Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The Theater Chronicles: Pt. 2 - On the Source of My Current Joy

I started last night's blog off with how happy I am right now but I got a little verbose before I made it to my point. I'm almost there, I promise.

"Kids Say the Darndest Things" was a huge success for me. But some of the process of getting there was frustrating. I was working with mostly completely inexperienced actors and actresses. The director had never worked with so many kids nor so many novices. And I was working with my daughter among them. It was difficult and it certainly didn't end in complete success but it started me thinking and sharpened my appetite for teaching. It was never teaching itself that I was uncomfortable with, just the other stuff that goes with teaching in a school environment.

The biggest task with this group of kids was getting them to project. Maybe 3 in our cast of more than 20 got it in the beginning. I hit upon a technique or two that got around a 100% boost in volume out of the kids I tried it on. It's really two variations on the same thing. I tried it first on Shannen at home. I could not seem to get through to her how to speak from her diaphragm. Finally I just socked her in the gut. Not hard enough to hurt her but enough to leave her slightly breathless. In that moment I saw the click. Air comes from there! There was an immediate 50% volume increase as she struggled to figure out how to control that air. There were two problems with that technique. I could get away with doing it to my daughter but I didn't think I could go around punching my cast members. And besides, it made the idea of using her diaphragm click but still left her trying to figure out what to do with it.

After a day or two of thought I hit upon a more effective variation. I stood behind Shannen as she practiced her lines with my arms around her, hands resting on her abdomen just below her diaphragm. As she spoke, I pressed inward forcing just a little air out. As she repeated the line I pressed harder. Her volume began to rise. We repeated the activity five times with me pressing harder each time. And suddenly sound exploded from her. My quiet, mumbling daughter was issuing words that carried through the house. I took my hands off and the volume and resonance continued. By jove, she had it!

My next victim - er, pupil - was a young man of the same general age who was working and struggling to improve his performance. I could see him take director's notes each night and incorporate them into his next performance. He clearly wanted to get better. I pulled him aside and repeated the exercise I used on Shannen. He was a quick study and only took three tries to make the connection. That night I watched him onstage as we rehearsed. He sat up straighter when performing his lines and a few times I caught his arms crossed over his diaphragm. He was giving himself the mechanical push I had used to kick off a vastly louder performance.

I was hooked. I was teaching and I loved it! But there was a storm cloud brewing on the horizon. Shannen was moving into "I know, Mom!" mode. She was mentally tuning me out. And worse, she resented having to do it. My enthusiasm was overwhelming her fun. I backed off for the rest of the play. This was her spotlight and she deserved the space to find out if she liked it. Even though I was itching to push her to give the performance I saw buried in her, I resisted the urge.

Luckily for both of us, my own love of the limelight has dimmed some since my youth. By the time we were done with "Kids Say the Darndest Things" I was worn out and ready for a break. I knew there was going to be a performance geared for young actors over the summer and this time I was going to stick to the plan and only work backstage.

The summer play is "Narnia" and I stuck to the plan. I'm general backstage crew. I'm listed on the bill as properties master but I'm also in charge of sets, organizing backstage crew, and hair. The only time I set foot on stage is when the lights are out or the curtains are closed. Strangely, it's giving me new opportunities to work with Shannen on performing. The "Narnia" directors are a husband and wife team and they're fairly hands-off in terms of teaching but they're asking a high degree of performance from the cast. Shannen is struggling to give them what they expect. Because I'm not in the cast with her it's giving me a degree of separation that makes her more willing to accept guidance and mentoring from me. I'm not as much of a teacher in the formal sense now and yet I'm teaching her more and more.

At first she was only willing to let me run lines with her so that's what I did. As staging progressed, though, she was turning to me for guidance on how to meet the directors' requests. One of the directors would say, "Shannen, your words have to cut through their bickering here. You have to be commanding." Shannen would come to me at a break and want to know how. She would practice the lines and look to me for suggestions on improving them.

