carol McCloud’s Have You Filled a Bucket Today: A Guide to Daily Happiness for Kids, which teaches children the importance of being kind and compassionate to the people around them, of “filling” rather than “emptying” others’ buckets. As soon as they finished the story, Halstead had two reactions. First, the book spoke to children in a very important way, with honesty and respect. Second, it was a story that was begging to be transformed into a play with vivid characters who were both kind and flawed from whom children could learn. After consulting with McCloud and receiving her blessing, the Le Moyne alumna began writing the play.
Halstead’s time on the Heights may have uniquely prepared her to take on this challenge. The Albany, N.Y., native studied English and secondary education at the College and, while she has worked in different settings since then, she has never ceased being an educator. Halstead’s professors, both within the Department of Education and beyond, emphasized the importance of community, of engaging with and serving others. It “wasn’t just lip service,” Halstead recalls, but something she lived and experienced throughout her time at Le Moyne. Not surprisingly, over the course of her career Halstead has been intentional in choosing material for her students that has at its core a social justice component. Halstead’s time at Le Moyne was also marked by her involvement in the vibrant performing arts scene on campus. She immersed herself in the College’s theatre program, performing in and even directing several productions while she was a student, forging close relationships with other young performers and with faculty members like Barb Karper and Bill Morris.
Looking back, as she reflects on what she has called her “little play about kindness,” Halstead is understandably proud of its success. Have You Filled a Bucket Today? has been performed not just around the country, but around the world. But what means the most to the playwright is the impact it has had on individual boys and girls. Halstead recalls seeing children literally rush toward the stage at the end of a show in order to meet the actors. At a performance by Peaceful Schools, a child with autism who was largely nonverbal called out excitedly to the cast during the show. As she reflects on those moments, she says there is no separating what she learned at the College about social justice and performance what she does now as an educator and artist.
“I gained such a sense of community from Le Moyne,” she says. “This idea that we should serve others, that community is important, that we should engage with the people around us, is something that is heard a lot and felt a lot on campus.
“There is a historical strategist in Richmond named Free Egunfemi whose work I use with my students. She uses the expression ‘a conspiracy of good people.’ That’s what I like to say there is at Le Moyne – a conspiracy of good people.”