New Plays: The Visceral Spirit of Theatre

By Jason Boxer

Perhaps appropriately, I am in many ways an academic lover of theatre. The nuanced design of each Spolin game is an incredible feat to me – the meticulousness with which Aristotle explains story structure is as entertaining to me as any of the plays he influenced – and at the risk of brownnosing, I’ll admit that the history and overarching philosophy delineated in Theater for Change is a great read. (Incoming freshmen, bug David Montgomery to let you read more of that in Intro to Ed Theatre; it’s awesome and it’s a hell of a lot more exciting than Everyman).

Despite all this, I am happy to report that I was pushed out of this theoretical, theatre-nerd comfort zone when I was cast in John P. McEneny’s play Pollywog this past summer. Pollywog was the first of three plays produced for Ed Theatre’s annual New Plays for Young Audience series, and in it I was tasked with bringing to life a 14-ish year old kid named Francis. Punky, misunderstood, and confused, Francis is a supporting character whose biggest contribution to the play is his in-flux sexuality. There are rumors all over school that he is gay.

He eventually comes face to face with the primary spreader of this gossip – Tammy, McEneny’s main character – and the confrontation is a harsh, inelegant one. To put it as the character probably would, the scene hinges upon Francis being really pissed off.

He’s so mad he can’t get his words out. He can’t think. His dialogue – which could ideally be a delicate explanation of profound frustration – comes out bluntly and sloppily. McEneny placed him in the throes of a rabid, involuntary, and quintessentially teenage outburst.

The scene called for a wholly unacademic performer giving a wholly unacademic performance. The words of Spolin, Aristotle, and even our fearless leader David Montgomery weren’t going to help me this time.

I didn’t get it right until our second and final performance. I clenched my fists and felt them moisten with sweat. I spit my lines out antagonistically, genuinely hoping they would hurt Tammy. I began to feel dizzy and nearly out of control. For the first time in my life, I think I was really getting a taste of the living, visceral spirit of theatre, and I loved it. The audience did too.

My identity as a theatre practitioner was challenged by this experience. What kind of phony actor only gets excited about theory – I thought – and worse, what kind of phony teacher only gets excited about the on-paper potential of his field of study? I hope to be neither of those phonies, and New Plays for Young Audiences helped me realize that.

I’ll conclude by confessing that I’m uncertain of one thing and certain of another. The uncertain thing is if the words of Marceau and Lecoq will prove my next big theoretical inspiration. The certain thing is that Everyman is the most boring play ever, and I wish the incoming freshmen good luck in trudging through it.

Educational Theatre students perform in Think Pink, New Plays for Young Audiences 2014; Photo courtesy of Chianan Yen