Monday, May 5, 2008

"To unpathed waters, undreamed shores" - William Shakespeare

Documentary III: A Community Event has been uploaded.

Written by Vinny Ng, Project Director:

I find at the end of the project, it’s often hard to find words to say.

How would I begin to describe the eagerness in one of the student’s voices as they asked if I would come to see their basketball game the week after the show was over.

How do you convey the excitement that a ninth grade student shares with you as his eyes light up with bubbling enthusiasm as he describes the conversation that he had with Father Rich, the pastor at the local Catholic School.

“Can you believe what Father Rich said to me! He asked me if it was possible to rent out our show so that the Assumption kids could see it! He wanted to rent our actors!! I just can’t believe it!”

How can I even begin to capture the feeling I experienced when a student opened up his life up and told me how he cried when got home after the last night of the show. He simply couldn’t believe it was over. He did want to believe it was over. As one of the other students wrote in a note to me “these past couple of weeks were the best weeks of my life.”

Then there is the performance itself.

How do I describe the almost electric experience of being anywhere in the audience during the first night of the show? How would describe the anticipation of being back-stage before the opening night’s performance? How do I describe the stress of having to run between two simultaneous events on the first night of the show with our donor’s reception and backstage? How do I describe the nervousness twinkle in students’ eyes when they heard that the President was in the audience on the second last night? How do I begin to describe the excitement of arriving in Laura and putting on the high school’s first touring production? How to I capture the gut wrenching laughter from the principal of the high school as he burst out in delightfully raucous laughter?

Later he would go on to describe how he was taken back when his daughter asked him in the car “daddy, why were you laughing so hard at the show? I thought only kids and teenagers laughed like that. He would later go on to describe the experience as being the same feeling of being absolutely captured and transformed in the moment that he felt when he was watching a show on Broadway a few years ago.

Sitting and watching the final performance was magical - the way the kids in the crowd would eagerly move to fill up the seats in the front row… in fact they would go further than that. They would slowly creep right up onto stage to get as close to the show (or perhaps in the show!) as they could… And as deeply satisfying an experience as that was, I also realized that while the show was the end result, the other part that could not go ignored was the process. How had the students gotten there? What needed to happen in order to create the drive to create, to practice and rehearse everyday after school, to put the effort into each session, the be able to trust each other as team players do?

I guess it comes from a common purpose. I guess it comes from a belief that it will all turnout ok. I guess it comes from a place of being able to let go of every single decision and trust that whoever is working with you is more than capable of delivering. I guess it comes from a place of affirmation and hope.

The cast party the day following the show was an incredible day. It just reminded me of how important closure and celebration is to a project. Closure provides the opportunity for reflection and the opportunity to celebrate the true essence of the project – each one of the students in their full uniqueness and their efforts to pull it all together. Yet there was another beautiful thing that I can only credit to Jess’s radiant creative zeal.


Setting: A sterile, yet oddly cozy Marshallese diner. All 6 team leaders / volunteer teachers are present
Jess: “Excuse me for just a bit! I have to finish of the script guys. I’ll be right with you.”
Jess moves to stage left where there is a diner table set up and furious scribbles away the final scenes of a remix version of the five-act Comedy of Errors play in rhyming couplets – all of which, incidentally, was written in less than 45mins!

Snapshot 1:

Time: 10.13am Two hours before the cast party.
Setting: A sterile, yet oddly cozy Marshallese diner
Mission: To cast and run through the remix version of the play
Jess: “And that’s this is the part where Mike, you as Luciana are wooed by Antipholus of Laura… Hemant… no wait… Dan! Yes.”
Vinny: “Hey… how about this! What if Dan at that point wraps his arms around Mikes belly and holds onto him just as in the scene from Titanic and Mike spreads his wings out as if he’s a bird on the bow of a boat…”
Dan: “Wait… what about the kissing scene???”

