Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Notes from the Field (XVIII)


There’s a look the audience gets when they are really “into” a story. They could be sitting or standing, leaning in – back ramrod straight; or slumped, as if enveloped in an easy chair. The body positioning doesn’t matter – it’s in the eyes. Even if they are half closed, when a person is wholly, fully absorbed in the tale I am telling, their eyes are trained on me, practically beaming energy and light. As I watch them watching me, I can actually tell that they are seeing the story as I perform it. This look is more than amusement, or enjoyment – it is one of resonance, and human connection, and we all know how elusive and rare that can be. This month, not only was I privileged enough to see this look on more than one face, but I saw it in a place not usually associated with storytelling, or human connection of any kind, for that matter – a Youth Detention Center.

I can‘t say I was scared when I walked through the well guarded doors of the Mercer County Youth Detention Center – I had learned long ago that people were not the sum total of their actions, but I was definitely nervous! I know how the average sullen teenager reacts when they are being FORCED to watch something – eye rolling, teeth sucking, overly loud laughter, the occasional rude comment – but how would this group of young men, who were locked up for doing some very bad stuff – including murder, react?? I did what I always do, no matter the age or environment – I went straight for the funny bone. A well known mime teacher, Tony Montanaro, once said, “Don’t be afraid to make a fool of yourself for the right reason.” I think of that quote so often, I should have it tattooed to my face!! Because, like Tony, I know that nothing, NOTHING, and I do mean NOTHING works like humor. There are many feelings a person may not want to experience – fear, anger, even love – if one’s sick of having their heart broken, but the joyous bubble of emotion that laughing elicits – who doesn’t like that?

And laugh these guys did, first out of shock, I think, as I had my character walk in a loose limbed, wobbly stroll. But then, as they saw me acknowledge just how ridiculous I found myself, they truly laughed – and the first sliver of connection began. The real deal, the true resonance occurred during my second tale. It was a Jewish folktale about being judged by ones appearance, about assumptions – often erroneous, that people make about one another in a blink of an eye, about how nothing one can say or do can sway those impressions, that can be so very damaging and hurtful. It was during this story that I saw their eyes, some half closed, some trying to look away, but failing, take on that intense focus that told me, they were with me. Really, really, with me; reliving a cruel reality of life that everyone in that room had fallen victim to. And in that blessed moment, in a place of lock downs, pat downs, and guards, we connected.

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