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This story was updated at 5 pm on July 6 to insert content that was omitted during final editing.
One evening each month, The Avielle Foundation takes over the theater and a few adjacent backstage spaces at Edmond Town Hall to present The BrainStorm Experience — a thought-provoking speaker series loosely modeled on TED Talks that has quickly become the talk of Newtown.
Conceived as a way to begin engaging the public on the subject of brain health, the series has brought in mainstream celebrities like ABC News correspondent and Nightline anchor Dan Harris; Mean Girls author Rosalind Wiseman; and most recently, NBC and CBS host and journalist Jane Pauley, along with niche audience favorites from Life is Good Kids Foundation founder Steve Gross to Golden Gate Bridge suicide survivor Kevin Hines, and filmmaker Scott Keneally — whose documentary film explores the global obstacle course race phenomenon.
While attendees simply need to purchase a ticket, show up, and maybe pick up some Avielle Foundation merchandise or make a donation to the cause before settling into their plush theater seat to enjoy an hour or so of conversation between the evening’s guest and co-hosts Suzy DeYoung and foundation co-founder Jeremy Richman, planning and pre-production preparation has been going on for months, involving dozens of volunteers, paid technicians, guest handlers, and others.
Dr Richman, along with his wife, Jennifer Hensel, launched the foundation in 2013 in memory of their daughter, Avielle, who was among the 20 first graders killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
And as he explains it, The BrainStorm Experience — an idea first tendered by foundation staffer Ms DeYoung — quickly developed into an effective way to begin branching into public outreach after several years of success concentrating on promoting brain health and related research primarily within the scientific and behavioral health communities.
With four BrainStorm events already in the books, foundation leaders and Production Manager Dave Brooker invited The Newtown Bee to observe goings-on behind the scenes and leading up to their latest presentation with Ms Pauley.
Much like organizers are planning the 2019 BrainStorm calendar now, putting together the inaugural season of talks began in the fall of 2017.
“It almost always starts with Suzy coming in saying she’s heard about this cool thing,” Dr Richman said, “and asking us, ‘do you think it would make for a good BrainStorm?’”
“It was in August, right when we started putting BrainStorm together,” Ms DeYoung said, picking up the conversation thread. “I was already familiar with Jane Pauley’s brain health advocacy, her story about being diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and I knew her from my earlier work in that world of television. So for lack of a better term, it was a no-brainer to ask her to be part of this series. She’s a familiar face to many people, and in its first year, we wanted to bring in at least a few guests that a lot of people know.”
Once the decision was made to invite Ms Pauley, Ms DeYoung accessed contact information and reached out.
“The process of bringing in each speaker is a unique experience,” Dr Richman said. “Somebody within the foundation or somebody someone else knows has some connection to each of these guests. Very few of them are cold calls.”
Learning By Doing
Ms Pauley herself responded to the invitation, agreeing to do the appearance, and then Ms DeYoung went about the business of solidifying a date and planning the logistics.
“I primarily worked with her assistant at CBS to iron out nitty-gritty details like the focus of the conversation, travel time, items she would like in the green room,” Ms DeYoung said. “But long before that, we had a phone conversation. Jeremy and I had a conference call with her assistant explaining what the foundation was all about and why we wanted Jane to be part of it.”
“We’re learning how to do this as we go,” Dr Richman said. “But ultimately, we want it to be really smooth; we want each guest to be excited they are there, and we want the audience to get beyond their money’s worth.”
“Which is why we decided on the way we would do the interactive part of it, offering the opportunity to ask questions,” Ms DeYoung said.
A unique aspect of The BrainStorm Experience involved abandoning the passing of microphones among audience members in favor of a platform that requires audience members to login and pose their questions via texts that are selected and read in real time by Ms DeYoung as she and Dr Richman are engaging the guest on stage.
Staffer Nick Hoffman, who coordinates much of the front of house activities for each BrainStorm event, said right around the time they began organizing the first year of events, some significant data began surfacing from brain research studies that had been funded years earlier by the Avielle Foundation.
“The success of those studies gave us the confidence to dive deeper into the community engagement and education side of what we were trying to accomplish as part of our dual mission,” Mr Hoffman said. “The neuroscience part came back better than we ever could have anticipated. And that’s really when BrainStorm started gaining momentum — as we started confirming Jane and all our other speakers.”
“From there, we developed an official contract,” Dr Richman said, “which was a long way from the first couple of calls when we just said, ‘Hey, what would it take to get you to come and hang out in Newtown for a couple of hours?’ Now we have answers to all the frequently asked questions in one place, and the expectations are very clear.”
Then a lot of work goes into creating the program, marketing, social media outreach, ticket management, promotion, and audience recruitment.
“We dove in thinking it was ten feet deep, and we haven’t found the bottom yet,” Mr Hoffman said with a laugh.
For the Jane Pauley appearance, organizers decided to go with a relaxed backyard patio motif, which they pitched to Production Director Mr Brooker, who is also a local artist who has worked for decades in the entertainment and music business.
“We learned quickly that booking the guest wasn’t the hard part — it was engaging all the planning, from the way we were going to conduct the interviews, to what kind of musical artist or group would perform our show opening theme song for the 2018 series, to how we were going to set the stage,” Dr Richman said. “We were looking for staging that brought multidimensional depth.”
“That’s why we originally brought Dave in, for set design,” Mr Hoffman explained. But when the team learned that Mr Brooker has a wealth of live production and artist handling experience, his role in BrainStorm grew exponentially, Dr Richman added.
