Inside D.C. entertainment

'Circle Mirror Transformation' and theater play: It's all fun and games until someone touches you with their 10

September 20, 2010 - 03:50 PM
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Jennifer Mendenhall, Jeff Talbott and Harry A. Winter in 'Circle Mirror Transformation.' (Photo by Carol Pratt)

Maybe Gary Sloan will have his students pour water out of a bottle, but pretend it is nitroglycerine. Other classes, perhaps, will involve a Life-Saver relay: Students keep toothpicks in their mouths, and have to pass a Life Saver down a line of people. Then, they do it again, but without the Life-Saver. The students could be statues, or just say each other’s names from across the room.

Sometimes, “I hide keys in a room, and they have 10 different reasons they might be looking for the keys,” says Sloan, head of the MFA acting program at Catholic University. “They pretend it’s a bomb and they have to get the keys in 30 seconds.”

“An acting coach might blindfold an entire classroom of students and give them a rolled up piece of pater and tell them to whack away, and the last one standing wins,” says Sloan. “The kids learn to crouch and roll and listen and be still, and everyone that is out is laughing uncontrollably.”

These are just some of the games that theater students endure and enjoy over the course of their training, and which Annie Baker’s play Circle Mirror Transformation at Studio Theatre lampoons. While most of the games in the show — chanting nonsense words, shaking hands, acting out repressed childhood memories — are played up for comedic effect, Sloan says that theater games are a very common part of a curriculum, and that there are more than anyone could ever count. Some are funny, some are pointless, some are insightful, and some are downright creepy, as he's learned over the years.

“Theater games can be often strange and kooky,” says Sloan. “They’re often meant to encourage a sense of play, a sense of invention, a sense of creativity in the individual, to get to more freedom on the stage as they discover a character in the play.”

But most of the games are simple exercises to get students to warm up and be expressive.

“The exercise I’m doing a lot with my class now has less to do with games,” said Sloan. “They tell a personal story in front of the class. That’s a very simple acting exercise that anyone can do, but it gets them out of themselves, and being inhibited.” Sloan will then instruct students to add a lie to the story and tell it again, and see if they can act as natural as they did the first time.

Sloan says it’s not uncommon for students to ask, as a character in Circle Mirror Transformation does, if they will do any “real” acting. He’ll happily explain the purpose of his games, which have higher goals than the ones in the play (The characters must pretend to be a set of bedroom furniture, for example).

“Becoming the chair is less and less popular,” says Sloan. “It was a fad in the 70s.”

And acting games aren’t just for students. Often, directors will run actors through improv exercises in the early stages of rehearsing a show, to build camaraderie and a backstory for their characters.

“If you’re playing that you’re married, a director might have you play how you first got together, so the actors would have a sense of history,” says Sloan, who once, in a performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, spent some time imagining a fairy world and pretending to fly, hang off of balconies, and balance on railings to get in character as Puck.

But sometimes, acting games can go too far. One professor Sloan knew would ask students to go out on campus and steal something and bring it back to the classroom as an acting exercise, and another would ask students to pantomime having sex with a grand piano. He also remembers a visiting director at Catholic University who had students play an acting game that crossed a definitive line: “The director had the cast split off in two lines and face each other, and touch each other on a scale of one to 10, one being the easiest and most comfortable place, and 10 being the most uncomfortable. The director would call out, ‘Two, five, and so on.’ Four students started crying, and a few others quit the show,” says Sloan.

Sloan cautions his students not to do “bullshit exercises” such as these. “I took [the director] out to lunch, and I said ‘How dare you put these students through that?’” says Sloan. “I said, ‘What’s my 10, you want me to touch you with my 10?’ There are schools of thought that think you out to be able to do anything on stage, any game, to get to some self-revelatory or risk-free mentality. You cross all kinds of lines. It’s a very dangerous place.”

These lines aren’t crossed in Circle Mirror Transformation, though the games do bring some characters to tears by surfacing feelings about their home life that they’ve tried to suppress. In one doozy of a game, instructor Marti (Jennifer Mendenhall) encourages sullen teenager Lauren (MacKenzie Meehan) to act out a scene in which her parents are fighting. Marti and her husband, James (Harry A. Winter) play the roles of her battling parents, and their roles bring out the problems in Marti and James’ own marriage. They have to abandon the scene.

“If [the games are] in a healthy environment whose aim is self-expression and truth, and you’re not just playing for play’s sake, but you’re trying to help an actor release themselves into the mystery and the play and the characterization, that can be a very spiritual environment,” says Sloan.

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