There’s No Place Like Home: Student actors take the Paramount Mainstage for addendum to ArtsEmerson production

by Beacon Staff • October 20, 2011

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The time spent at college usually offers people the first taste of a life away from the place they grew up. But over the last few weeks, one group of Emerson students has been reconnecting with the idea of home.

Immediately following the Oct. 25 premiere of the ArtsEmerson production emYou Better Sit Down: Tales from My Parents’ Divorce/em — in which actors embody their own parents and relay the folks’ recollections of their split — 10 aspiring thespians will take the Paramount Mainstage to perform their own original work of investigative theater called emHome/em.

Under the direction of the Civilians — the New York-based theater troupe behind emYou Better Sit Down/em — the group of students interviewed friends, acquaintances, and strangers to explore different perspectives on what “home” means. They’ll focus these interviews into monologues and, by Tuesday, hope to have a cohesive, collaborative piece.

For many of the students, this type of performance — known as investigative theater — offers a new experience.

“You get to be involved as a writer and an actor,” said Fernanda Vazquez, a senior performing arts major who will be appearing in the show. “I’ve never done that before, to get to tweak the material.”

Performing arts major Marla deMatos, who serves as the student production’s assistant director, said that the technique has rocketed in popularity recently.

“A few years ago, I had never heard of investigative theater,” the senior major said. “Then a year ago it seemed like everyone was talking about it.”

According to Civilians member Jenny Morris, emHome/em will be a “quick and dirty” version of what her troupe regularly does. The team will have only four rehearsals over three weeks to develop and practice the show.

Vasquez said that though they were making progress, the timeline was still nerve-wracking.

“We haven’t started editing yet, and we open in a week,” she said Tuesday. Junior performing arts major Rebecca Schneebaum agreed, saying, “I don’t really know how it’s going, but it’s exciting.”

Morris and fellow Civilian Robbie Sublett first met with the young actors in early October for a six hour session, during which the two laid down the method of creating investigative theater. They then pushed the kids right into the work: After brainstorming a list of questions to ask each other (which included inquiries on imaginary friends, parental rifts, and neighbors), the students got into pairs and began to examine that private, often enigmatic place called home.

Sublett noted that the theme will allow the performers to tackle the same subjects as the Civilian’s investigation of divorce without veering into redundancy.

“We wanted something peripheral, but not directly related,” he said. “It won’t have to be through a fractured home specifically.”

Vazquez agreed, saying that the subjects related due to a shared stigma.

“Divorce is an issue that a lot of people deal with, but don’t talk about,” she said. “It’s the same with home. Everyone has issues, but no one really addresses them.”

As the actors relayed their partners’ answers in monologue form at that first meeting, the students revealed both the diversity in the room and the consistent threads that define a familial experience.

The tales jumped from seemingly inconsequential details — say, a mother who always had coffee, juice, and water with her breakfast — to the sudden realization of just how much those small things can define a relationship. And just as one’s family can at once cause some of the greatest joys and frustrations in life, a single account could in a moment move the other actors from somber reflection to an all-out laugh riot.

“There’s a ton of stories that at the time were sad,” said Vazquez, “but looking back, they’re hysterical. Life is ridiculous like that.”

Channeling each other’s body movements, speech patterns, and reminisces, the students create an air of honesty that, Morris and Sublett both noted, has led many to describe the method as “documentary theater.” But unlike a documentary film, Sublett said, the structure of investigative theater is based primarily around thematic ties, not narrative ones.

[caption id=attachment_3813810 align=alignleft width=400 caption=Lauren Rae Matthias (left), who serves as the student production’s writing assistant, relays the reminisces of Marla deMatos. Anna Baker (right) grins at the performance. David Galinato/Beacon Correspondent]a href=http://berkeleybeacon.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/10/DSC_0066.jpgimg class=size-full wp-image-3813810 title=DSC_0066 src=http://berkeleybeacon.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/10/DSC_0066.jpg alt= width=400 height=268 //a[/caption]

There’s also more creative liberty involved. Because the actors are told to write down what they remember from the interviews immediately afterward, Sublett said, they naturally whittle the talks down to the most poignant and relevant elements.

“Hopefully there’s an editing process that goes into putting the script together that allows us to be, for lack of a better word, messy,” said Sublett.

The result, if all goes well, is a blend of observation and introspection that illuminates both social phenomena and personal struggles.

Dylan Manderlink, a sophomore acting in the show, molded that mission into an interdisciplinary major called investigative theater for social change.

“[Theater] is for entertainment, but the root is for the purpose of raising awareness of problems in society and increasing dialogue,” she said. Both emYou Better Sit Down/em and the student performance, Manderlink said, seek to challenge perceptions of what a family life should be.

This production marks her first appearance in an investigative theater piece, and she said that working with the Civilians has reaffirmed her commitment to the method. “They’re living the life that I want,” she said. “You can tell they really want to work with us. It’s not just their job.”

Sublett said that college students are at a prime point in their lives to tackle challenging interpersonal topics through investigative theater.

“[College] is such a changing time. You’re discovering what it means to be away from home — enjoying, struggling, or grappling with it,” he said. “We hope they’ll pose the same question they’re figuring out for themselves to other people.”

strongemYou Better Sit Down /empremieres Oct. 25 at 7 p.m. on the Paramount Mainstage. emHome /emwill be performed immediately after. Tickets are $15 for Emerson students. $10 rush tickets are available for Emerson students the day of the show./strong

emDoerfler can be reached at andrew_doerfler@emerson.edu. Follow him on Twitter @adoerfler./em

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