a Theater and a Legacy
Story by: Dorian Block
Photography by: Heather Clayton Colangelo
It is a Monday morning in January.
Snow is falling on the Upper West Side and forecasters predict it will continue for another day.
On West End Avenue, in a 12th floor apartment, Sandra Robbins wakes at 4 a.m. to finish some work that’s been on her mind. She then returns to sleep for an hour.
These days, Sandy’s nights are similar to when she had young children. Her rest is disrupted by work concerns and caring for her husband, Dr. Arthur Robbins, who wakes up with terrible leg pain and for frequent trips to the bathroom.
Sandy had a difficult weekend. Art’s blood pressure has dropped very low, and he slept through most of both days. Sandy was not feeling well herself.
This morning, Sandy is feeling better, but she is worried about Art’s health and the snow. The impending storm threatens to cancel school for the next day, or possibly two, which is perilous for The Shadow Box Theatre, the children’s theater which Sandy founded and directs. The theater is scheduled to launch "The African Drum," their first show of the calendar year, this morning, and continue with double performances through most of the week.
"Without school buses, we don’t have an audience," Sandy says.
The theater is expecting 307 children tomorrow and 371 children the next day. Schools pay between $7.50 and $8 per child to attend. The money pays for the actors and crew and for the rehearsal days Sandy has already paid in wages. When a show is missed, Sandy can try to reschedule, but it is challenging with a tight rehearsal and performance calendar and actors with their own second and third jobs to schedule around. Weather cancellations have plagued Sandy for years.
"It’s going to cost us a lot of money," Sandy says, as she mixes powder and water into a fruity flavored vitamin drink – her breakfast. "It becomes a logistical nightmare, a financial nightmare. How to stay alive in this business is not easy."
Sandy showers and gets herself dressed by 8. Before she leaves, she checks her email to see if the theater’s new sound system has been delivered and is in the right hands. She calls Art’s doctor’s office to change his appointment time to get him in sooner. She makes a plan for Rosie, her dog, in the snow. Elizabeth, who cleans the house two days a week, will bring Rosie to Sandy’s daughter’s apartment 20 blocks up, so that Sandy does not have to walk her on the ice.
Sandy must get out of the apartment to make it to show time. She bundles in a heavy coat and scarf.
"Do I have my phone? Where are my glasses?" she says to no one in particular.
Elizabeth helps her locate both.
What would I do without you Elizabeth?" Sandy says and gives her a kiss on the cheek goodbye.
"Be sure you get up!" Sandy calls to Art, who is still in bed and is scheduled to see clients this afternoon.
She heads out, down the elevator, into the snow.
For Sandy and Art, work is life and they are largely inseparable.
Reaching their 80s and facing challenging health conditions has not changed this. They rely on each other and a web of family and paid help to take care of household tasks so that they are able to use their energy to do the work and activities they find meaningful.
Sandy and Art live in a pre-war three-bedroom apartment on West End Ave., which they bought for $39,000 in 1976, during a low of the city’s housing market. Its river views, high ceilings, moldings and oversized rooms are now worth millions.
Their apartment is used as a live and workspace, grandfathered into policies that now prohibit this arrangement. Their apartment sees dozens of people coming in and out during a busy week.
Through their large kitchen is a small office for The Shadow Box Theatre, where on any given day one to three people are working full-time. Down a front hallway is Art’s office and therapy session space.
Art – considered a father and founder of art therapy - retired as a professor at the Pratt Institute at 80. He maintains a robust private practice from fall to spring, also running seven supervision therapy groups (aka therapy for therapists) in their home each week. He has been seeing some of his supervisees for many decades.
Art has long had serious pulmonary and cardiac issues. He has relied on a walker for almost two years and has been on full-time oxygen for about six months, requiring him to be connected to a tank and a tube to his nose. It is a visual nuisance (people assume he is seriously ill), a physical nuisance and results in him becoming more dependent on Sandy.
"Just before every summer everyone thinks I am going to die and not return," he says of his supervisees. "But thankfully I have always come back," He finds himself a more effective therapist than ever, no longer bogged down by self-doubt or judgment.
Sandy was trained as a dancer and a preschool teacher. Through her theater, where she likes to say she essentially "makes puppets dance," her body of work is expansive. She has written over 20 shows, adapted them into traveling shows and puppet-making workshops, written hundreds of songs, conceptualized costumes, puppets, scenery and lighting. She choreographs human dancers and elaborate shadow and 3D puppets of many different styles.
All shows share the common theme that people are the same at their core and that all of humanity and the earth deserve respect. Their settings range from New Orleans to a field in Africa to a generic city street.
Sandy overflows with creativity, but she’s not creating anything new these days. She spends much of her energy rewriting and refiguring large productions into smaller, more profitable traveling shows, managing the theater’s grant writing and reporting, figuring out the puzzle of audience and performance logistics and managing staff. Once her veteran actors teach lines, music and staging, Sandy comes in to teach puppetry and dance to each show’s new cast. She drills on the details and polishes the puppetry of each show to make sure intention is right. Even though she has done the process hundreds of times in the theater’s 40-plus years, it is her favorite part.
Sandy still dreams that her favorite play she has written, "The Earth and Me," will one day be performed in Washington, D.C. for Earth Day. And she hopes that all of her work can be recorded and organized in one place.
This year, Sandy has a grant from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs to strengthen the operation of the theater, including developing a succession or transition plan.
In order to accomplish this, Sandy must deal with the theater’s financial challenges, detangle it from the many in-kind resources she provides and figure out how the theater can run without a director who does it all – writes, directs, fundraises, teaches puppetry, moves boxes – for free.
"Money is so terrible. I would love if it was possible for the theater to continue on beyond me," Sandy said. "We are trying to make this happen but don’t have the answers yet."
While she would like to work less, to take care of Art and to pull back when she too is sick, Sandy is not ready to stop working and is also not ready to give control to someone else.
"As someone who is over 80, the complexity of what happens in the next 10 years is sometimes very overwhelming," Sandy said. "A much more difficult problem to solve than other problems I’ll have to solve. I know ahead of me is far, far from the number of years behind me. I also know if I’m not productive, that piece of my life force will feel abused."
Sandy’s age – 81 – is also the average life expectancy in New York City. Both Sandy’s grandmother and her mother died at age 80, and Sandy held her breath for most of last year, half-waiting for an emergency to strike from a determiner of fate. Now that she has crossed that threshold, she feels more solid on the other side. Statistics support her confidence.
Once a New Yorker reaches age 70 today, they can expect to live another 17 years.
On the snowy January Monday, Sandy arrives at the theater’s home performing space at P.S. 3 in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn.
The school receives free performances for their students, in exchange for giving the theater rehearsal and performance space in their auditorium. Thousands of students from through out all the boroughs come to P.S. 3 (and several other performing spaces) to see The Shadow Box Theatre. A core mission of the theater is to expose children to theater who would not otherwise have the opportunity. The theater’s audience is almost always a majority of students of color.
Sandy’s hair is wet and her cheeks are pink from her commute - two subway trains, too many stairs and about 10 blocks of walking. She rushes to check the set-up before the kids arrive.
Her cast – mostly in their 20s and 30s - arrange the puppets on stage, chat and check their phones. The theater’s longtime musician – Leopoldo Fleming – takes his place, rearranging chimes and triangles.
