There’s no truer gauge of the success of a production for young audiences than a middle school matinee. On February 5, at 10:00 a.m., I attended a performance of the Youth Performance Company’s But My Soul is Rested at the Howard Conn Fine Art Center with an almost full house of middle school students from Fridley, and the very vocal reactions proved a ruthless and enlightening barometer of the play’s truthfulness and effectiveness.
Before the play began, YPC’s Artistic Director Jacie Knight gave an opening speech reminding the students to not squeak their shoes during the performance, and to be respectful of the other audience members and the actors. She explained that the play was about three incidents in history: the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the Vietnam demonstrations at Kent State, and the Tiananmen Square massacre. She said that she hoped the portrayals of people standing up for their rights would inspire the students to lift up their own voices against injustice. “Our universe needs people like you to lift up your voice,” Knight said. She gave examples from today’s society where people might need to lift their voices: homelessness, the environment, or people in need in Haiti. She said action could be writing a congressperson, donating money, or simply speaking and talking about what the students believed in. “I hope you will be inspired to get involved,” Knight said.
I’m not sure if the noble goals of the production—to inspire the students to change their world for the better—actually rubbed off. It would be nice if they did. There were some moments where the students seemed engaged, and even reluctantly clapped their hands along with the music. On the other hand, there were other moments where the students openly guffawed and giggled at what was happening on stage.
The somewhat disrespectful behavior of the students told me two things. It told me that the children need to be instructed on how to behave properly when seeing theater, and it also told me that the moments that they disengaged was when the production failed. When the actors were being untruthful, the kids laughed. When the action onstage was hammed up and not fully alive in the actors’ bodies, the audience would start talking and looking at each other. Sometimes I wish that all audiences would be this honest in reacting to the theater: perhaps it would force theater companies to curb their tendencies toward overacting in general.
|but my soul is rested, playing through february 21 at the howard conn fine arts center in the plymouth congregational church. for tickets ($12 adults, $10 children) and information, see youthperformanceco.com.|
To be fair, many of the performers themselves were high school students, so I won’t single out any of the most egregious scenery-chewers. Part of YPC’s mission is to train young actors, so hopefully the experience of performing for not-very-polite middle schoolers will help them to curb their melodramatic tendencies.
On the other hand, there were some genuinely lovely moments as well, and at those times the vocal audience held their breath. In particular Cydni Shepard and Shelbi Montgomery, two high school students at the St. Paul Conservatory, who played Louella and Marion in the Montgomery scenes, captivated everyone sitting in the house with their heartfelt portrayals and their clear, strong voices. The two actresses had a duet entitled “Mama Didn’t Raise No Fool,” composed by Kahlil A. Queen, which was sweet and during which the audience was completely silent. In the opening and closing numbers, Shepard’s gorgeous solos inspired thunderous applause. In addition, Julia Sewell, who played Louisa, added to the Montgomery scenes with a grounded stage presence.
Other successful moments of the show included some great ensemble scenes. Knight is skilled at weaving the scenes together, and Queen’s choreography was effective in creating emotionally engaged moments throughout the play.
I hope that, despite themselves, the middle school students were able to get some of the play’s message. Lord knows we need to bring up young people who care about the world around them, who aren’t afraid to stand up against what is wrong. Eventually, they’ll probably learn how to go and see a play without being completely rude, but until then, I appreciate their honesty. They are the best critics, after all.
Correction: Two actresses were previously misidentified in this article: Cyndi Shepard and Shelbi Montgomery play the two girls (who are friends, not sisters) in the Montgomery Boycott scenes; also, it is Shepard, not Montgomery, who opens and closes the production.