Third-grade teacher and anti-bullying advocate John O’Neill ’86 is trying a novel approach in an effort to make a difference in the lives of children. With the help of his best friend, Will Rodman, O’Neill started a production company called 4e Productions, and together, the pair created a musical called Letters to Daddy that delivers powerful messages about the challenges kids face.
“I first approached Will because he had the media background as a former executive producer at ESPN, and I had the education background, and basically said let’s merge, so we can help kids become better decision-makers, but do it in a way that they’re being entertained,” says O’Neill, a former business major at Manhattan College. In addition to Rodman and O’Neill, Debbie Cinquemani, creative director for 4e Productions, was also instrumental in the success of Letters to Daddy.
Children don’t respond favorably to lectures, but they love to be engaged and allowed to come to life lessons.
Letters to Daddy centers on the life of 12-year-old Caroline Turner and the struggles she is experiencing with her parents’ looming divorce. The play details the daily challenges Turner also faces from encountering a bully, a teasing sibling, and getting in trouble at school. As punishment at home, Turner is sent to the den to contemplate her actions where she finds a folder of anonymous essays describing painful issues written by the fifth grade students in her father’s class. After reading the essays and talking to friends, Turner gains a greater appreciation for her own life and recognizes that everyone has problems, which gives her a new perspective.
4e Productions first debuted Letters to Daddy in 2008 at a summer theater in Florence, Mass., as a one-person act. The show was revamped with more characters and it debuted again in the summer of 2009 in Orange County, N.Y. Both O’Neill’s and Rodman’s children were part of the original cast, which received positive feedback from both educators and administrators in the audience.
“Children don’t respond favorably to lectures, but they love to be engaged and allowed to come to life lessons,” Rodman says. “The story and characters of Letters to Daddy do that on a visceral level. Children are greatly influenced by their peers, which is why we cast the show entirely with children.”
Since its original debut in 2008, the production has expanded to include a cast of 16 children and has staged performances at schools and venues throughout the Northeast and mid-Atlantic. The show has received positive reviews nationwide, including from the director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, who praised the show in a video message sent to the cast.
“One of the messages in the story is that you have to express yourself, and it points out to kids the importance of expressing yourself,” O’Neill says. “Being in the classroom, I see kids bottle up a lot of emotions and they don’t know how to cope with them.”
Another key message in Letters to Daddy encourages kids to write about their feelings or talk to an adult or friend. In addition, the musical demonstrates how kids have to be resilient by standing up for themselves and staying true to their beliefs.
“Our hope is that it will be licensed by other schools in the country and around the world,” O’Neill adds. “By doing so, it will create better communities throughout the world.”
To learn more about the musical, visit letterstodaddy.com.