I have read one play by Annie Baker, The Aliens, and that I did not expect to enjoy either, and I enjoyed reading that very much. I was looking forward to Circle Mirror Transformation because it features one of my friends of co-workers in this Dobama production and I was very proud of her and happy for her, and then I heard it was about a drama workshop in Vermont and I began to feel oogy.
The postcard did not help. Everyone on the floor, heads together. It took a moment for me to realize, okay, all right they are doing a floor relaxation exercise, and that it wasn’t just a horribly cliche group theater shot, but that only made me feel worse.
Guerrilla Theater Company, Summer 1992
Are we going there again? Is this play a bunch of theater exercises, that theater people know only too well and can laugh at because ho-ho-ho, we’ve all done this haven’t we and “civilians” (I use the term ironically, you can tell by the quotation marks, ever since my first acting class in college I despised the pretentious use of the word “civilian” to describe non-theater people … I might be a beatnik but theater people don’t generally put themselves in mortal danger for the sake of national security and therefore have the right to distinguish themselves from those who have the freedom not to) can just sit back and laugh because those touchy-feely, promiscuous theater nuts sure do a lot of craaaazy things, training to do whatever it is they do.
I saw Alan Parker's Fame when it was first on cable, and that was my first experience with theater exercises. I was thirteen. I was enthralled but also found it humorous. Finding that those were things people really do, and then being asked to do them made me more self-conscious than if it had been a new discovery. We do, actually, need to feel self-confident enough to do, well, anything, really, to create performances that are worth people laying down money to watch. And these exercises help. Unless you feel like a clown doing them. So making fun of them as part of a play, a play about learning how to act … you get my point. It has the potential to make me unhappy.
Let’s change the subject for a moment. Dobama. The new Dobama. Just bizarre. It looks like the old Dobama, on Coventry, for the most part. Seating on three sides (though the dimensions are different) featuring red chairs ripped from a defunct movie house (different movie house, different chairs - still red) so the illusion of the same place. And my emotions for that house run deep. The old house, the one on Coventry, not this place, in the library, in the former Lee Road YMCA swimming pool, where we did so many amazing things late at night. I left my 20s in that theater. I am glad I am no longer that person. But it was exciting.
Dobama's Night Kitchen, Spring 1998
Earlier than that, when I was in my early 20s, Guerrilla Theater days, no, before that, when I worked at Karamu and started getting involved in local shows and meeting the crowd I would eventually become so familiar with, I was offended by all of these middle-aged people, in their 40s or older, who were in the thrall of this certain acting coach. We won’t name names, it’s not their fault, it is not about the coach per se, but their pupils, who reversed this person as one would a sensei, someone who taught them everything, how to taste flavors a anew, to see the world as a baby, how to feel deeply. So deeply.
I knew what they meant, even at 23 years-old I understood what was going on. I had experienced all of these things at college, in theater classes, at the age of 18, 19, 20 years-old, when it is okay to embarrass yourself because you are young and stupid. And these were accountants and environmental lawyers who were finally, in middle-age, getting in touch with their emotions and learning how to function like feeling human beings -- but because they were adults with children and mortgages, they weren’t discovering things that others my age with my training already knew, they were discovering things NO ONE HAD EVER KNOWN BEFORE and this acting coach was a GOD.
Because they were too mature to be so young and silly. This shit was important. It changed their lives.
And so, after all, I was touched my this play. Because it confounded my expectations. Annie Baker can take the slackers-smoking-by-a-dumpster play and give it heart. She can take the amateur-drama-workshop play and people it with characters who I am glad to spend two hours in the presence of.
One moment I was particularly struck by (SPOILER ALERT.) There is a point in the middle of the second act when the coach asks everyone to reveal a secret about themselves. This is five weeks into a six week course. It is a dumb, dumb exercise. Dangerous, and pointless. I have engaged in that kind of exercise, I remember an undergraduate directing class my junior year. In order to get into the emotions of a certain two-person scene, the director of that scene (neither of us performing in the scene respected her at all) asked us to hide in the wings on the opposite sides of the stage and probe each others’ deepest fears. The actress in question and I, while not exactly trusting of each other, were unified in our disgust of what we were being asked to do and were able to a) say the most horrid sounding, spiteful things that we knew were already open secrets and didn’t sting when b) the MFA Directing Grad who was leading the course was in the room. The teacher stormed out of the space to visit another scene, but first admonished our scenework director in the harshest terms for engaging in “psychological bullshit.”
Of course, the actress and I were the ones experimenting in psychological bullshit, fucking over our director in that way.
The scene, as presenting in Baker’s play, put me in mind, of all things, of a scene from the 6th issue of the comic book Sandman, where Dr. Destiny has Morpheus’ amulet and spends twenty-fours in a diner, influencing those present to live out their id until everyone has has sex with, mutilated and/or eaten everyone else in the joint.
Baker’s play is not literally grotesque in that way. But it did make me feel that creepy.
I would say I really liked the ending, only she stole it from my new play. The one I haven't finished yet.