Finally a couple of nights ago we left rehearsals with her frustrated and upset because she just wasn't getting it all. When we got home she and I hunkered down in her room and I was able to introduce my peculiar blend of classical and method acting. The Method made sense to her but just as I had found long before, it's difficult to use for a younger actor. The lack of life experience limits the pool from which an actor can draw as well as the depth of that pool. But like many young actors, Shannen is a keen observer of the people around her. If she hasn't yet experienced the profound sorrow to fuel a tragic performance, she's seen people around her experience a much deeper sadness than she herself has felt. I encouraged her to draw not only on her own well of experience but on her observations of others. How did I act when my mother died? And suddenly she was able to portray sorrow with genuineness. In "Narnia" she's playing the eldest boy, Peter. Shannen is the youngest girl in our family, though. By connecting Peter to her older sister, Shannen has taken on the strange blend of bossy and nurturing that seems so natural to an oldest child.

We were even able to draw on other actors' performances in loved movies. Peter leads the Narnian army in the second act. Clearly Shannen has no personal experience from which to draw to command troops or run a battlefield. What she does have is a deep and abiding awe for the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy. With a nudge in that direction she was able to weave together a powerful general who inspired love and loyalty in his troops. She found the voice to shout orders above the din of battle. She pulled up a well-spring of strength to face an overwhelming force in a battle that seems doomed. She even found the softness to connect with her stage siblings in that hopeless moment before battle is joined without losing the edge of desperation and determination.

All that remains for Shannen in this performance is her greatest challenge: to let go and show the happiness and exuberance that she keeps tightly bottled in her own life. It was sadly amusing last night to watch Shannen onstage with everybody else as Aslan returns from death to aid Narnia in the final battle. The other actors were bounding around the stage, animated in their joy. Shannen stood to one side with a stoic (and strangely sardonic) grin barely passing her lips. After several attempts from the directors to get her to "happy up" they finally gave up and moved on with the scene. After we got home I holed up in her room with her again and we tried to find something for her to hold onto in her head to let the happy flow but we never really got close. With each idea she wavered between sarcastic amusement and maniacal glee. We'll keep trying today and every day until we get it, but I'm not sure she's ready to let that wall down yet.
In the meantime, though, I'm having more fun than I ever dreamed possible. Seeing things click for her, watching her improve, learn, and really hone her craft is more satisfying to me than a million standing ovations. And it's giving me dreams again. I'm thinking of other ways I can share this love and passion with other "students." Except students isn't the right word at all. The more I'm de-schooling myself the more I think "partners" is a better word than "pupils." For whatever knowledge I have to impart on young actors, they have as much to teach me. Learning isn't a one-sided relationship at all, I'm discovering.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

The Theater Chronicles: Pt. 1 - Of What Came Before

I'm so far beyond happy right now. When I was a teen I had a career plan. I was going to be a drama teacher. It was going to be wonderful and I was going to ignite a passion in young people. At some point in my first year of college I started thinking about that dream in realistic and concrete terms. I began to imagine not just the awesome classroom exercises I would lead or the public performances I would direct but also the "staff development" meetings I would sit through, the teacher evaluations I would endure. I thought for the first time of those students who took drama not because they had a love of the stage but because it was the class their pencil dropped on in the "fine arts credits" column. I began to wonder how I would grade students who had a great deal more enthusiasm than talent. And suddenly I knew that I wasn't cut out for teaching, at least not in a public school setting. I switched majors to something more practical that I wouldn't completely hate and I shelved a dream.

When I gave up the dream of teaching theater I also shelved being a part of the theater. First I had studies to concentrate upon. Maybe later I would have time for my silly hobby. Then I had small children who needed me. Maybe when they grew up I might have time for my silly hobby. Then I was in a small community and the theater group was probably cliquish and I was shy. Maybe someday I'd get the gumption up to indulge my silly hobby.

In January, my then-11-year-old daughter told me she wanted to try her hand at acting. I can't say I gave it much thought beyond agreeing that she could audition for a play "sometime" if a suitable part came up. She was elated and in her youthful passion she mentioned it to a church friend who happens to serve on the community theater's board. In February my mom was dying, I was driving 160 miles a day to be with her in the hospice then returning home each evening to care for my family. One evening when I checked messages there was one from the church friend. "Hey honey. I just wanted to let you know they're doing the cutest little play called 'Kids Say the Darndest Things' and holding auditions in a week. It would be just perfect for Shannen, don't you think?" My heart skipped a beat. My brain went into overdrive. She HAD to be in this play but how on earth was I going to manage to get her to auditions and help her learn lines while my mother was 80 miles away dying? I was so conflicted. Finally I decided to take her to auditions and just see what happened.

