Season: 2011

The Pen and the Powder Keg- 3rd Post

Posted on Oct 1st, 2012 in Artists & Company

December 15, 2011 | Author: John Tufts

Chris as disaffected youth.
Photo by Jenny Graham.

Judith: I don’t like theater...and I don’t like soliloquies...Soliloquies. People you’ve never met, telling you things you’d rather not know.

A week ago today we had our first student matinee. A few hundred kids, who think that Shakespeare wrote and spoke in Old English, sat in the audience and watched our play. I’m always nervous with kids in the audience because they’re nothing if not honest. If anything feels slightly phony to them, they’re all too ready to give up. And I can understand that. I felt that way when I was in middle school and high school. I remember watching the film, The Year of Living Dangerously, and thinking at the end, “Wait I was supposed to think that that girl was a dude? This movie sucks.” The slightest hitch can lose a student audience, and the last thing a three hour play about Shakespeare wants is a bunch of lost teenagers in a darkened theater shuffling and texting and smelling like Axe and repression.

I don’t know what it is about becoming an adult that makes us more forgiving when we witness art, but how I view a play now is completely different than how I viewed a play when I was 16. Unless it’s an actor who’s between the ages of 24 and 32, and looks enough like me, I’ll give an A for effort to almost anyone who has the balls to stand up onstage. When I was 16, however, that stage needed to be nothing but truth, or I was out. If somebody so much as blinked in a way that felt labored or rehearsed, my fake-alarms went off, and I went to sleep.

My first love. Photo most certainly not by Jenny Graham.
That’s not to say that the ultimate audience is one made up entirely of entertain-me-or-else teens. Far from it. If I were living my life now according to standards I maintained as a teenager, I’d still be eating pizza rolls for breakfast, not shaving my flocked Christmas tree of an upper lip, and I’d be married to a poster.

That’s hardly the pinnacle of social evolution. Just because a 14 year old falls asleep to Mozart doesn’t mean that we need to put a moratorium on classical music.

I think I’m just afraid of the audience that I was when I was their age. A couple of days ago, I confessed to my wife (the real one not the poster) that when I was thirteen, a folk singer came to my spread-the-gospel summer camp in North Georgia, and sang a medley of soft acoustic hits about birds in the trees and pebbles and streams, and I thought it would be hilarious, just totally hilarious if I head banged while he strummed, and after each song roared a gravelly “Yeeeaahhh!!!” as though I were at a Pantera concert and not watching Art Garfunkle’s Birkenstocked acolyte. If my 13 year old self showed up to my plays, I’d call my understudy.

Gregory Linington as a pretty lassie.
Photo by Jenny Graham.
Thankfully, mercifully, the students really enjoyed our show. Sure there were those moments when they shifted and squirmed. When Gregory Linington and I kissed as James and leggy, lithe Buckingham, they gasped and squealed. One girl even shouted, “That’s too much!” But it didn’t bother me in the least.

In fact, it only made me happier as I thought we might even be doing these duffel bags of hormones a service. Boys have been kissing each other for 50,000 years and they’re going to kiss for 50,000 more. Somebody’s gotta break it to them.

I got more excited as the show progressed because regardless of where we registered on their truth radars, our show--a show that stretches the language of theatricality--forces them to greatly expand their definition of what is true by releasing it from its responsibility to be what is real. When uncynical, easily shocked teenagers are released from thinking that what is real and what is true are one and the same, it can be a pretty wild, eye opening ride.

John Tufts is an actor at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. He plays Sharpe, and James (both kissers), and Tom Wintour, in Equivocation at Arena Stage.