ERIC MULHOLLAND, Feb. 8, 2013
“Social Artistry: Using theatre to make a difference”
When I was a first year theatre major at the University of LaVerne, I took a class during the January inter-term in Children’s Theatre. There were 15 students enrolled and we spent a month acting out wild tales and singing songs for children. I remember in one story about changing seasons, we contorted our bodies to form a large tree shedding and re-growing its leaves to the hit song “Back to Life” by Soul II Soul. We enacted stories that featured brave lions and a funny twist on a popular tale called, “Little Red Riding Chicken.” We chanted kid friendly cheers and danced fun little jigs. And so it went for four glorious fun filled weeks – storytelling, dancing, game playing and singing.
When the inter-term class ended I knew I had found my calling. I promptly asked the professor to mentor me for the duration of my actor training and was pleased when she said yes. I worked closely with her for four years, forming a troupe that traveled to local schools to teach creative drama techniques to teachers and students. One of my favorite projects was working with third graders to act out stories told to them by senior citizens, who were writing their autobiographies. On another occasion, we were asked to coach teenage boys who were writing and performing their personal stories in a monologue project. The theme of their stories was about what led to their incarceration at the juvenile detention center where they were all living at the time.
Working in a detention center with teens who had committed serious crimes was a far cry from playing theatre games with third graders. I was frightened at first and I wondered whether I would be of any help. I worried that my relatively sheltered life experience would seem privileged to them and that we’d discover we had nothing in common. And I confess to having had a fair amount of fear about potential violence erupting behind barred doors. All these judgments swirled around inside of me as I took up my role as acting coach.
I was paired with a young man who was having a hard time reciting his monologue loud enough for people to hear it. I remember that he was a shy, but a tough kind of person, not much younger than me. He wanted to do a good job at the performance and so he was willing to try some acting exercises to connect to the power of his voice. And so with a fair amount of uneasiness coming from each of us, I asked him to lie on his back on the cold hard linoleum and begin with some simple breathing techniques.
I was so nervous. It was the first time I had coached a person on solo performance and the stakes seemed so high. He closed his eyes and followed my instructions – breathe in one, two, three, and out two, three. As he lay there breathing, I followed him. We slipped into deep a breathing pattern together, the kind of breathing pattern I imagine dolphins or whales share. When we were through with that part of our warm up, I could tell that we both felt more at ease. Something happened during our shared breathing that I found transcended dialogue. I don’t know what it was, but somehow after we finished that simple exercise I learned in my acting class, we were more connected.
We did a few more warm ups and then tackled his monologue. I put him through his paces with acting exercises derived from improvisation and method acting. I taught him the importance of dramatic pauses and how to allow the audience to really see him. He bristled at that suggestion and I could tell he was uncomfortable with idea of people looking at him in that way. I suggested that he practice the breathing exercises every day before and on the day of performance. I don’t remember the details of his story, but I do remember the sparkle in his eye when he told it. And his voice was strong and clear. At the end of our time, I thanked him and we shook hands and said goodbye. It was only one session, but I felt totally exhausted.
I never found out how it went for him during the performance. Our troupe received a brief word from the detention center organizer after the fact saying the boys sent their thanks for helping them and that overall the event was a success. I remember thinking at the time that maybe the acting process had a higher purpose than that of making one a great performer. I didn’t need to know how my ‘student’ did in performance, that wasn’t the point of it for me. I was satisfied that I had made an authentic connection using my tools and understanding of acting technique. Sure I had helped him with his voice and performance, but he also helped me. He helped me to understand in those early days of my training that my skills as an actor and a teacher have a profound effect on people. And that perhaps those skills are meant to help a person feel more connected and present.
It’s been 22 years since that first class and I am still at it; still acting, still teaching and still traveling around to schools and youth centers around the world. It’s a pleasure to meet people from all walks of life who come and experience a theatre class with me and leave with a similar sparkle in their eye. To me, I feel like I get to witness people waking up to the power of their creativity. What can be better than that?
Children’s theater on the island:
Disney’s “Aladdin” opens at Whidbey Children’s Theater in Langley on March 1 and closes March 10. To find out more about this production or to get you or your children involved, visit WCT Website for information.
Whidbey Playhouse in Oak Harbor has plenty of opportunities for children to become involved in theater, including upcoming auditions for William Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Find out more at the website.
Eric Mulholland is an actor, teacher and writer living on Whidbey Island.