Sandy learns the new sound system isn’t working, forcing the actors to project without microphones, during this final dress rehearsal and performance for P.S. 3.
When the children file in, Sandy hugs teachers she has known for several years. She talks to a group of children in the front row and rearranges them to make sure the smaller ones can see.
Once it is show time, Sandy always addresses the children and only talks to the adults to remind them how to support the kids – to move so they can see or to discuss the lessons of the shows back in the classroom afterward. It angers Sandy how thoughtless so many people are when talking to children, labeling them as "bad" or making them feel small or powerless.
"Can I have everybody’s attention please?," she calls and the room is silent.
"What you’re seeing is the last rehearsal before we open show and sometimes emergencies occur. Our sound system is down but I know you will all listen carefully." "Life doesn’t always go as we expect it and sometimes that’s the way it is. There’s a saying, ‘you have to roll with the punches.’ Do you know what that means? You have to make adjustments."
"Are you ready to see the show?"
"YES!" the children scream.
"Have fun everyone!"
As soon as the narrator and The Shadow Box Theatre’s signature puppet See-more enter the stage, the children lean forward. Sandy used to play the narrator herself. She designed the role to be like a mother, holding See-more the child, as a way for the children to see themselves safely in the story.
Today’s narrator teaches the children the word "Jambo!" or "Hello!" in Swahili. The kids scream it back several times. Human actors playing animals enter the stage singing and the show begins.
Sandy wrote "The African Drum" after a trip to Africa, many dozens of hours of research at the New York Public Library pre-Internet and working with Leopoldo, an African drummer and composer, on the music. "The African Drum" tells the story of four common African legends including one about how the turtle gets its shell and another about how all of the animals get their colors.
The climax of the show is a moment of theatrical magic: Kijana, a shadow puppet, has been kidnapped by a man. Kijana’s parents, human actors, are looking everywhere for her. Her mother asks the children in the audience if they know where Kijana is? The children raise their hands, scream and squeal, and stand up and point to direct the parents back to her daughter.
"An evil man took her!"
"In a drum!" they yell.
They are captivated and yet still seem to feel safe watching the potentially frightening scene.
"You are holding every child in the palm of your hand and it’s scary but if you let them know that it will be okay, they’ll feel safe," Sandy said.
Sandy has seen this moment hundreds if not thousands of times in decades of rehearsals and performances. Today it is as if it is again the first time. She, too, is standing in the dark at the back of the theater, rocking on her toes, rooting for Kijana to find her way home.
How a grassroots theater grew to serve 30,000 kids a year
Story by: Dorian Block
Photography by: Heather Clayton Colangelo
To understand Sandra Robbins at age 81 (and the values behind The Shadow Box Theatre she created) is to understand several key layers of the history of the twentieth century in New York City and America.
First, Sandy was born in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, in 1933 to two European-Jewish immigrants. Her father sold coats at a department store, but lost his job during the Great Depression and became a taxi driver. He worked the night shift while Sandy’s mother worked as a typist during the day. The family lived in an apartment with two small bedrooms which housed Sandy, her parents, her sister, her grandmother and often an aunt, uncle or cousin who needed a home. Growing up in the Depression gave Sandy a lifelong understanding and empathy for those living in poverty, abhorrence for excess and a distrust of relying on credit - of spending more than she’s had – personally and for the theater.
Secondly, Sandy became a teenager in the 1940s as women were first going to college en masse and working outside the home in professions like nursing, teaching and office administration. As a child, Sandy was a strong student. Finding the right career drove her. She eventually chose to audition for and join what would be the second graduating class of the High School of Performing Arts (the model for the movie "Fame," and now a part of LaGuardia High School). This was a heart-wrenching decision for someone who was raised with dreams of financial practicality and success. After high school, while still dancing, Sandy became licensed as a preschool teacher at her parents’ urging to provide her a way to make a living.
Thirdly, Sandy was married in 1953, at age 19, to Arthur Robbins, whom she met at summer camp. Their marriage was less traditional and more equitable than most of their peers. While Sandy has lived much of her life in the supporting role of wife and gatekeeper to a well-known psychotherapist, Art has kept The Shadow Box Theatre and his wife’s opportunity to have a meaningful career alive, even when money was tight and the needs of three young children high. Sandy had financial security to not take a salary from the theater because of his success and the theater and its staff work out of their home.
And finally, Sandy found her identity in the 1960s, the years when the air in the street felt most in sync. The country and city were alive with fights against injustice and hopes for peace. Art as creative expression and political statement became popular culture. Neil Armstrong landed on the moon, and the country watched it on home television sets. All seemed possible. For Sandy, a dreamer, a dancer, a teacher and a humanist, this was an open door to create.
On February 8, 2015, Manhattan celebrated, by proclamation: "Sandra Robbins Appreciation Day."
The honor was conceived and orchestrated by The Shadow Box Theater’s staff and board. The theater would have a special weekend performance of "The African Drum" and invite elected officials, former staff and supporters to celebrate Sandy, the theater’s founder and director, and the longevity and impact of the theater citywide.
Sandy had mixed feelings about the celebration. Did she deserve this honor? Were people trying to use this as a goodbye when she wasn’t ready to say goodbye?
When the day arrived, former dancers, musicians and performers filled a rows of chairs at the National Theater of Harlem. Sandy’s daughter, son-in-law, granddaughter and husband Art sat in the front. And, at the feet of all of these "grown-ups" was an oversized rug, filled with children, many lying on their bellies, as if they were watching a live show unfold in their living room.
Before the performance began, Letitia James, the New York City Public Advocate, came to hug Sandy and throw her support behind the organization. The theater used to be housed in the Brooklyn YWCA in James’s city council district, and she had been a funder and occasional audience member to their shows.
"Sandy is someone who has taught me a lot about serving children and providing art in the lives of children," she said. "I remember seeing the light in the eyes of the children because it was so mesmerizing."
"I wanted to take time out of my day to say I love you. I adore you. Congratulations."
The proclamation, signed by Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, recognized Sandy for "realizing her vision for an interracial and multicultural theater for New York City’s young audiences" and for having "trained hundreds of performers from all ethnic and artistic backgrounds and influenced the creative lives of millions of children."
There were flowers, hugs and tears. Sandy was touched, overwhelmed and pleased.
The Shadow Box Theatre not only has grass root beginnings, it literally began in the grass.
In 1967, in the middle of the civil rights movement, Sandy and a group of stay-at-home mothers pressured the city to reopen Riverside Park at 103rd St., where it had been closed over safety concerns.
As a part of the park reopening, the mothers began a program for children and their families in the summer.
"Here we were, a group of college graduates without work, and looking for something important to give the city and something to do."
Because of her background as a dancer and preschool teacher, Sandy took the lead, directing the program for younger children. Her daughter Laura, then one year old, was in a carriage beside her, her daughter Melissa, 4, and Michael, 7, were enrolled in the program.
One of the mothers’ motivations was to have parents and children of different races and economic backgrounds interact with each other.
"We were do-gooders. We wanted to make this a community where our children as well as ourselves could break the barriers that came from lack of knowledge of each other," Sandy said.
"I would make up stories and I would make up songs. I’d have kids be active in creating and making the story. At story time, suddenly there were people from all over coming. I’d have huge circles around when I told a story. 60, 70, 80 gathered. It got bigger and bigger."
