Saturday, February 2, 2013

Raw courage

Imagine you are a teenager (or try to remember it).

Sometimes you feel like a thumb-sucking little kid; other times you glean flashes of wisdom with the mind of an adult.You're not sure what to do with your changing body and voice, even as society wants to tell you in order to sell you something. You're trying to negotiate your own moral compass, buffeted by the storms of hormones and peer pressure.

Now imagine you have to pretend to be somebody else, to move with grace and purpose. You have to memorize hundreds of words, repeating them over and over again for weeks. Then you have to go to a school you don't know, get up in front of some of your friends and perform for an adult you don't know who is noting and judging your performance right in front of you.

This takes raw courage, friends, and it's what I saw when I served recently for the first time as a judge for the Speech and Theatre Association of New Jersey's Secondary School Theatre Competition in association with the New Jersey Governor's Awards in Arts Education.

The competition was held at Rutgers University. My section was "dramatic pairs" -- scenes for two people that are dramatic rather than comedic -- and took place in a classroom.

The Speech and Theatre Association of New Jersey's logo

We were to judge acting skill rather than choice of material, but the choices were quite varied. No Shakespeare - indeed, nothing earlier than the 19th century -- but the play excerpts included Agnes of God, A View From the Bridge, Uncle Vanya, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Doubt and Proof. I wasn't familiar with some of the other works, including Juvenilia and Water Babies. 

Skill level varied, of course, but all 13 pairs were uniformly good in at least one area - memorization. My most recent acting foray came during my educational theater master's program at NYU in which five of us performed three scenes from Measure for Measure. It was about 30 minutes and I had about 100 lines to memorize. Our group rehearsed obsessively for weeks (I ran lines at dinner, in the car, on walks and once woke up in the middle of the night with the text running through my head) and nailed the performance. 

These students were doing scenes that had to be ten minutes or less, still a decent amount of work. No one "went up" on their lines (prompting was strictly prohibited), no one had to delay or stop the scene, even momentarily. God, they must have been nervous, but the pairs who introduced their scenes did so with poise and confidence.

Only my top two pairs went on to the finals in the afternoon. There was a clear #1 - two girls who performed a riveting scene from Agnes of God - and my #2 was a boy and girl who played a scene from Before It Hits Home, in which an African-American family is riven by a son's news that he has AIDS. Unfortunately, the second pair went so badly over time I had to disqualify them and I hated to do it. I wish they had timed their piece better because a wider audience should have seen them, but they got encouraging comments on the judging sheet.

If there had been a prize for Most Delightful Surprise, it would have gone to the boy and girl who did a scene from Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde with consistent melodramatic style. How wonderful to get a break from naturalism!

Afterwards, one judge mused on whether any of the contestants would have professional careers on the stage. I thought about this remark and realized the concept had not crossed my mind the whole day. 

The point, I think, for these students is in the doing and the developing. Simply taking part in theater - even acting at a very basic level - brings you out of yourself in the attempt to inhabit and understand another person. It's actually a profoundly weird and profoundly human thing to do. It broadens your outlook. You realize you may not be alone. What an important experience that is for young people at a stage in life where you often think you're the only one who's ever gone through a particular emotional storm.

After the taking part - then the hard work begins. Training body and voice, learning how to work with a partner and a team, taking direction, maintaining concentration and at least the outward appearance of confidence - what great skills for life theater teaches! And at this point, we haven't even yet gotten into literary and dramatic research required for a role, acting and movement techniques, using costumes and makeup, considering the influence of music. 

When I was looking for images to illustrate this blog post, I entered "Rutgers" into Google Images. Apart from a few campus pictures, all the images that appeared had something to do with football - logos or photos. No pictures of theater groups, unless you use the term "Rutgers Theater."

Now, playing sports is a wonderful thing and teaches excellent life skills, also. But there's a high school in Rye Neck, near my town of Mamaroneck, N.Y., where the drama teacher somehow gets members of the sports teams to take part in the school musical. Last year, they did Beauty and the Beast and I was blown away by the quality of the show - and by the discipline and style of the entire cast, not just the leads.

Football players learning how to sing and dance. Now that's a well-rounded education.