“For example, we already had a theme song written and recorded years earlier called “Magic” by Sarah Morris. And we thought we would just play the recording at the beginning of each talk. But it was Dave who suggested we have some type of live performance of the song by different acts for each event,” Dr Richman said.
While Dr Richman says the foundation appreciates all the support they have received to date, The BrainStorm Experience was never designed to be a profit center for the Avielle Foundation.
“We do this because it fits with our mission. We want to do this for our community,” Dr Richman said.
On June 19, the day of Jane Pauley’s BrainStorm talk, Mr Brooker arrived at Edmond Town Hall mid-morning to work with the technical team from DNR Labs and Mack Media to get stage pieces, lighting, props, effects, projections, and sound coordinated.
Then he headed to the front of the house to work with volunteers and Mr Hoffman, who was setting up concessions.
That evening the lobby at Edmond Town Hall also featured an Avielle Foundation T-shirt and merchandise station, a vending table where Byrd’s Books would be selling copies of Ms Pauley’s latest publication — and the Mary Hawley Room off the lobby where the night’s special guest would be doing photos and book signing after the talk.
In between, he took some time to chat with The Bee.
Mr Brooker first met Dr Richman by chance while shopping at Caraluzzi’s.
“I couldn’t help noticing him because he was wearing a green tutu,” Mr Brooker recalled. “So I kind of walked up next to him as a guy would do and asked him if he lost a bet.”
That led to an offer to provide a couple of his art pieces as fundraisers for the Avielle foundation and an eventual purchase of one of those pieces by Dr Richman and Ms Hensel. On the day he went to deliver that piece, Dr Richman asked Mr Brooker if he would be interested in developing a few set pieces for BrainStorm.
“He explained to me the idea, and we came up with some concepts for the set,” Mr Brooker said. “I came to the conclusion that the set would come out well if I imagined it through the eyes of a 6-year-old — so it sort of developed into a cartoony look.”
But as Dr Richman learned about Mr Brooker’s background, he was asked to step up into the role of production manager. Already very familiar with the Edmond Town Hall stage, Mr Brooker evolved to work between the Avielle Foundation and the technical vendors.
“In that respect, it’s nice to see it all come together,” he said. “It suits my skill set very well because I’ve gleaned so many things from my walks of life. I can tell the crew the mood I’m looking for or the vibe. And I tell the crew most of the work is the first 10 or 11 minutes, and then it just rolls on through the end.”
‘Visiting’ With Avielle
With tears welling in his eyes, Mr Brooker confided that while he is always confident each show will be well-handled technically, at the end of each BrainStorm, he seeks out Ms Hensel to be sure it was satisfactory to her.
“Jeremy and I bat ideas around, but then Jennifer comes and just looks at it. She’s not so myopic,” he said. “So when I find her at the end of each show, she always has great constructive criticism to offer that we turn around and improve for the next show.”
He also facilitated the installation of a memorial for Avielle at the Holcomb Hill preserve, so occasionally Mr Brooker said he steals away to that special site to refresh his thinking and creative energies.
“When I’ve told Jen that I’m stuck for an idea, she said to just go up to that bench and talk to Avielle, and she’ll tell me what to do,” he said. “Sometimes the vision is very clear, but other times the vision is not so clear — so I go up there, and there’s something about taking that pause in that place. You know, she will always be 6 years old, and it’s so humbling… such an honor that they asked me to be part of this. I’m so behind this foundation’s mission.”
Although Mr Brooker incorporates “dynamic changes” from show to show, making seasonally themed changes to the set, several things remain constant, including the installation of a faerie, which was among Avielle’s favorite characters.
Since the Jane Pauley set is supposed to reflect a summertime vibe, Mr Booker created an imitation fire pit that crackled and glowed as a projected and animated background of a sunset moved slowly toward the horizon while peepers and crickets quietly chirped.
As he headed back in to the theater, singer Jen Durkin and The Family Band arrived for their sound check. Once the band ran through their take on “Magic,” Mr Brooker shut down the house and changed from sneakers and a t-shirt, to a clean shirt and more professional suit jacket.
With 6:30 pm approaching, he walked the backstage and the house, warning the crew that the audience would be coming in in a few minutes and proceeded to open the house. A half-hour later, the house lights went down, and the magic began.
A week later, looking back on that BrainStorm Experience, Mr Booker said, despite one obvious technical gaffe, the production came off pretty flawlessly.
Ms DeYoung attributed the evening’s success, in part, to their special guest.
“It went quite smoothly in large part due to Jane Pauley not only being a seasoned professional but also a warm, engaging, and easygoing guest,” she said. “It was also wonderful to see such a large and diverse turnout for this event. I’ve heard from people who were grateful for the opportunity to bring family members who struggle with bipolar to an event that offered valuable education and conversation around this issue.”
She added that “an event of this size that attracts such a large and diverse number of community members runs as smoothly as it does in large part due to the wonderful group of volunteers, interns, and Avielle Foundation staff we have working behind the scenes.”
Mr Hoffman echoed that sentiment.
“Seeing so many new faces join us for the Jane Pauley Brainstorm Experience was exciting,” he said. “A media partnership with WSHU has expanded our reach, and the positive feedback from first-time attendees shows we have started something special that people have been looking for. We do these to fill the theater and strengthen our collective brain health — it’s not just a Newtown thing; it’s an every thing.”
Learn more information about future BrainStorm Experience shows, the upcoming Avielle Foundation sponsored Newtown Yogafest, and the foundation’s research, volunteer opportunities, and future plans by clicking here.