Story time in the park evolved into a traveling grant-funded music, art and puppet show program on a bus called "The Children’s Caravan" that Sandy and a few other activist-artists would drive from park to park.
"In that period of the 60s and 70s, you could do anything," she said.
The original program evolved into the Bloomingdale Family Program, a still thriving early childhood education program in the neighborhood. And The Shadow Box Theatre was founded by Sandy and a group of mothers who were artists of different types – including the Broadway actor Roberta Streicher and Hazel Froud, a woman who had been trained in shadow puppetry in England. She introduced the art to Sandy.
"The first time I saw shadow puppets, it just touched me," Sandy said. "I thought that’s what I should do, I should make puppets dance."
Puppetry for children – just not shadow puppetry - was the way of the day, with Howdy Doody and Shari Lewis and Lamb Chop at the center of children’s lives. "Sesame Street" still wouldn’t debut until two years after the theater began.
In 1968, a major teacher strike – sparked by racial tensions -- paralyzed the city. School was closed for the first two months of the school year. The Shadow Box Theatre took on a critical role during this time – housing and performing for thousands of kids the first time inside at Ansche Chesed, a synagogue on W. 100th St which gave them free space.
The Shadow Box Theatre later moved to performing at P.S. 75, then Riverside Church and a series of other locations. They were the children’s theater at the Brooklyn YWCA for many years, while maintaining their office and connections on the West side of Manhattan.
Over several decades, the theater has grown to serving about 30,000 children a year. The theater is now housed at P.S. 3 in Bedford-Stuyvesant Brooklyn in exchange for giving free performances to the children of that school. Schools from all boroughs bring classes of kids to see their shows. The theater also brings traveling puppet shows and puppet-making workshops to schools around the city.
On February 9, the day after "Sandra Robbins Appreciation Day," the month turned sour in the Robbins household.
The congratulatory flowers were still alive and blooming. The freshly framed proclamation was on display in the Robbins’ living room. And Sandy stood in her kitchen before dinnertime, talking on the house phone. She was talking to Carol Prud’homme Davis, the theater’s managing director, who helped orchestrate the activities the previous day. While talking, Sandy fell squarely over Art’s walker flat on to her belly and her face. She was lying on the floor of the kitchen, with Art unable to help her up. The office staff ran in.
From the floor, Sandy called her daughter Laura, who happened to be nearby and raced over. Laura, a pediatrician, assessed that Sandy didn’t break her ribs. Sandy slowly stood up. At the doctor a day later, Sandy, used to pushing through sickness and injury, was cautioned that she had a long recovery ahead.
Her pain – more than she said she could have ever imagined from bruised ribs – forced her to focus on resting and caring for herself. There were days at a time when she was stuck inside. This brought to the surface several issues that had been festering. First, could the theater survive without her close involvement? Secondly, could she and Art remain independent when they were collectively so dependent on Sandy’s strength? And perhaps most disturbing, was this a vision of what the future would look like for both of them?
One evening, about a week after Sandy’s fall, Art and Sandy sat in their living room, energy lower than usual. Art ran a therapy group earlier in the day, still on full-time oxygen, but with a sharp mind. He fell asleep for one of the first times during a session this week and the embarrassment was still stinging.
Sandy tried to avoid turning her head side to side and winced getting out of her chair. This made it challenging for her to give direction to Marcus Turnage, one of The Shadow Box Theatre actors, who was being paid to shop and cook dinner for the evening, as he has regularly for the past year to supplement his actor’s wages. Cooking in the Robbins household is a complicated, often frustrating task because of Art’s no-salt diet. Marcus had just gone to the store on a quest for no-salt tomato sauce, but returned with "low sodium" canned tomatoes that are still too salty for Art to eat.
"There is a real awareness of what I do for him that I can’t do. It is very anxiety producing," Sandy said.
"If we both don’t get sick at the same time then we’re fine," Art said. "If we’re sick at the same time, we’ve got troubles."
Sandy is in so much pain that she has been sleeping sitting up in one of the chairs in Art’s office. She is unable to help him during the night as she usually does, and neither of them are sure who could possibly fill that role.
While Sandy is in pain and they are both tired, Art’s mind is on something bigger. In the deep, cold days of late February, he is mourning their days of travel. He wants to plan a vacation and doesn’t know how that will be possible. Even their house upstate – their refuge on a lake in the woods – has been off limits because of the cold and ice. He is feeling trapped, his wanderlust still strong at 85.
Neither Art nor Sandy like cruise ships or large resorts. They tend to rent apartments or houses when they travel but imagine that they will need greater supports. From their living room, at the end of a challenging day, Art reminisces about their trips to Mexico, their family trips to Cape Cod, their trips across Europe, their time living in Japan when he was in the service.
Sandy is ready to skip dinner, take Rosie their dog outside and go to sleep.
"No one is talking about a vacation now," she said. "Let’s get through this first."
"And in one night,
the whole world changed"
Story by: Dorian Block
Photography by: Dorian Block and Heather Clayton Colangelo
Passover arrives several weeks early in the Robbins household.
It is a rare and precious occasion when Sandra Robbins, Arthur Robbins, their three children, their children’s spouses, and their six grandchildren can all be in one place. When the holiday did not fit with everyone’s work, school and travel schedules this year, they moved it up a month.
Preparing for Passover dinner, the Seder, has been particularly stressful, with Sandy still unable to move around well because of her fall and subsequent bruised ribs. Art has had lower energy than usual - sleeping for much of the day - which has been concerning.
Sandy has been relying more heavily on Marcus Turnage, one of The Shadow Box Theatre actors, and Elizabeth, who also does house work for Sandy and her daughter Laura. The two of them shop, run errands, cook, clean and walk Rosie, the family dog, as directed by Sandy. Elizabeth, who is Polish, and Marcus, who is African-American and from Ohio, are learning how to make chicken soup with matzah balls and brisket the way Sandy does.
When the Robbins family arrives, it is a loud, full apartment.
Michael, their eldest son, is a therapist, an artist and a poet. He lives in Boston with his wife Iku Oseki, an artist and art teacher, originally from Japan, who has illustrated many of the The Shadow Box Theatre’s children’s books. Their daughter Miwa, is the family’s eldest grandchild. She graduated from Cornell University and has since taken on the project of building her own "tiny house" outside of Ithaca.
Melissa, Sandy and Art’s middle daughter and the child who Sandy says looks and acts most like her, is also a psychotherapist living in Boston. She and her husband Peter, a builder, have two children, Hannah and Sam.
Laura, the Robbins’ youngest child, has stayed closest to home and is most involved in supporting her parents on a weekly basis. She is a pediatrician in Manhattan. She and her husband Tom have three children: Kayla, Colin and Amelia.
Art and Sandy became grandparents in their late 50s – with six grandchildren born within nine years following. They are affectionate, generous, connected grandparents, savoring their "pitzelahs," as Sandy calls them.
The grandchildren spent time together during holidays at Art and Sandy’s "country house" in Westchester. They also gathered annually in Cape Cod, including one year when Art and Sandy took care of all six children without their parents for a week, attending a mask making workshop and marching in the Provincetown parade together. ("It was a delicious time," says Sandy.)
The kids can all recite lines and lyrics from Shadow Box Theatre plays, having grown up going to see the shows. When Hurricane Sandy wreaked havoc on the theater’s performance schedule in 2012, and paying for the production of "The Earth and Me" later in the season seemed impossible, Miwa created a video and online fundraising campaign to support her grandmother’s theater.