Snapshot 2:

Time: 1.45pm During a lunch break at the cast party
Setting: The adjacent stage area about 300m away from the cast & crews
Mission: To rehearse the five-page script in pure improv to a rap / folk musical score that Kristin beautifully wove together on the spot.
Kristin: “Can anyone beat-box, because we’re going to need a good beat to work in Shakespeare’s prologue…”

Snapshot 3:
Time: 2.32pm
Setting: Just outside the bokanake (thatched hut where the party was going on)
Mission: To change into a tight, sweat-dried, manky set of costumes in less than two mins and to be prepared for multiple costume changes in a ridiculously short period of time
Mike: “Vinny go… go! You’re on!!”
Vinny: “Yeah but my butt and boobs aren’t in place”
Mike: “Just go!!.... (laughing) actually it looks funnier if you go with parts of your costume that aren’t quite on right!”

Snapshot 4:

Audience keeling over laughing. Slapping their knees. Slapping the chair. Slapping each other…. Lots of slapping. Oh yes… lots of slapping.

I don’t quite else know how to put it. I think the remix for the students was like looking in a mirror at the absurdity of the whole play. The whole 11weeks. The whole story, cast, and for that matter the experience. As a role reversal, they were also finally the audience. They could appreciate the show. They could now laugh. They could now sit back without the stress of costume changes, memorizing lines, being attentive to cues, dance moves, musical interludes, and backstage plate dinners finally behind them.

For me, I think part of the reason why I enjoyed that process so much was that in many ways it was a culmination of the best parts of the project jammed into the space of about two hours or so. The team coming together, having to work on a tight deadline, having to craft a collective artistic vision, and building off of each others ideas and strengths. And all in a way that lent credence to a collective humility. We were no less directors than we were actors. We were no less correct than we were prone to making mistakes. We were no less serious than we were ridiculous.

And then…. there comes a time though when it must all end. The awards are presented to every cast member and crew member. Quirky awards that is - such as “The Air Marshall Islands Award for always being grounded.” (The biggest running joke in town was the national airline that was every week promised to be running, yet would be delayed yet another week, and another week, and…oh surprise surprise, another week.

And when the awards are all given out, the slideshow is over, then come the questions. “Jess, Vinny, Kristin, will you guys be back next year?” … I have to stop to remind them, “that’s not the question you should be asking. The question you should be asking is what play will WE be producing next year? And what will it take for US to pull it off?” because as we had to remind the students – they were more than capable of pulling off a terrific show and it really doesn’t take a huge leap of the imagination to believe that they could produce and direct a show themselves. Granted it may have to be scaled down, but if they believed it was possible, then damn. It sure was.

Flash forward two days:

Setting: The teacher conference room, during lunchtime, the Tuesday following our last performance
Baren (one of the leads, a graduating senior): “You really think that we can produce a play ourselves?”
Me: “Absolutely! Look, here… take a look at how this project started. It all started with an idea. (I show him our original proposal). Then you have to build a team around the idea, and before you know it, you’re off.”

A couple of days later, after Jess had left, Kristin and then sat down with a small group of the graduating seniors and our two Assistant Directors (the MIHS grads / current college students Jason and Martha) and led them through a short workshop on how to produce a theater production in the Marshall Islands. I put together a reference sheet for all the steps to consider in building a production – starting with writing a proposal all the way up to organizing a cast party. We had the students there brainstorm ideas about how they would be able to draw on the resources available to them to be able to produce a play and I remember noticing the light sparkle in their eyes as they began to consider the possibility of what they could do themselves.

Gary, the principal at the high school told me on the second last day, “you know Vinny. The Marshallese are like hermit crabs. They hide in their shell, but when you pick them up you have to gently breath hot air onto them to coax them out of their shells. That is what you guys have done for our kids this year.”

But then again Gary, aren’t we all hermit crabs? It’s not just the Marshallese. As I sat and thought about what he said, I don’t think I would have begun to crawl out of my shell if it hadn’t been for the many teachers and roles models that I have had that have also been breathing on me encouraging me to poke my head out.

I guess it ends with final words and in some ways those were the hardest words to find. What do you tell a students who has inspired you with their resilience, their dedication, their commitment and perseverance? What do you tell a student who has so much brimming potential? What do you tell a student who you know has the ability to transform and change the way things are?

One of the quotes I put in the final slideshow sums it up best.

“Do not follow where the path may lead.
Go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.”
~ Harold R. McAlindon

Thank you to everyone who has encouraged me to go where there is no path.

To you, I am deeply indebted.