Thursday, August 19, 2010

Black Box

When I was in the sixth grade I was Charlie Brown in the play You're A Good Man, Charlie Brown. It was actually a musical but the cast was not required to sing. In a misunderstanding of my request to sing a part, I was given a song that was grossly higher than my range. Though nervous and lacking confidence I managed to get through my two (or three...hard to recall) performances and the adults were kind enough not to be honest with respect to my vocal prowess.

The experience was as memorable then as it is now. An old scrapbook maintains a picture of the cast and I have been grateful to have found some of them via Facebook.

If you have never experienced acting you are missing out on one of life's great rushes. That is if you can get beyond the thought of having people observe you with the high expectation of being entertained, which can be a monumental task. There is a nakedness about performing, which demands a denial of self. Surely you have heard actors speak of "knowing the character" and "becoming the character". The thought of displaying something which is not us can almost be unnatural.

This past school year my friend Josh asked me to be a guest speaker for the newly formed Philosophy Club at Douglas Anderson School of the Arts. It had been a considerable amount of time since I had actually read, much less done, any "real" philosophy. With joy and anxiety I exposed Nietzsche and Philosophy of Mind to the students. What I didn't know that this would also serve as a gateway back to the stage.

Josh is an incredibly talented writer and we had gotten together the summer before the school year to hash out some ideas. He was wanting to write a play. Roughly 10 months later, and thanks to some of the discussions and topics in the Philosophy Club, Josh was asking me about a play focusing on self. "The Creationists", he would come to call it, would take place from a literary perspective, in which characters would have dialogue with their narrator and eventually would seek definition independent of the "other".

Heidegger. Kierkegaard. Sartre. Camus. My heart was beating considerably faster and would almost stop when Josh asked me to play the Narrator.

The remainder of the cast would be populated by students Josh knew from Douglas Anderson. It is at this point where the humility began to take hold. There have been many events in my life in which adults would assume a level of authority and knowledge over kids simply because they were adults, even when it was obvious the kids were more educated. That I felt inferior to my surroundings gave me a small sense of pride, a rare moment when you see good in yourself.

Time would pass, there would be script changes and more characters were eventually added. I would come to befriend these gifted teenagers and found myself observing their mannerisms and approach to craft. When we had our first staged reading I was but a voice from behind the stage. The others sat on bar stools, in front of the it should be.

What was so compelling at that time was the number of people who came to Bollero's just to watch us read this play. Teachers, parents, friends and students, all in support of Josh and these young actors. I was experiencing the arts in real time. With real emotion. It wasn't a theory in a book or a review on the internet. It wasn't a crowded theater amongst the pretentious and the commoner. These were people who lived the idea that art matters and through participation the world is better.

After considering the comments given during the reading, Josh began to rewrite for an actual staged production. This would require us to actually act out the play while holding the script in hand.

I would like to point out two significant elements of the process which moved me. First, the way in which Josh opened himself up to the criticism was so admirable and new. It is something you must do to create and it is at this point I realized it takes a confident person to disrobe the way he did. The credit too goes to the audience in that all words were constructive and done out of love for Josh and the work itself.

Second was Josh's willingness to change. Once rewritten, the entire piece, though holding onto certain elements, had a newness about it. So much that upon reading the two drafts you might think they were distinct plays. It is a selflessness to entertain rather than demanding acceptance of the "me".

Put into uncomfortable or new situations I have a tendency to be vocal and joke, probably beyond what is acceptable. One could go as far as to say I can be offensive. This is one of those moments when you see the bad in yourself. To their credit, and maybe it is because I am at heart immature, the students embraced this 42 year old stranger.

Though being entertained and disruptive in opposition to Josh's want of order, I had quiet concern that my line delivery and stage awareness was making the actors and my writer question my participation.

When asked the replies were supportive but I felt lied to.

The day of the show I ran through my lines, trying to get a better feel for the character. If you have not picked up on it, I was now to be on stage. This meant knowing were to be and when to be there. That Saturday prior I had failed every time to nail my locations. However, by showtime, and after a quick run through, Josh complimented me on my progress and I could tell his faith was restored.

At Douglas Anderson they have this room called a black box. It is here where we would perform. The dimensions of the room seemed to be a perfect square. There were curtains on three of the four walls, with the back wall being the only one which you could actually move while behind the curtains. The last wall was fronted by a riser with roughly eight rows for which you could put 10 chairs per row.

I am guessing with these figures. What I can present as fact is that it was standing room only.

It is in this black box that they practice their acting. Anything more than that I cannot, with any true knowledge, convey. The box was foreign land. What I do know is the lights stay on and it is hot.

Being the first on stage and to speak found me lonely and failing as my first few lines were jagged and weak. But confidence came, both from within and from cast, and I left the stage floating. There was laughter and emotional silence. At the end the ovation was loud and we were all smiling. None more than Josh who had just observed those he entrusted with his creation, convey it in a manner which made him proud.

Four days later and I am still emotional just thinking about the positive reviews. But more than that were the moments shared with these teenagers and Josh. People dedicated to creating. How proud their parents must be of them. I watched as they hugged, laughed and ran about the room as if the award for best something had just been won.

The irony of the black box was not lost on me. This space, absent of natural light and dark as an empty universe was not lonely and limiting like a prison cell. It wasn't a space we went into so to hide from the world. It was the exact opposite: more like a birthing room where nothing but love and joy were allowed to reside. I literally felt changed. I felt baptized.

Josh. Bradley. J'Royce. Maisaa. Tyler. Chris. Kai. These are their names. I cannot conceive of a world in which they are not successful. Am I naive? Being too emotional? Maybe I am still in the black box while the world moves around me. So much better there. Where is my totem?


hedera said...

When I was in high school I played the frumpy aunt in The Heiress, a dubious play. I don't think I did very well. I had much more fun as Props for You Can't Take It With You. I even got to fire the blank pistol.

B. W. Fullford said...

I'm finding it almost inspiring that so many I know have actually been on stage is some form. The peeling back of the person. Did you enjoy the experience?