Notes From the Road:
Reflections on Moliere in South Central Los Angeles
The journey begins in early February. The schools are booked and my trusty assistant Adam has sent confirmation letters to all of the schools we will visit. I have become intimate with MAPQUEST and have studied the tangle of freeways that connect Los Angeles and it's outlying massive suburbs. My car is stocked with all the things seven actors could need on a tour: bottles of water; energy bars; Kleenex; a giant bottle of Advil; string cheese and chocolate.
This is the way the Geffen Playhouse's annual school tour begins. Armed with an amazing professional theater company, Parson's Nose Productions, whose specialty is adapting theatrical classics for families, we hit the road with Moliere's School for Wives adapted by Lance Davis, the artistic director. By the end of three weeks we will have traveled 500 miles and reached close to 5000 students.
This particular morning we arrive at a middle school situated in the shadow of the Watts Towers. As I arrive, there is a police car pulling out of the school driveway with a preteen boy in the back seat. As I sign in at the security desk located just inside the metal fence surrounding the school, the guard tells me there was a fight, the reason for the police intervention.
The auditorium is nothing special. It is the same proscenium stage with a canyon between the edge of the stage and the first row of seats. There are 800 seats, a few working lights and a sound system that doesn't work—a typical cavernous auditorium.
Our contact teacher arrives, harried, and barking orders to the students filing in the door. It is chaotic and tense, not a place conducive to art or education.
The teacher pulls Lance and I aside. While still ordering classes to their seats she tells us about the school. There have been three shootings already this year. Most of the kids have never been more than five miles from their neighborhood. They have heard there is a beach nearby but have never seen it. Most kids don't speak English as their first language. This will be the first time they have seen live theater. She thanks us for making the trip.
The kids are rowdy but miraculously become silent when the show starts. But it's not a good silent. There are no sounds. No laughter, no applause. Just quiet. I am in my usual place backstage and become alarmed. The actors don't get it either. We are concerned that they are not "getting it", are bored, or worse, asleep. The show ends and there is mild applause.
Our custom is to hold a question-and-answer session afterward with the students. The actors and I are hesitant to do so. We position ourselves onstage and the questions start. "Did you really eat snails?" "Was it really written 400 years ago?" "Was that guy (Arnulf) really thatold?" The questions kept coming. They had not only been listening but comprehending what was happening onstage.
What confused us was their behavior as an audience. The fact is they didn't know how to behave as an audience. How could they? Never having seen live theater, they didn't know you were allowed to react, laugh, clap, and enjoy.
By the end of the wrap up Lance had a large group of students onstage learning how to "age," walking like old men. Students volunteered to help us to load up our equipment and followed us out asking for autographs.
As I leave the school amidst the waving students and head towards the 110 freeway, I realize the importance of the performance in that antiquated auditorium. Even though the students at this school hadn't been five miles from their homes, for an hour they had been to Paris.#
Debra Pasquerette is Education Director at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles, California.