Setting Up Singing; or, The Actor As Human

We screech into the parking lot, scramble out, and sprint towards the school’s entrance.

“Bienvenue!” yells Alex, who’s just come out of the main office, where he’s met with our contact person. “Vous avez quinze minutes!”

Right! Fifteen minutes to park the van, unload the set, negotiate tricky passageways with a boat and half a dozen chairs, assemble the set with reasonable sightlines for backstage costume changes, warm up, get into costume, troubleshoot a few problems–will the boat go onstage or on the floor? Will the Cup Song be sung from the lamppost or will we play it wide?–check projection, and start. We can do this!

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People grab weights to hold doors, fling costume bags over their shoulders. The boat’s loaded off while three people assemble the café walls, position the island flats, check with Doris and Alex for the angle of the counter. No one has an assigned role, but everybody knows what to do. We trust each other. This isn’t, as we say, our first rodeo.

 

Et puis, à mi-chemin entre le déchargement et les costumes, les élèves arrivent. Ils s’arrêtent brusquement à la porte quand ils voient que nous ne sommes pas encore prêts. Il y a un moment de silence. Puis nous sourions: “Entrez! Entrez! Come in! Don’t be shy!”

DSC_1173“Dix minutes!” Alex calls from the darkness of the audience, where he’s checking lights. He starts to hand out programmes as our audience files in.

Quelqu’un commence à chanter: Oh, what a lovely evening, lovely evening… une de nos rondes préférées, pour éveiller la voix et aider à ce concentrer. Sous les yeux ébahis des élèves, nous terminons l’assemblage du décor, puis nous nous cachons derrière les rideaux pour se changer, comme si de rien n’était.

When those who are done come out, they ask the constant question: “What do we need?” The chatter from the audience is growing louder. We have five minutes–maybe less. A song with some energy? Someone asks. There’s a little whisper from our circle, which spreads out as people hear and agree–Siyahamba!

So with some of us periodically breaking off to set stools or check props or line boats up, we sing. We keep eye contact, make sure we start low, checking our consonants–it’s a big space, so we need to bite into them to be audible. And the music builds, until our harmonies are weaving together in the early morning air; until we smile at the first backup chorus, courtesy of Pilote; until we start to clap along, to dance, and set off into the audience and around the stage, claiming the space, making eye contact and getting smiles in return.

The song ends, and we hear Alex shuffle up to us. “Je vous adore!

“Un. Deux. Trois. MEEEEEEERRRDE!” Now, the show starts.

That kind of arrival and warmup is absolutely normal for us; we’ve done it everywhere, with more or less stringent time constraints, no matter when the students come in.

But I’d like to talk about it, because this is an unusual phenomenon. Isn’t it? To have actors onstage before the show? To have actors warming up in front of their audience, talking aloud about how they’re tired and need energy, running around, setting props in plain sight? My inner theatre critic is puzzled. What about suspension of disbelief, and the fourth wall, and all these wonderful things we try to maintain? Doesn’t breaking into the space take away… I don’t know, the magic of theatre?

But when I mull it over, I don’t think so. In fact, I think that warming up in public–something we do very consciously, no matter how rushed we are–adds magic to the entire affair.

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For us, as actors, it’s so much fun to meet our audience before we come onstage as characters. Some students recognize us from last year. Some laugh at our bear costumes, our fake beards. Some applaud when we’re done singing. Acting is all about energy exchange, and that exchange begins then and there, way before we’re in our places.

And when we begin that exchange, it lets the audience know that we’re people. When we mess up a harmony because we’re rusty from the weekend, it lets them know we’re vulnerable. When we laugh at a perfect Moose impression, we let them know we’re here to have fun, too. We’re people. We mess up and have fun and do great things like people do. And they respond in kind, no matter the time of day: they stay quiet when they can’t quite hear. They laugh when we freeze during bells and alarms. They give themselves to the play just as we give ourselves to it. There’s a kind of magic to it.

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I think that so much of the respect we’ve been given by our audiences during the Tintamarrathon, despite the last periods/Friday afternoons/post-lunch slumps, stems from the fact that at no point in time have we ever claimed to be anything else but ourselves. We may be acting, but we’re not trying to hide that actors are human, too. And in no way do we try to maintain the illusion that actors appear out of nowhere, as if by magic. Actors are people–all sorts of people, and they make magic together. Onstage and offstage, alone or before audiences. And when we show that, we begin an honest, respectful relationship with the students who come to see us.

I think that knowing that actors are people, and that audiences are people, begins a contract of generosity. Both sides are open and vulnerable. That makes us generous. And that generosity brings creativity and joy, and good storytelling, and meaning to it all.

We come in and set up singing, and they listen–because they want to, because we respect them, because they let us tell them stories. In doing so, we all make the play together. Any space can become a theatre, no matter for how long–just like any person can be transformed, if we all agree and want to play along.

I can only hope that it’s what we leave our audiences with: A dozen people were on a stage. We saw them. We watched them build a different place for us. We watched an empty space–a cafeteria, a gym, a classroom–transform into a theatre. Twelve people transformed into different characters. And then they did a play, and we watched. And then they were gone. Like magic.

But to paraphrase Alex here–the actors don’t do the magic. We all do the magic.

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– Joe/Pépère/Hibou/Gothique/Bernard

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