Luck was on my side, sort of. The first day of auditions there was a nasty ice storm. That meant no trip to sit with Mom that day. We slid into a parking spot in front of the theater and both girls and I trooped into a frozen theater. Almost literally. The plumbing had completely frozen. The heat wasn't working. It was cold and miserable. But I was in a theater again for the first time in 14 years and it felt like being home. A sad, shivering group of kids assembled in the front of the house. Two adults besides the director were there. Another joined us later. I helped Shannen fill out her bio sheet. I had a few words with the director. I volunteered to work backstage if needed. It was something my mother did in my early theater years, too. If she was going to have to drive me into town for rehearsals and hang around waiting, she might as well be productive and keep an eye on me. More often than not she served as a dresser, assisting people with quick costume changes.

I sat and watched kids read parts. I'd like to say Shannen was a shining star but she wasn't. She was better than many of the hopefuls with no prior experience but there were plenty better than she was. And then the director pleaded for adults to audition for the part of the host. I watched the dad stumble through a painful reading. I debated internally. I tried to talk myself out of it but somehow my body shot up against my brain's will. I grabbed a pencil from the pile near the bio sheets and I stepped up onto the stage with a script.

Let me flash back for a moment to a time when I was around 12 years old myself. I was an avid reader and frequent patron of the local library. I had discovered an author named Erma Bombeck who made me laugh even though I probably didn't identify with a lot of the humor. On the shelf near Erma's offerings was a small tome entitled "Kids Say the Darndest Things" by Art Linkletter. I checked it out one day and had finished reading it by the next. And then I read it again. And again. I couldn't have told you then what it was in Mr. Linkletter's writing that struck such a chord in me but I knew that he spoke to a very private part of myself. Sure, the things he mentioned the kids saying was funny, but that wasn't what I got from his book. There was something in HIM that appealed to me. It would be more than 20 years before I understood what it was. My point is that I identified with this role. Strangely, in January before I knew about this play I had been watching YouTube clips of the show to try and cheer myself up as Mom's condition wore me down.

When I stepped on stage that evening, some amazing things happened. The first was that my passion for performing was reignited. I hadn't even been aware of the loss until I felt it return. The second was that some part of Art Linkletter came through me as I read his words to my audience. I don't mean in that corny "channelling" way. I wasn't possessed. But that something inside me that had been stirred so many years ago reading the book for the first dozen times came alive and poured out of me. It was a sense of wonder, awe, amazement, and yes, amusement at the minds of children and a burning desire to share that with the world. I wanted people to see the freshness with which the young view the world and to laugh not only at the obviously humorous misuses of our language but at the innocence and yet timeless wisdom of their genuine observations.

I guess I wowed the director but I honestly don't remember much of my performance because I was lost in it. She took a few days before letting me know for sure I had the part but I could tell when I left the theater that night that it was mine. My certainty wasn't because of her behavior but the simple knowledge that it was MY part. I hadn't been acting on that stage. I was sharing myself through someone else's words. Thalia, the muse of comedy, would never let that part go to anyone else.

When I was offered the role I told Dee, the director, "I might as well warn you now. My mom's in a hospice in Odessa and she's dying. We don't know how long it will take but that's going to complicate your schedule." She, in her wonderful way, said, "I figured something like that was going on. Don't worry. We'll work around it. I want you for this part." At the same time, Shannen was offered a role in the third scene as one of the principal interviewees.

Mom passed away a week later. I'm sad that she wasn't able to be in the front row on opening night to see TWO of her girls on stage together. In my more maudlin moments I comfort myself by thinking that she was on the front row in Heaven although I really don't believe that any more than I believe in Greek Muses. I think in Heaven, being with our Creator pretty much eclipses our interest in what's happening back on earth. But since nobody's ever come back to tell me for sure, I figure the possibility of me being wrong is enough that I don't mind the occasional comfortable delusion.