The Contagious Effect of Possibilities

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“We can do that?”

This was the daily question during the rehearsal process of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Nease High School last year, directed by CI’s co-artistic director, Chris Beaulieu.

This question popped up in the room so effortlessly that I thought the students might be mocking us. But looking into their eyes I could see amazement, fear, and excitement swirling together as their brains ran to catch up. This was no joke. They were shocked they were given free rein to… be.

Be loud, be daring, be silly, be responsible, be audacious, be scared, be honest, BE. That was the sole requirement from the first day of auditions—be fully present and the rest will take care of itself.

The question was never a statement of “We can’t do that.” Which made me thankful for both the passion of the students and the self-awareness of the teacher to have not squashed that out of them. Even though our directing style was 180º different from the teacher’s, in her heart she was a champion for the students and it showed.

Once “We can do that?” was vocalized there was the peer ripple effect. Even though the question was first directed at Chris or me, after a few weeks the ensemble would start to answer it either by saying “Yes!” to the actor or, even better, physically doing it before anyone could answer.

The fact that this was happening without shaming or sarcasm in a mixed age/skill level high school was astonishing… and lovely. “What will spark that question today?” Chris and I wondered. “Where will their boundaries be within this scene or skill workshop?”

Some days I would forget about it all together. But it consistently came up even, astonishingly so, during the run of the play. When Chris kept questioning them on audience participation or tempo or new contact improvisation inspire blocking… “We can do that?” they’d ask smiling mischievously.  YES!  PLEASE!

This is a reflection on contagious energy, invention, and excitement. This was feeding us, as directors/teachers, and we were feeding them, as actors/students. They pushed us to walk the walk of process over product… where we were asking each other “We can do that?”

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For example, final dress rehearsal was a flop. It was as if watching the play performed by body snatchers—they looked like the actors we knew but felt like mere shadows of themselves. They had reverted to habits of false, broad performance tactics. That morning, Chris knew an earlier call was needed to regroup… but how? Not to give more notes, or drill them. Something core had been lost. Being present.

1… 2… 3…

What do we do to tackle such a fundamental issue on opening night?  An authority clown exercise called “1-2-3” but was too nervous to suggest it.

“We can do that?” I asked, “On opening night? Couldn’t that go off the rails? It’s extremely difficult exercise plus potentially too abstract to apply an hour or so later during the performance.”

“Yes,” said Chris, “but it’s what they need to learn for the show to make sense to them.”  We had to take that risk and do our best to guide it towards a success.

In a nutshell, the exercise goes like this:  There’s an empty stage with only a chair on one side and a piece of paper on the other. The ‘plot’ is to get up, go stand on the paper and then go sit in the chair. Done. BUT, you have to announce anything and everything you do before you do it and count to three. So, to even start the game someone must announce, “I’m going to stand up. 1-2-3.” And then stand.

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Inside this game is the Authority, played by Chris, whose job is to be a catalyst for the scene. I stay in the audience reminding the actor to breath, say yes, keep checking in with the audience, remember their goal, etc.

The true goal is to own everything one puts forth on stage (nervous gestures, mistakes, personality) as a gift for the audience. The ‘plot’ is a red herring, a simple sketch from here to there in order to have somewhere to go. The Authority is there to remind the actor of that fact.

This game can be hilarious or touching and many times quite insane (borderline scary—usually with adults more than kids because of many adults’ need for control and rage at ‘being made a fool of.’  You can only imagine the insanity doing this exercise in a room full of teachers.  Hello!).

The Authority does not take “No” lightly, as it denies opportunity instead of embracing it. So when the Authority calls an actor out on their nervous twitching, “Are you going to keep fixing your pants 1-2-3?! Why not sing us all a song on how ill fitting your pants are?” The actor better say yes… thus entertaining the audience, which entertains the Authority.

(Side note, I’ve seen Chris lock people out of conference rooms when they’ve been so hell bent on sitting in the chair, railroading past playful opportunities and acknowledging the audience… Sometimes it’s funny, sometimes uncomfortable but the point is always clear: Forgot about the audience?  Need the goal more than the play?  Then get off the stage.)

All this to say… we were nervous about this exercise on opening night. But the cast needed to connect with their audience and forget about pushing through moments in order to ‘sit in the chair.’ They needed to be vulnerable and generous with the audience and accept failure as the true gems of live performance. And, luckily, the stars aligned and it was a strong hour of work that kicked them into gear for a solid run. They didn’t expect to play. They expected notes or a speech.  None of that happened. None of that would have helped. We played. And luckily we did what was risky for us in order to make them safe and ready for their performances.

They played throughout the game and into the performance. Joy unleashed by handing over the keys to the kids, not micromanaging them with notes. Flipping the process.

And we, as guest artists, were effected by the contagion of possibility. Thank you, Midsummer cast.

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