All of the grandchildren are now in high school, college or recently graduated. They are in a stage of decision-making and identity creating, which Sandy has reveled in watching.
Sandy says she is most proud that her children are such good parents. She most looks forward to seeing her grandchildren develop over the next several years.
"They are solid, as fulfilled as can be at the age they are, and I just want to see them fulfill themselves to the greatest magnitude that they can," she said. "That’s something I can’t control. I can only hope."
During the seder the family packs around a long dining room table set up in what Sandy calls her "healing room." Seders in the Robbins household are guided by the traditional book for the holiday, the Haggadah. The Robbins use a version Sandy and her granddaughter Kayla modified many years ago and update over time. Everyone takes turns reading parts. There is often discussion about the relevancy of the ancient story, sometimes heated and often filled with humor. After a while there is a collective call for "Let’s eat!" when the formal ritual ends and the meal begins.
At this year’s Seder, early on, it is clear that something is not right with Art. He is saying things that are not in line with the conversation. His speech is unclear, and he is distant.
Sandy and her children try to manage the situation without making their grandchildren fearful, even though they themselves are more concerned. They begin to make plans for an emergency in case he rapidly gets worse, debating which doctor to go to. They have watched Art face serious health challenges, but for the first time they worry that his brain has been affected.
Art retires to the bedroom in the middle of the seder. The family finishes dinner with tempered spirits. The grown children try to convince Sandy that she needs more in-house help. They are all worried that their father is in crisis.
That weekend, the two older Robbins children, Michael and Melissa, and their families, returned to Boston and the grandchildren returned to school.
By then Sandy’s rib and back pain had disappeared, as she was consumed with trying to figure out what was wrong with her husband. Each time someone tried to tell her that Art "is 85 after all" and that "this" (i.e. senility) might just be what you can expect from the mind of someone his age, Sandy became more angry.
"They say this is what happens when you get old," she said. "Not unless I uncover every stone is this what happens. It happened too suddenly."
Every day, Sandy left another message on the voicemail to Art’s office line canceling sessions with his supervisees and patients, optimistically and vaguely stating that he will be better soon, not wanting to worry them.
Finally, Art’s pulmonologist conducted a test that gave them a potential answer. Art’s carbon dioxide levels were dangerously high. The consequence was in effect a CO2 poisoning that impacted his thought process. The doctor recommended ordering a special machine that would force oxygen into Art’s lungs, a Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP). At first it seemed that Medicare would not cover the cost but after some phone calls it was accepted.
Sandy put the mask on Art in bed, hoping this would be the solution.
"And in that one night, the whole world changed," she said.
Art was back to Art again. He was back to seeing his therapy groups within a week.
Between Sandy’s fall and Art’s lack of lucidity, Sandy felt like she lost six weeks of her life and had been shaken in a way that she never had before.
On her way to her podiatrist office walking on West End Avenue, Sandy realizes that she has not been outside on a walk in what feels like months. She has missed winter turning to spring.
Facing the prospect of having to live without Art, or at least his mind, made her realize how uncomfortable she is with their finances and their files, things Art has always managed. Sandy feels that when she has asked Art, he explains and shows her where things are, but that she will not remember in a crisis because it is still not intuitive to her.
That fear was more manageable than her greater one. Sandy also tasted what it felt like to be without Art, his mind, his companionship, his presence, and it felt shocking.
"When you are older, the inevitability that life is going to change or the way you live your life is going to change is terrifying," she said. ""I have been married for 62 years. To have that person suddenly not there is frightening. It is more than I could have imagined."
As far as the theater, Sandy is more resolved to not let go and continue her work. The theater was mid-show when she fell, and it survived while she was unavailable. Rehearsals are far along for "The Earth and Me," her annual favorite.
Today Sandy brainstorms options for a succession plan. She talks about finding a college program that would take over the theater. She wonders whether bringing in someone to manage finances to complement the theater’s managing director, Carol Prud’homme Davis, would make sustainability more possible. And she does not feel like a decision is urgent.
"I don’t know, but I think it will come to me," she said.
One month later, "The Earth and Me" opens with a run in four boroughs.
It is being performed at Hostos Community College, JPAC (Queens), Brooklyn College and at Symphony Space in Manhattan.
This show is always hard to sell, expensive to put on, and as much for adults as children, but it is Sandy’s favorite and she feels it is a moral imperative.
"The Earth and Me" is an epic tale that takes the audience from creation to contemporary times, through the story of a little girl and mother earth. And this is all in less then one hour.
In 1999, Sandy wrote the play in collaboration with Jeff Olmstead, her musical director at the time, with support from a grant from the National Endowment of the Arts. The New York State Council of the Arts and the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs have supported many of the performances since. Its message is consistent with pressing issues of our times: valuing the earth, humans’ propensity towards violence, the power of people to create change.
On the morning of the last day of performances at Symphony Space, Sandy wakes up before sunrise to fill out individual thank you cards for the theater’s staff and performers. She stops to buy flowers on her way into work. She feels especially appreciative that her staff and cast ran rehearsals without her while she and Art were ill and that they have made it to the end of another show.
Sandy introduces the show, comfortably, off-the-cuff and personally to the children, as she always does.
"This is actually our last show this season of "The Earth and Me." "The Earth and Me" is the whole story of the earth and its relationship to you. So you can say "me!" Let’s hear you all say "me" and point to yourself."
"Me!" the children scream back.
The show opens with projections that could now be done on computers, but whose hand-cut quality and simplicity hold with time. There are hundreds of projections for this one show – from stars and a spinning universe to moving water that becomes home to fish puppets. Dancers stand behind the screen appearing as shadows and then emerge on stage dancing Martha-Graham-esque moves with three-dimensional puppets.
Similar to the biblical story of creation, the animals are introduced in categories. Each of the birds, insects, reptiles and "the four-legged creatures big and small who walked upon the land" have their own scene. The music, previously recorded, is grand and dramatic. It is often ominous and sometimes playful.
Sandy’s love of poetry and talent for writing are clear throughout. An example is in the introduction of humans in the creation line-up:
"And then my child, upon the land, came woman and man…They had fine minds. They learned to speak in many tongues…But then there were some who thought they were so wonderful. They wanted to own me," sings the voice of Mother Earth.
Shortly thereafter, a dark scene escalates to a projection of a mushroom cloud and the animals, previously introduced, dying.
But the voice of a narrator brings hope.
"And then in the stillness, the child promised a new beginning, a new beginning and a hope."
The show ends with the whole cast dancing to the song "Hand in hand we all will stand, through love we’ll bring you peace."
At the end of the show, Sandy thanks her cast and cries in front of the audience.
"I want to say thank you, thank you to all these wonderful performers. And I want to say thank you to all the children who have come to see our show and the teachers and hopefully they take our message home with them. This show is very, very close to my heart. I wrote it a number of years ago not knowing how much at this time in our world we would need it."
Before there was any funding, "The Earth and Me" was a long, free verse poem Sandy wrote for her grandchildren as a gift for one of the holidays.
When the show is over, the actors sit at the edge of the stage in their costumes and children eagerly wait in line to shake their hands, touch them and say hello. Sandy stands at the bottom of the stage holding her flowers and letting each child smell them as they, one by one, walk past.
