Alumni Spotlight: Catching Up with Frumi Cohen

Linda Metzler
On a beautiful, sunny February afternoon, with lingering clumps of wet snow still on the ground from a recent snowfall, I sat down to share a mug of hot tea and some memories with our friend and PMFS icon, Frumi Cohen, whose 40-year Plymouth career left an indelible impact on our community, and to learn more about her post-PMFS creative journey. 
Tell me about what inspired your early creative life.
“I grew up in Havertown, and my dad was very into music; he played the chromatic harmonica and painted.”
Young Frumi started with the piano; her teacher was a family member who was “old school” (read, cruel) and would smack her on the fingers with a pen when she didn't play how he wanted her to. 
“If I was playing Mozart and didn’t know what happened next, I’d just make something up, and he didn’t like that, I guess.”
So, you played by ear? 
“Yes, I guess that’s how I was born. It was easy for me to play that way. I didn’t do well with reading music, and it’s still a weakness of mine."
When did you start at PMFS?
“I came to Plymouth in 1977 after teaching for a year as a long-term sub in a Havertown public school.” At PMFS, tired of the holiday concert formula (one piece at a time, standing in front of the stage waving her arms), a colleague suggested, “Well, you love musical theatre; why don’t you write a musical?” So, I wrote my first one, The Little Prince, in about a week (unheard of because it normally takes a good nine months).
Based on the book she loved, she wrote a song for each character, and it wasn’t very involved; she had never directed a musical. Someone put up a few hanging stars at the back of the stage as a set, and it was a huge hit! As soon as it was over, everyone asked, “What are you going to do next year?", and the PMFS 6th grade musical tradition was born.
She and Ann Alberts (long-time PMFS art teacher before Gillian Pokalo) talked about marketing the school as an arts school to draw more students and families to Plymouth, but the organizational thinking at the time was more in line with wanting the school to be known for academics: “so we just continued to do what we did, and we did it because we loved it.”
It’s interesting that there is still this dichotomy between the arts and academics, as if the two don’t feed and foundationally support one another.
“That’s true, or they don’t both occur in the same person, right? Sometimes, through the arts—theatre in this case, a person who isn’t academic is given a huge lease on life in an arena they normally wouldn’t have attempted to join. They would have gotten lost or been forgotten. Many times, kids were not getting it, and then suddenly this magic happened around us. It happened at different points during the process for different kids, and sometimes it didn’t happen until the week of dress rehearsal. That’s one reason we did it too; we wanted to see that magic every year.”
“You put someone on stage, give them some lines; they don’t have to be who you know them to be, they can channel someone completely different. Like one student in 2003’s A Show of Hands (1996, 2003), seemingly shy in real life, this young actor fully embraced the Southern belle role of Willow. Perfect accent. She blew my mind.”
Musicals would often be performed more than once in her career at PMFS, with themes and roles shifting ever slightly to accommodate the needs and talents of a particular sixth grade class. I asked her to comment on something she once said about her show, Middle School Musical:
“Every class that does a musical has two casts: the role they play in the story and the role they take on in the process.”
“They have their role in the musical, obviously, which is what their character has to do and say, but then there is who they are, and sometimes they were not nice, sometimes they were extremely supportive, sometimes they had talents that we didn't know about, and sometimes they voiced things that we needed to hear as a group that no one else thought of, not even me. Then there's the dynamics they had with people that played opposite them or with them; sometimes they were really shy in real life, but they were able to project that they weren't shy on stage; a dichotomy. I think I was just thinking about dealing with all the personalities of the cast outside of their stage roles.”
You’ve talked about Leif Gustavson’s inquiry-based learning as being an important part of your teaching journey; can you tell me more?
“I used this method of teaching near the end of my PMFS career; it was cool to do group project work where kids had to do something related to whatever we were studying. Some of them couldn’t even get it together long enough as to who would be the recording secretary and who was going to be the leader. They’d say to me, ‘We can’t agree’, and I’d say, go back and figure it out because this is what life is. And they’d eventually do it, which is better than what Congress is doing right now! 
They were able to come up with a project they may have initially had a lot of trouble agreeing upon because of the group’s dynamics, but to me, it was good teaching because it wasn’t only about what the subject matter was, it was about getting along, supporting one another, and coming together for a purpose. I loved that kind of teaching; it made me feel like I was a moderator and not someone standing in front of a class. They learned a lot; I learned a lot.”
I’m thinking about all the shows I've seen of yours; they all possess a moral lens you ask the audience to look through and reflect upon.
I bring up her musical, Persephone and the Fate of Spring, and we both reflect on our limited “learning” of Greek mythology from Edith Hamilton’s summary work, Greek Mythology: Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes.
“Persephone is portrayed one way we all have been ‘taught’, but maybe she wanted to explore the dark side. Maybe the dark side is intriguing, and I thought, I’m going to do that, and it was exciting to explore the characters as teenagers.
It was so cool. The actors would come to the mics in cabaret-like scenes, do their rock thing in the spotlight, and then go back into the story. I was all over that one; I just loved it and felt it was one of the best musicals I did at Plymouth. There was this trio of girls that was so good; they did this tight three-part trio that was beautiful!"
Listen HERE.
We discuss what it takes to inspire kids to sing.
“Students can be inspired to sing if someone draws it out of them and teaches them what to do and how to do it. That was part of the magic; suddenly, the singing would come through, and they’d have this voice that surprised everyone. It happened a lot in different musicals for different people. It’s the combination of training, but also the energy on the stage, the costumes, the lights—when it all comes together, it's a magical thing, that's all I can say. Now you're making me miss doing it!"
