Friday, July 8, 2016

When the grownups weren’t watching

I went to the theater last week. There were no tickets and no playbill. The audience was, entirely, just me and two other people. This wasn’t a mistake about the date or time, or a marketing/pr failure on the part of the new intern. Everything was perfectly fine. In fact, it was a little bit more than fine. The evening was, I’d have to say, one of the purest theater experiences I’ve ever had – full of heart and soul, bursting with youthful energy and generously sprinkled with theater magic.

This underground performance took place in the “wine box” theater (it’s painted a nice merlot instead of black) at Minneapolis’ Youth Performance Company (YPC). This was a farewell mashup--an unauthorized final presentation by the cast of YPC’s Young Artists’ Council “25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.” The nine-person cast, mostly high schoolers and a couple college-aged young people, had rehearsed the show for six weeks and had just finished presenting it for the past three weekends. Their final show had been Saturday, and they’d already struck the set.

But, even after the last show, it seemed they didn’t want to be done. So they Snapchatted, texted and arrived at a solution--a one-night-only version that would require each cast member to move one chair over, into the part of the person who’d been sitting next to them during the show’s fanciful depiction of a middle school spelling bee. The young man who played the unhinged principal became a neurotic pigtailed blonde with a speech impediment. The beefy parolee doing community service became the prim woman running the show. The girl who’d played the “I Speak Six Languages” whiz kid now became the Little League Pitcher whose unfortunate arousal at the sight of an opponent’s dishy sister both sealed his doom and set him up for the funniest song ever written about—well, if you know the show, you’ll know what I’m talking about.

My 18-year-old daughter, who had been loving her role as the neurotic, lisping obsessive-compulsive, was now going to be performing as the home-schooled goofball boy who falls out of his chair, can’t keep his hands out of his nostrils, and who falls into a trance whenever it’s time to spell the name of another exotic rodent.

When she had told me she needed the car that night, and when I heard about the plan, I asked if this was something which might require a bit of an audience. Could I come? “Sure,” she shrugged, “up to you.” By 7:30 p.m., the audience had swelled to three: her game-for-anything father and one of her friends (“I told her I was bored, so she picked me up on the way to the theater”), arranged on folding chairs, facing the cast. It soon became clear that this entire “audience” would be needed to fill in during the early-show audience-participation section. We gamely agreed, and so we began with all of us “cast” facing empty chairs, ones we returned to when we were disqualified for not being able to spell words like “hemidemisemiquaver.” Or, in one case, “cow.” 

I struck out early and moved back to my seat, an audience-of-one observing the great switcheroo they were pulling off. Since they’d already returned all the show’s costumes, they dressed for their new parts themselves, some with great care (the new Little Leaguer seemed to have found a uniform), and sometimes not (the former Barfeé, now a spelling-whiz girl, tied a shirt around his legs to indicate a skirt). I had gotten to know these kids over the past weeks, and it was a wonder to see them doing something fresh with material they knew so well. Seeing a 6’3” deep-voiced young man pull at his imaginary pigtails and lisp convincingly was amazing. I noticed that the kid who’d played the wholesome straight arrow had unleased dark reserves of weirdness to play the lugubrious, tortured Barfeé. They weren’t only as good in their new roles as well as their old ones, I realized. These kids, undeterred by physicality or gender or even common sense, had range.

What I loved most, though, was how persistently they kept at the task they’d set out for themselves. They were knocking around this small merlot-colored space, with no adults telling them what to do, and they were focused beyond measure, occasionally policing themselves when a few inevitably lost focus. “You are not as important as this song right now,” the music director, who’s heading to Boston Conservatory in the fall, sternly told them when the chatter got out of hand during a solo. They all shut up. Well, most of them, anyway.

A few points became evident as the show unspooled: probably in spite of themselves, they had each learned how to spell the crazy-difficult words they’d memorized with their original lines. If the newly cast actor messed up a spelling, there was a quick and aggrieved “It’s ‘ie, not ei!’” from the “old” actor. Also, they clearly had been watching each other closely. Some of them, it seemed, had been harboring ideas about how certain roles should be played, and they, in the parlance of sports, left it all on the floor in their attempt to find something new in a character. Voice, dance, acting, interacting – they were ready for an audience much bigger, but seemed unphased by the six-palmed applause they were receiving from their tiny but appreciative cadre of observers. What impressed me most was that our presence seemed utterly superfluous. They were doing this for themselves and themselves alone, because they loved the show, they loved each other, and they just weren’t  yet ready for their final rendition of the misspellers’ exit song, “Goodbye.”

It was the sort of utterly ephemeral last word that could only be rendered by the young. Imagine famous Equity actors gathering in a toasty-warm, third-floor space on a beautiful summer night, acting out something that would never be seen by critics or industry connections, just to please themselves. Sure, these kids had the marvelous surfeit of time that grownups envy, and they weren’t currently worried about babysitters, mortgages, low back pain, or any of the million other things that, we adults tell ourselves, keeps us from living out our passions.

I found myself admiring them, and envying them, just a little. There aren’t many things I do purely for love, solely for the mere joy of doing them. These kids had taken it upon themselves to find a way to keep the magic going a little longer, and damned if I didn’t find myself tearing up, along with them, when it came time to sing “Goodbye.”

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