Opening up the space
Story by: Dorian Block
Photography by: Dorian Block and Heather Clayton Colangelo
After a long winter, which spilled into April, Arthur and Sandra Robbins head to Golden’s Bridge, a tiny hamlet in northern Westchester.
Sandy and Art’s Golden’s Bridge home is their respite. Their house has emerged from winter with no hot water, but the roads have thawed and Sandy and Art are feeling better. They can not keep themselves away longer.
Sandy and Art bought this house nearly 50 years ago, when their youngest daughter Laura was a baby. The house is part of a colony founded by Russian Jewish immigrant communists. Art and Sandy liked that the community was only one hour away by car and reachable by commuter train from the city. They moved there at the same time as a close friend, west side activist and community district manager Doris Rosenblum and her family, who introduced them to the colony.
Today, the trees are bare, making it is easy to see people’s houses that are seasonally hidden. The forsythias are blooming. The homes – of moderate scale - ring a small lake. Sandy and Art’s friends and friends’ children in the neighborhood are long gone.
On a walk, Sandy points out the basketball court, the playground, the volleyball court and the beach sloping down to the lake where her children used to attend camp.
Sandy says hello to the people she sees, out walking or getting into their cars, in the way that you do in a small town neighborhood. She knows who is afraid of her dog Rosie and who isn’t.
In Golden’s Bridge, Rosie, usually a leashed city dog, runs free on the rocky dirt road that rings the colony and the brush that surrounds it. Sandy feels like spoiling her with outdoor time even more this weekend, since they recently discovered that Rosie has a large growth that may be cancerous. Rosie will undergo surgery on Tuesday to investigate further.
The Robbins have had four family dogs. When their last dog Max, a yellow lab, died, Art and Sandy spent two years pet-less. Art was concerned that he could do nothing to care for another dog, given his physical limitations. After an argument one night about something else, Sandy stormed out, and when she came back, Art said that they should get a dog.
"I said, ‘You don’t have to do this just because of the argument,’ but he said, ‘No, no, I have been thinking about this for a long time,’" Sandy recounted. "It was a gift of love. It was very touching."
Rosie had been rescued after her owner died in a tornado. When Sandy and Art saw her, they say she looked forlorn, shy and scared. They quickly became attached.
Rosie and Sandy are now walking companions, particularly since Art can no longer go for lengthy walks. When Sandy lets Rosie off leash in Golden’s Bridge, Rosie seems to know that Sandy can’t chase her and knows to come back.
Sandy is feeling mostly better after six weeks of recovering from her fall and then handling Art’s temporary loss of lucidity. Sandy says she can’t move with the ease that she’s used to, she’s out of breath more easily and her heart has been fibrillating more than usual. She is back to working her near full-time hours.
This visit – their first trip up to the country this year - was a struggle for Sandy to carry all of their things into the house to pack and unpack.
Last year, Art and Sandy built a wooden ramp that wraps around the house so that Art is able to get into and out of the house, which sits on a hill, with his walker. He is still stubborn and sometimes uses the stairs.
The house is surrounded by colorful, human-size metal sculptures that Art welded and small mosaic tiles that are built into the garbage bin and above the garage. The primary colors pop in the green that surrounds it.
Art and Sandy have completed many rounds of renovations on what was once a very small house, and they’ve built out in different directions, adding more windows and light at every chance. The home is filled with photos of their family. There is artwork from their son Michael and from Art, their styles reflecting each other.
Today, Sandy is organizing the medicine and vitamins for the week into a very large pillbox in the kitchen. Art is a few chapters into a book. They are heading out to Chinese food for lunch. It is easier for them to dine out upstate than in Manhattan with Art’s walker and oxygen tank, because they can drive right up to a restaurant and have space to spread out.
They will drive back this evening to begin another work week.
Golden’s Bridge is especially important to Sandy and Art given that the Robbins’ West End Avenue apartment has few boundaries between work and personal life.
For decades, their apartment has been home to Art’s therapy practice down one hallway and to the office for the Shadow Box Theatre down another.
Shoes, coats and umbrellas from Art’s therapy groups are often in piles near the door. When the Robbins’ kids were young they would run through the hallway disrupting everyone’s work. Art recalls how his patients would enter his office saying, "She’s having a hard day isn’t she?" after hearing Sandy yell at the kids.
The Shadow Box Theatre staff would often stay late in the office off of the Robbins’ kitchen, limiting the family’s alone time and pushing dinner into late hours.
As Art and Sandy have aged, having working staff in the apartment has been beneficial, as they have had organic support without having to hire specific help or rely on their family more.
When Raymond Todd, operations manager for the theater, applied for his job, he said he was immediately asked two questions: do you mind working out of an apartment and do you like dogs?
Raymond – who manages the theater’s bookings and office administration - has been critical as Art and Sandy have needed more assistance. They have compensated him additionally as they have needed more support outside the theater, including for Art’s bookkeeping needs.
"If Raymond wasn’t there, I couldn’t work," Sandy says.
"I tend to be available for just about anything and everything," said Raymond. "I do things for Dr. Robbins. I move the car. There are often problems with the computer or the Internet. When she’s cleaning, Elizabeth needs help moving the couch or rugs. Before they leave on the weekends, I help get the gear into the car."
"As far as their entire life cycle is concerned, I’m so a part of it, that it’s a part of my life," he said. "It’s not just a job, and I’m not just a worker. There’s a sense of accomplishment in being able to do what I do for the theater and personally what I can do for them. They are good people."
The final show of The Shadow Box Theatre’s repertoire this season is "Play it Safe."
The show was written more than decade ago with a grant from a parks department on Long Island, which wanted a safety show.
Rehearsals are short – only two weeks – because only one of the cast members is new to the show this year.
"Play it Safe" teaches a list of lessons: how to cross the street, why it’s important not to get separated from the group, that a bicycle is built for one person, to stay away from fire, etc. All are learned through the adventures of a black duck, yellow chick and white goose who live in the city and decide to take a taxi to have a picnic in the country.
June also marks the end of another budget year and prime time for submitting final grant reports.
The theater operates in the way many non-profits do. The theater doesn’t get paid until after its work is already done. This means that Sandy and the staff are regularly spending money that they don’t have.
"Always, toward the end of the season, we worry very much about whether we are going to be able to make people’s salaries and we’re chasing the money," Sandy said. "The grants don’t come in. People came to see the show and paid for it through the Board of Education, and the Board of Education hasn’t sent the money yet. We are always in that kind of circumstance."
In past years the theater has taken out a loan against the grant money they expect to come in. They have also accepted loans and donations from Art and Sandy.
"Almost every year, I have to go to Art and say, we’re in a hard place. He says: How much do you need? And when do we get it back?" Sandy said. "This is the truth of the theater and it’s very worrisome when I get too old to continue doing this. And I’m getting older every minute."
This June, one Head Start program has paid up front for several months of workshops that will take place at their schools in the fall, giving the theater the financial wiggle room it needs to pay staff and avoid taking out a loan for the funds its owed.
"It’s like small miracles constantly," Sandy said.
Carol Prud’homme Davis, the theater’s managing director, is cautiously hopeful that the theater can adapt to financial challenges as it has in the past, as it eventually grapples with how to untie itself from the support the Robbins’ provide.