When did you write the school song?
“Probably the first year I was there. At the time, we had a school song that was four lines long, and I said something about it, and someone, of course, threw it right back at me and said, ‘Well, you could write one if you wanted to.’ So, I went to the beach with my guitar, and the song was born.”
Tell me about your life after PMFS.
An avid photographer and relative newcomer to painting, Frumi’s art journey started on a trip to Iceland with Gillian Pokalo (Plymouth's former art teacher).
“I've never seen any place so amazing in my whole life. I brought a camera not because I was a photographer, but because while I was there, I was so inspired by the Icelandic horses and sheep in the country that I started photographing them. Icelandic horses are shorter and stockier than our horses, and I couldn’t believe how close to them I could get. They have long, quaffed manes, and they're just beautiful. They live everywhere on the island and are not totally wild but roam in large, enclosed areas where they aren’t bridled unless being ridden.”
Now experimenting with oil painting, Frumi has also taken drawing classes, where she initially felt like quitting. Sticking with it, she got better, so she understands exactly what it feels like for a new student to start something new and how easy it would be to let it go if you don’t feel good at it right away. She’s glad she didn’t quit! She initially thought music was her only thing and is sometimes shocked at what she can now create through different mediums.
We walk through her studio, and she shows me some evolving charcoal and pencil sketches of dragons she recently drew. We stop at an easel where an oil painting in progress is backlit by her sunlit yard. She explains that she is painting it from a photograph and that her teacher is getting her to explore shades of color and the timing of placing each element in the painting. She explains that evoking mist and reflections in a painting is both lovely and challenging. 
Asked about any similarities between painting and photography, she reflected that both are, not surprisingly, connected; each requires the eye to respond to color and light. (Also, mist is as lovely to photograph as it is to paint!) We talk about specific photos and her process. Hearing an owl in flight and being able to “see” it when the camera’s ISO is turned up, along with post shoot digital processing to capture the exact image you want, renders photos that sometimes resemble oil paintings. It’s all part of the process.
Does she have a favorite place to photograph birds? No, but you need patience and timing. Recently, someone posted that Harlequin ducks had been spotted at Barnegat Light; so, she drove to NJ on the lookout, but no Harlequins. The running joke was that they were all at Super Bowl parties! A return trip on another day, and the shot was made. Patience and timing. Kind of like teaching and directing a show…
I bring up her musical, The Power of One, and how I’ve been thinking about it a lot since war erupted in Israel and Gaza. In the show, based on a true story and intentionally set in PA, a town is forever changed by one young girl’s steadfast effort to rebuild a community after one act of hate tears it apart. The show was performed twice (2000 and 2012) during Frumi’s PMFS career, and we both remembered the year Tammy Schnitzer (the mom whose family was targeted) came to the show after PMFS alumna Maya Rabinowitz connected with her. Frumi recalled the huge impact Tammy’s story had on the entire cast after sharing it with them in person.
Click HERE to view a short video about The Power of One.
Our conversation about the show prompted Frumi to share a painting she recently created in response to the Gaza/Israel war. Inspired to do it strictly from her imagination and without copy art, “Cast Adrift", depicts a small, bedraggled puppy on a partially submerged raft, alone with one tiny satchel, back to the viewer, adrift on a white-capped blue sea with arching waves, facing the receding shoreline—a golden and opulent city skyline. Seeing her powerful painting, my eyes welled with tears and a deep sadness came over me. Frumi explained that as the artist, it isn’t clear to her if the dog (depicting her soul, my soul, and everyone’s soul) is coming or going, or whether he is thinking about what could have been or what might yet be. Wanting to land on a safe shore. This painting was a first, as she hasn’t typically used her visual art to comment on political situations, and yet she now finds herself with enough skill to successfully render it. 
What was it about Plymouth that made you stay?
“Creativity. I was at PMFS for 40 years, and I never thought about leaving. It is amazing that I stayed in one place. I loved it. I loved being there. Nobody gave me a curriculum to do; nobody said I had to do this or that. I had to determine it for myself, and the shows were dreamed up because I was supported in creating my own music. I never wrote music before Plymouth except for singer-songwriter pieces.”
Longing and belonging are inescapable themes in much of Frumi’s art, no matter if her medium is a musical, a photo, or a painting. Whether through recollections of her time at Plymouth, her current work, or a wish for all our futures, one thing is certain: Frumi Cohen will continue to create and bring her gentle yet persistent artistic nudging of, “What if there’s a different way, a different view, another course of action?” to our world. And we are all the better for it.
 “So, the lights come up on this year’s sixth grade as they revel in their accomplishments, hard work, new skills, and newfound confidence. And, in the end, of course, there is the applause. But that’s not what stays with me, not why I do this year after year. It’s the memory of that bright light shining on all that teamwork and all that self-discovery and growth that plays in my mind long after the lights fade to black.” Frumi Cohen, “Journal of a Middle School Musical.”.
To see more photographs from Frumi, click HERE.
Artist, playwright and songwriter, Frumi Cohen, taught at Plymouth Meeting Friends School for 40 years where she wrote and directed shows for the 6th grade every year. Frumi's shows have been produced by numerous community and professional theaters across the country (including The Philadelphia Theater Workshop upstairs at The Walnut Street Theater, The Hedgerow Theater and The York Little Theater) and several have been published by national theater presses. A Show of Hands was performed at the 13th Street Theater Off Off Broadway. Her musical, Frankenteen, won third prize in Columbia Entertainment’s 1993 National Children’s Playwriting Competition.
Read more about Frumi HERE.

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