31 January 2016
Once we finished teaching the music and choreography for the entire show, it was time to infuse it with heart. Simply singing the songs and dancing the dances is never enough: For a show to have impact the actors must connect to the material.
This is a difficult challenge in a foreign language and one the students faced admirably, albeit with some coaxing. Amy led exercises to bring out their personalities. She had them sit on the floor and assume a sense of pride to make themselves stand out through the expressions on their faces. She had them improvise their own dances to “One” from A Chorus Line, and when we returned to our choreography it had flair and honesty. And for our finale, with the confidence-inspiring lyric “I am ready, I am getting stronger on my own and heading straight into the unknown,” she asked them, “What’s your biggest dream right now?” Of course the responses spanned a spectrum from serious to ridiculous: “to see my mother and father,” “money,” “to go to the playground,” “to sleep all day,” “Xbox,” “not to go to school,” and “fish.” (That wasn’t mine, but I had a good steamed one for dinner.)
The person who had the most trouble with these exercises was the one who knows the whole show—everyone’s music and choreography—and always instantly has the answer to Amy’s questions. He’s often singing along even when it’s not his part, and he directs people into the right place when they forget their moves. Yet he struggles to find the passion in his character. He rushes through monologues as if he were billed for every second he talks, and when Amy asked him to wait three seconds before speaking after lights went up on the second act, he counted down vigorously with his fingers instead of attempting to feel the pause naturally. His English doesn’t always come through perfectly, though he usually gets the right number of syllables. Now that he knows the word “expression,” it crops up randomly in his speech, sometimes as a substitute for “prejudice.” When he’s actually supposed to say “expressions,” it may come out as “extensions” or “arcations,” whatever those are. And “prejudice” may come out as “suhjuhs” or “ramafuh,” or “racist” as “Jewish.” I must admit there are a lot of long words in this show, and I do give him credit for learning such a quantity of material in a short time.
The confusion of “Jewish” for “racist” is funny only for its honesty; the two are in the same section of our story. The second act gets serious, with difficult themes for those unfamiliar with the subtext of theatre: the complexity of “Time Heals Everything,” the contradiction of “All alone, I walk with him till morning,” the underlying sarcasm in “If You Could See Her,” and the historical context of “Tomorrow Belongs to Me.” Yet the dark subject matter may have made it easier for the students to connect to the material.
So now, with one more workday before our performance, we refine and polish. We’re more comfortable with each other. I’m getting used to being called “Mr. Seth” or, more frequently, “Teacher.” They know how to count like dancers, “one-two-three-four-five-six-seven-eight, two-two-three-four-five-six-seven-eight.” They’re starting to sing and dance with intent, and they’ve upped their standards enough to get Amy to say, “You’re getting sweaty! I love it!” And whereas early in the week I was donning two sweaters and a jacket in the freezing studio, by the end of the week I was down to short sleeves. Perhaps the weather’s improvement was cued by the cast’s increased teamwork, commitment, and enthusiasm.