50th Stories: Phil, West Side Story, and Me

Celebrating 50 Years of Teachers & Writers Collaborative

Teachers & Writers Collaborative will turn 50 years old in fall 2017. To celebrate this milestone, we asked people who have been part of T&W’s work over the last five decades to tell their stories. Writer and director Seth Zvi Rosenfeld remembers the T&W spark that launched him to a career.

The year was sometime in the early 70s. The school was PS 75. I was in fifth grade. I went by the moniker “Bad Seth.” I scrolled “Scorpio 94” on the walls. I was routinely in trouble with my teacher, whom I loved, Mr. Tempel. I had no idea why I was such a troublemaker, I just knew it was fun and I couldn’t stop myself.  My poor mother taught third grade at PS 75 and watched her only son’s burgeoning delinquency from a front-row seat.

Phillip (Phil) Lopate decided that I, and all of the other kids whose shenanigans were driving teachers up the wall, would put on a play. The play he landed on was West Side Story. He details the experience poignantly in his book Being with Children.

Here’s what I remember about Phil and that experience; his face was constantly tomato red from screaming at us. We could never, ever behave. Phil would never, ever give up on us. His persistence and his heart won the day. We somehow put on a show, and the memory of that experience affected me profoundly.

School was never easy for me, but out of school was where I truly had difficulty. As a young person I was directionless, mischievous, and prone to pushing at society’s limits. The experience of putting on West Side Story didn’t immediately change me, but it was anchored somewhere in me. It was a touchstone. It was fun. It was hard work. It was the only time, ever, that hard work was fun.

Mind you, I didn’t even have a part, I was third Shark from the left, but somehow it was something that I could spend my life doing. Wow, what a life that would be! I eventually wrote a play for myself and my sister to star in; however, by time I finished it, I was too old to play the part.

I have gone on to make my living my entire adult life as a playwright, screenwriter, and filmmaker. A few years back, I reached out to Phil to let him know who I’d become. I didn’t have to; he’d kept track of me. He came to my house and we sat for hours talking about life. Two writers.

Tell Us Your T&W Story:
We want to hear your T&W story. Please send submissions—written reflections, videos, images—to 50thstories@twc.org by September 30, 2017. Thank you!


Seth Zvi Rosenfeld is a playwright, screenwriter and director. His television writing credits include The Get Down, How to Make It in America, and Wyclef Jean in America.