"Whoever came up with having shows during the school day for this age group, it is an amazing business plan. We just don’t have that much competition. And it is magical every time you go. Then, when we had the crisis with Hurricane Sandy, where we were missing shows, and we started having the storytelling go to schools. That was a whole new approach. As far as the workshops, we have to see what kind of models we can put in place. We have to see how many directions we can go," she said.
In addition to directing the theater and identifying as a lifelong dancer, Sandy is also a healer – leading a weekly group in her home and studying meditation and the use of energy.
When she speaks about her greater life philosophy it is often in these terms.
"Everything we do and say, I believe, is like throwing a stone in the water," Sandy says. "The ripples go way out to the ocean. Our individual power has an enormous effect as it gathers strength from others and travels around the world. As they say, a butterfly’s wings can be an impetus for a storm thousands of miles away. "
Sandy says it is her life goal to "open up the space" in whatever environment she is in.
"At the theater, I teach the cast how to open and send their energy to embrace the audience," Sandy said.
Sandy has also helped train the therapists that Art has worked with around the world in being conscious of the energy created in the therapy space.
This interest began after a defining moment in Sandy’s life when she learned techniques to help heal her nephew who was in a coma many decades ago. It is a practice that she believes complements Western medicine.
These past several months – grappling with her own health, Art’s health, the challenges of keeping the theater alive and the realities of loss that come with age – have challenged Sandy’s energy work.
"It demands that I put together the reality of the difficulties of aging and my whole philosophy of how I live my life. How to maintain this kind of equanimity, and face the challenges that are very real, with this feeling of not judging is very difficult. Once you go into that place of judgment and non-acceptance you can not find new solutions. Somehow, at the age of 81, there are more challenges than as a younger person, more to overcome and to more easily be angry about."
June has tested Sandy’s faith even further. Surgery showed that Rosie does have cancer. The veterinarian estimates that Rosie will live for another six months.
Sandy has ordered an alternative medicine, a micro algae originally used by a Russian doctor treating animals and people poisoned by Chernobyl, to give Rosie, with no other options presented to her to prolong Rosie’s life.
"I can’t even think about it," Sandy says. "I love her."
A Summer of Breathing Easy
Story by: Dorian Block
Photography by: Dorian Block and Heather Clayton Colangelo
Summer has brought a grand exhale to the Robbins household.
On an August morning, sun streams into Art and Sandy’s kitchen in Golden’s Bridge, their "country" home. Art moves from the table to the counter with his walker. He is disconnected from tubes, breathing unfiltered air. For the first time in a year, Art is off full-time oxygen. His levels remained high enough and consistent enough for several weeks, so his doctor agreed he could give it a try. It has been more than a month with no daytime lines.
"Being on an oxygen high is wonderful," Art said. "Not having a damn oxygen cord following me is wonderful. To be able to go in and out of my office without a line following me is wonderful. The trick was: "Follow the green line and you’ll find Robbins."
The joke now feels like something he can smile at.
Art says one of the greatest benefits of being off of oxygen is the relief it has brought Sandy.
"It’s a shift. Sandy isn’t as scared about my wellbeing now that I’m not dripping with oxygen lines," Art said.
"Psychologically for both of us the whole sense of who you are is much more back to normal and that’s wonderful," Sandy said. "It’s like he’s been released."
Art’s limbs and long hands and fingers are still heavy, but there is a lightness to his face, now unencumbered.
"It is rare when you’re older that things improve," he said. "Usually it’s nothing but downhill. This is a real shift up."
This summer – mostly spent in Golden’s Bridge - has been healing, restful and a little too slow for Art and Sandy’s liking.
A highlight was that Art was able to teach at the Pratt Institute’s summer program in New Hampshire for a week, a program he helped start about 40 years ago and something he had missed a few times in recent years. The week in New Hampshire was also an opportunity to spend weekends with their children and grandchildren who live in Massachusetts and come up north to visit.
This summer, with no therapy groups and the space of the country house, Art has also returned to painting, which he hadn’t done in many months. He has been covering large canvases in layers of modge podge and bright, sweeping strokes.
"It’s one of the few avenues of expression that are open to me. I don’t want to write. My days of that are over. I don’t have the energy to take a class per se. So I paint," he says.
Sandy is not in the office in the summer, so she telecommutes. She works on her computer trying to secure the theater’s grants and finances, communicating with her staff and setting the schedule for the fall season. In between, they run errands, borrow books and movies from the library, have occasional visitors and take more naps.
Summers were, at one time, the highlight of the Robbins’ year. They traveled to dozens of countries through Art’s work and always left time to travel with their children and grandchildren. Today, sitting with cabin fever at their kitchen table, they are nostalgic.
"Summers are so different than they had been," Sandy says.
"Oh and how," Art echoes. "We taught and traveled the world and that’s gone. All of that is logistically and mechanically challenging. That needed a lot of flexibility which we no longer have."
"All of these relationships in Europe become less active," Sandy says.
"Summer after summer of creating and drinking and eating with them. Singing with them. All that’s over," Art says.
"If most of your relationships are out of the country that’s a problem," Sandy says.
During the year, the Robbins rarely have time to focus on the social life that they miss but the long days of summer bring a feeling of loss.
"You feel that a lot of people who we meet feel we are an older couple, and we won’t be interesting," Sandy says.
"It’s a whole balancing act of importing people to visit with us which is difficult," Art says.
Every summer Art and Sandy also used to travel to Cape Cod, one of their favorite places. Now the traffic, crowds and hundreds of steps down to the beach seem insurmountable.
In the middle of the conversation, Art stands up to return to his art studio.
"One of the things I have learned is to enjoy the moment more than ever," he says. "All this other stuff is unimportant."
One of Sandy’s tasks for the summer was to set the line-up for the theater’s next year – directing the staff to book space and plan the cast accordingly.
One day in July, while Art and Sandy were in New Hampshire participating at the Pratt Institute’s summer program, the weather was colder than they had prepared for. They wandered into a thrift store to buy a last-minute coat.
While there, Sandy flipped through the racks of old books the store was giving away, as is her routine. She found "The Hundredth Monkey," a story and theory she knew, but has never seen in book form.
The concept of The Hundredth Monkey is a theory of change that a new behavior or idea tends to spread rapidly once a critical number of members of one group adopt the behavior or idea. The thin book that Sandy picked up made the case for using the theory to create more peace in the world.
The book and theory generally made Sandy think about her growing concern over violence in the world – particularly in the Middle East – and what she could do to further effect change. While she and Art are regular contributors to different organizations, she decided to work through the theater, her main mechanism of expression and influence.
Sandy announced to her staff that she decided to reorder the theater’s upcoming season. Typically, the Shadow Box Theatre performs holiday-centered shows: "Lumpy Bumby Pumpkin" and "Tobias Turkey" – their most profitable shows, first.
Sandy says that this fall they will instead perform "Little is Big," a story of a little fish who is threatened by a big fish and then tries to scare the big fish in return. Sandy wrote the show so that the children in the audience help teach the little fish that scaring the big fish was not the right action, either. This show is always followed up by an audience sing-a-long of songs about peace.
The decision came as a surprise to the theater staff.
Their fall finances and schedule had already been threatened by a new policy that does not allow pre-K students to go on field trips until December and allows no child of any age under 50 pounds to go on a field trip by bus. More than half the kids who come to see the theater are pre-K and kindergarten students, easily under 50 pounds.
"In spite of the fact that last year we lost the pre-Ks, Tobias Turkey was still our second-biggest money maker, based on cost and popularity. When Sandy said we shouldn’t do that show, we were looking at the figures, and we thought we should still sneak it in for a week," said Raymond Todd, the theater’s manager of operations. "We are starting in November with Little is Big. Usually we start in October and we are hankering, chomping at the bit for money. Now there’s a further delay."
Carol Prud’homme Davis said that Sandy’s line-up is "exactly right as it should be for the season" as far as the lessons it teaches, but she hopes that next year, they can find a way to do both the holiday shows and the shows with stronger moral messages.
Despite the financial challenges which keep her up at night, Sandy is, more than ever, committed to performing what is in her heart.
Every year, Sandy’s birthday, August 11, is celebrated collectively with her daughter and her son, who also have August birthdays.
This year began with a surprise 50th birthday party for their youngest daughter Laura ("Can you believe my baby is 50?" Sandy says). The party included sleepovers from several of the grandchildren in the days before and after.
Sandy’s birthday itself was quieter. Art and Sandy borrowed the movie "Selma" from the library. Art began reading Harper Lee’s recently released book, "Go Set a Watchman."
"I woke up in good spirits. I even made up a song already," Sandy said over lunch. "It was a very sweet song, but it’s gone."
Sandy bought herself a small chocolate cake to celebrate. Art says planning surprises or shopping for gifts when you have a walker and rely on your wife to bring you places is nearly impossible.
Sandy’s phone rings at least once every 30 minutes throughout the day. Everyone wants to wish her a happy birthday. Sandy matches their enthusiasm.
"I am so happy you called!" she says over and over.
Her cell phone and the house phone ring at the same time
"Can you believe that I’m 82? It’s very hard to believe."
A friend calls from Sweden, and Sandy recites a poem for her that she wrote long ago for her husband.
Sandy’s son Michael calls.
"Do you know who my first call was this morning?," Sandy tells him. "Your daughter! Miwa! She’s very good. She’s an angel. How did you get such an angel? I remember that little bubbeleh when she was born."
Reflecting on 82, Sandy is feeling more vulnerable than she remembers feeling in the past.
"I have felt many more differences this year than I had before. I fell badly this year. We had more emergencies this year. It’s an accumulation of having a raw spot rubbed constantly for a number of years. You get worn down. I’m not sure if it’s a function of age or life circumstances that make you feel drained," she said.
She is also beginning to feel the weight of external expectations of aging.
"When it comes to the loss of your energy as you get older, a piece of it is the way the world thinks you should be, and you give back the mirror. We do that all our lives, in the way people think you should be. Children do it all the time. Why should we think we don’t do it as adults? We reflect back how the world reflects us."
Sandy decides on seven candles for her cake - four candles to symbolize 80, then two for her additional years and one for good luck.
Art sings: "Happy Birthday" to his dear "Sandeleh," patting her on the back as she blows out candles and then goes to answer another call.
Through the challenges of the year, it is clear that Art and Sandy’s marriage is their greatest asset.
They are remarkably strong, loving and honest when they speak about each other.
Sandy tells the story of the first time Art was seriously ill, recovering from heart surgery in the hospital for weeks. Before being discharged from the hospital, Art quietly asked his grandson to clean up his office because he wanted to see a patient when he got home. Sandy was exasperated when she found this out.
"I said, ‘I’m furious. I’m through. I just spent weeks with you in the hospital and this is what you are worried about,’" she recalled. "Of course I wasn’t through. You learn to let your love predominate."
Art says that his increased need for Sandy’s care has been extremely challenging in recent years.
"It is one of the biggest conflicts of our marriage. To cope with needing her in a way I never have before, but not being infantilized and losing my freedom. That’s been a struggle."
Sandy says that as she cares for the now diminished, but once "strapping, powerful man" that she married has been a whole new stage of their relationship.
"When your love predominates, the rest falls away," Sandy says. "You know what to do and how to do it respectfully. You learn, when you really have respect for each other, how to help one another without making the other person to feel helpless."
On her birthday, Sandy stands at the bottom of the stairs in their driveway and winces, watching Art slowly, navigate his way down.
"I’m married 62 years," Sandy says. "In many ways in that period we both have grown enormously. For us, the thing that is most precious in our marriage is we have respect for each other and each other’s beingness. It is critical. For me it is a vital piece of what love is about."
A Rose for Rosie
Story by: Dorian Block
Photography by: Dorian Block and Floor Flurij
The fall brings the Robbins back to their West End Ave. apartment opens another season of the Shadow Box Theatre and also welcomes the Jewish New Year.
During dinner on erev Yom Kippur (the eve of the holiday), Art and Sandy seem particularly at ease and energized by their company. Sandy finished a successful day of auditions to find a new cast for this year’s season. A minor catastrophe (a dropped brisket and all of its juice on the floor) was averted by a re-do from Elizabeth, the Robbins’ part-time housekeeper, and Marcus Turnage, an actor from the theater, both of whom have been helping Sandy cook.
Before dinner, Sandy massages her long-time friend Fred’s shoulders and back, telling him he is holding too much tension. She waits for their youngest granddaughter Amelia to arrive from soccer practice. Sandy beams with the story of Amelia’s brother Colin, who called Sandy to get brisket recipe tips after hunting down a kosher butcher at his college in Ohio.
Tonight’s attendees – Art and Sandy, Marcus, Fred and his daughter Rebecca, the Robbins’ youngest daughter Laura, her husband Tom and Amelia - gather around a long, thin table set with blue earthware.
Sandy lights the candles, recites the traditional blessing and then adds her own:
"May we treat our earth with respect and have peace in our world."
"And somehow we should have a real reverence for life and life force that has somehow gotten lost with what’s going on around the world."
The meal continues with much vocal obsessing over each course: first gefilte fish, then matzah ball soup, then brisket with potatoes and carrots and finally Laura’s apple crisp.
A few weeks later, on an October Monday, Sandy frantically calls her veterinarian.
She is swollen with tears. Her dog, Rosie, hasn’t eaten since Friday and is moving very slowly.
While Rosie has terminal cancer, she had seemed symptomless for months. Just a week ago, Rosie had energetically ran and swam in the lake near their Golden’s Bridge home.
"She’s such a sweetheart of a dog. Somehow she knows it’s her time to go," says Sandy. "She won’t eat."
After three days with no return phone calls from the veterinarian and almost four days since Rosie had eaten, Sandy decides the best option is to bring Rosie up to their house in Golden’s Bridge one last time and have her put to sleep in an emergency clinic there. Sandy cannot bear another day of Rosie suffering.
Marcus, the actor who has been helping them increasingly, changes an appointment he has to bring Art and Sandy upstate.
Marcus pulls the Robbins’ car up to the front of their apartment building. Rosie is so weak she can’t climb up to the back seat on her own.
They bring Rosie to their Golden’s Bridge house and yard to give her one final opportunity to take a walk in her favorite place. Rosie cannot even get out of the car.
While Sandy and Art stay with Rosie at the vet, Marcus digs a grave in the Robbins’ yard for Rosie, right next to where Max, their last dog, is buried.
They made the decision to put her to sleep and bury her in one day.
In the days and weeks that followed Rosie’s death, her absence felt gaping.
"It’s amazing how much space an animal actually takes. Even though Rosie was a very quiet dog and was an easy dog, she was very loving. It’s always amazing how you can feel the absence of either an animal or a person," Sandy says.
"It is what happens when you take an animal into your heart. Many people don’t commit themselves to love. Real love comes with pain."
Nearly a year since we have met her, Sandy has decided that she needs to involve her board more strongly to guarantee a transition to new leadership for the theater.
The year, with all of its drama, has also shown her that she will continue to do this work as long as she can.
Carol Prud’homme Davis, the theater’s managing director, says she has become more patient over the past year in understanding how much work a transition will take.
"I think that Sandy is probably the most knowledgeable person, at least in the United States, in shadow puppetry. I think her legacy is that she is an innovator and a visionary, which to me is much larger than Shadow Box and much larger than a title at Shadow Box," she said. "If we can do what we need to do for a transition, where we keep the integrity of the mission, if we can do that, it will be amazing. Otherwise we just keep working, do as much as we can do as long as we can do it."
Preparing to put on "Little is Big," a show the Shadow Box Theatre hasn’t done in several years, requires weeks of Sandy’s full attention. There are auditions and disappointments when a cast member drops out just as rehearsals are about to start. There is new equipment to be bought. And there are rehearsals to teach the show to an almost entirely new cast.
Bookings for the show, to be performed in November and December, have come in slowly, but Sandy is hopeful more classes will sign on as the school year is underway. The theater’s two-person storytellings and workshops are in process all around the city.
Even though Sandy hasn’t been feeling well, she is as focused as ever during rehearsal. Watching the first full run through of "Little is Big," she stands in the back of the theater and takes detailed notes on her note pad in the dark.
Every time the actors ask for a reply from the imaginary audience, Sandy yells back enthusiastically. When the audience is told they must sing to get the fish to appear again, Sandy sings loudly.
When Kristina Beechers, principal of P.S. 3 in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, both the oldest school in New York City and where the Shadow Box Theatre rehearses, stops by, Sandy greets her like an old friend. Kristina says that the arts and partnerships like the one they have with the theater are definitional to their school.
Greg Alexander, a blues and folk musician, has been working for the theater and Sandy for 25 years. He is now its musical director. During the rehearsal for "Little is Big," he says that every year it is a worry whether the theater will make it, but it somehow pulls through.
As the weather gets colder, Art and Sandy are going to intentionally close up their house in Golden’s Bridge for the first time and not return until spring.
"We need a super who shovels the snow. We need a taxi service," Art said. "I can’t walk on the streets. The need of a car is difficult. That’s a real loss for us. The logistics in the winter are formidable."
Art and Sandy are also facing the likely, and more troubling, long-term prospect that after they die none of their children or grandchildren will keep the Golden’s Bridge house, and it will be sold to someone else.
For both of them, but particularly for Sandy, this is hard. She wants to add a clause in their will that the family can rent the house for five years and then maybe one of the grandchildren, a bit older, will want it.
"You have this house that you love so much and no one wants it," Art said. "When you die, you put the toys in a box, and it’s over folks. They are just toys."
Sandy does not like talking about this topic.
"I can do this (Art opens his palm) and Sandy does this (Art closes his fist)," Art says.
In the coming months, Sandy believes she may have to have surgery to insert a pacemaker, as her heart has been even more erratic than usual.
One day, during a recent medical test, her heart rate was as low as 41 beats per minute and in the next days it could go as high as 110. It was only prevented from going higher because she is on medication.
"I work very hard. I work very long hours and somehow I don’t believe that I need to rest. I also know what is normal for me, and this exhaustion is not normal," Sandy said.
In October, with the news of the prospect of surgery and Rosie’s death still fresh, Sandy acquired an infection, after she had a growth removed from her arm. This seemingly minor procedure landed Sandy in the hospital for several days and left her feeling weak for weeks.
While in her hospital bed, exhausted, emailing, making phone calls for the theater and resting, she was most concerned about Art, whom she hadn’t spent a night away from since her last hospital stay more than two years ago.
"I really can’t leave Art alone. It makes me nervous as hell," she says.
"He’s a rather independent soul. I told him, ‘All you have to do is fall.’ He said, well the phone will be near me. I said, ‘How will the phone be near you?’"
Art refused to have their children or grandchildren stay with him while Sandy was in the hospital, confident that he would be fine and wanting his space. At Sandy’s urging, he allowed Marcus to stay.
A week later, on a late Friday afternoon in the Robbins’ apartment, Sandy is back home.
The fall sun is setting over the Hudson River from their kitchen and living room windows. Art’s therapy groups are done for the week and Raymond Todd is finishing up his work in the theater’s office.
Friday afternoons are typically when Art and Sandy pack up to go to Golden’s Bridge, but this weekend, they will instead stay in the city to rest and regroup. Their granddaughter Kayla is going to come to spend time with them and help them for the weekend.
This afternoon, Art went outside by himself to run an errand. His return is announced by his walker wheels slowly squeaking through the apartment’s foyer.
Art enters the kitchen with a dozen roses balanced in his walker basket.
"That’s beautiful! What are we celebrating?" asks Sandy, her face lighting up. "You are celebrating that I’m home?"
When asked about how he handled the time while Sandy was in the hospital, Art is full of truth guised in humor.
"She was being a pain in the ass. I certainly wouldn’t want you to get more upset, so I had this guy (Marcus) come here who snored as I walked the house. He slept so deeply, if the house was on fire, I’d have to shake him. But if it made you feel better that he was sleeping here, fine," Art said.
"I thought, you know, somehow like a mother, you listen for your child to cry, that he was listening," Sandy said.
"He would hear nothing," Art said.
And Art’s dreaded compression socks, which Sandy takes on and off for him daily?
"He did help. And sometimes I didn’t take them off and left them on. Sometimes Elizabeth helped. I had various people help."
"Good," Sandy said.
"You see, I’ll survive," Art said.
"But you were very glad I came home," Sandy said.
"You are goddamn right. You broke our contract."
Art says that needing and accepting support has been extremely challenging for him, as a man used to independence. When his children suggest getting some type of home attendant, he shrugs it off.
"I don’t need someone there too often. Ninety percent of the time I wouldn’t want them around or near me," he said. "I need my wife in the middle of the night to massage my legs, to put on those damn compression socks. I can still get myself dressed. She has to drive me places. I resent that. It is a constant conflict of dealing realistically with what you need and not being regressed by it.
Thank God, I’m in a profession where I can work and get stimulation and autonomy."
Art says that others have suggested assisted living to them, but he resists it vehemently, largely because they love their lives as they are.
"The whole idea of bingo at 3, movies at 4. No. And then I think about other people who go to the early bird special in Florida. Save me from the early bird special. These are awful solutions."
For now, their informal network of care and continuing their life, as they always had has still worked.
"So far we’ve been avoiding all of these solutions and making the best of it."
The sun is now down. Sandy puts the flowers that Art purchased in water in a vase in their kitchen sink. Art uses a gripper tool to reach some grapes that have fallen on the floor. They are both happy for the quiet weekend together at home.
Art puts his arm around Sandy and gestures to the vase.
"Can you think of a better flower, than a rose for Rosie?"
Sandy begins to tear up.
"I didn’t even think of that," she says.
She leans on his shoulder and gives him a kiss.
Shadow Box Theatre: shadowboxtheatre.org