Actor Dana Case, playing the role of Marty, shares her impressions upon reading CIRCLE MIRROR TRANSFORMATION for the first time:
- I like the simplicity of it. The musicality.
- Quick snippets that are filled.
- Sort of Pinteresque. So much between the lines.
- I care about these characters.
- It starts out seeming trite, but steadily grows in depth.
- Ends with hope.
I jumped at the chance to direct this Obie Award-winning play because there are so many things that I love about Annie Baker’s work: the motley crew of quirky characters, the naturalistic way that her characters speak with sparse, nuanced dialogue, the clues that are revealed but not put together until scenes later, and her fascination with small-town sensibilities.
Annie Baker was highly influenced by Chekov, and, like Chekovian characters, these Shirley, Vermont residents are preoccupied with learning to accept disappointment in their lives. The lovelorn characters, regretful over misspent youth and missed opportunities, bump up against each other in poignant moments that are touching and awkward and funny.
I was drawn to the role of Marty immediately because, like her, I am a teacher. I must admit, I still tear up a little when Marty is disappointed that Schultz’s family exercise hasn’t worked — she feels she has let him down. Most of the exercises that Annie Baker showcases in her script are based on the teaching practices of Viola Spolin, whose work was intended to help actors focus their awareness in order to respond authentically to the given circumstances of a script. “Circle, Mirror, Transformation” is an improv favorite that acting teachers have used for years.
One of the challenges in producing Circle Mirror Transformation is the many blackouts and the lack of an intermission. Annie Baker is obsessed with pauses and silences and cares more for content than form. “Circle Mirror Transformation without pauses is a satire,” she says, and she provides a chart with instructions as to the duration of each pause or silence, long or short. We are honoring the playwright by following her instructions exactly as prescribed.
My painful separation from the show has already happened – we opened. The experience is kind of like sending kids to college; as a parent, you want to hover, but you also know that they need to forge ahead on their own.
I first read CIRCLE MIRROR TRANSFORMATION with a group of NVA actors. Dana Case, Jack Missett, Daren Scott, Amanda Sitton, the late Sandra Ellis-Troy (pictured left), and I were participating in an Ensemble retreat out in Palm Desert. We read about 6 plays that weekend, and, of all the plays we read, this one stood out as the most exciting for NVA to produce.
We applied for the rights to produce the play, but we were denied for two years in a row because of other planned productions. We were thrilled to receive the rights for Season 13, which enabled us to produce the San Diego premiere of this prize-winning play.
What I love about this story is that it arrives at universal truths through simple storytelling. The show is remarkably subtle. Annie Baker trusts her audience to get to know these characters and travel with them through the story. She gives us time to meet them, time to get to know them, and time to share what they are going through.
There’s no big dramatic action that happens in this play. It’s about ordinary people in a small town, going through relatively ordinary things. But, through the work of a creative drama class, the characters’ inner workings are revealed: slowly, comically, intimately, and beautifully. It’s a perfect piece for the NVA stage.
Come and take the time to get to know Marty, James, Theresa, Schultz, and Lauren. We firmly believe that you’ll be glad you did.
The quality of Circle Mirror that first attracted me was how different it was from everything I’ve read, seen, and performed. It was atmospheric -a meditation, as the playwright described it. I’ve always been taught that plays are “heightened reality,” and I generally agree with that. But if we apply that concept too rigidly, we fail to recognize the grit of pure “reality.” Circle Mirror does away with traditional plotline and contrived dialogue and still ends up in a totally different place than where it began. There’s something extremely intimate about this approach that tells the everyman that his/her real life is represented in art and is capable of radical change. I realized later that my attraction to Circle Mirror also stemmed from recognition of a similar transformation that had occurred in my own life.
I started “serious-actor-training” when I was thirteen, basically by accident, when my best friend who I thought I was in love with asked me to accompany him to a scary adult class that evening so he wouldn’t be alone. Obviously I went. And that turned out to be my first exposure to New Village Arts; Lisa Berger (now co-owner of Meisner/Chekhov Integrated Training Studio) was teaching a Meisner class there, and I ended up staying for over three years. Long story short, her class prompted my networking, and I ended up training and performing at NVA, MiraCosta College, Patio Playhouse, and my high school. I remember severe anxiety every time I had to speak in front of my Meisner class. I remember not being able to focus on anyone but myself/my performance/my reception and preceding everything I said with an apology. After being given the opportunity to work with people who eclipsed me in skill tenfold, and having been forced to stand by my work in that environment no matter where I was in my journey, I have transformed.
But I’m not done yet! I feel like that’s such a superficial way to illustrate success stories. I didn’t stop growing when I was cast in this show just like Lauren doesn’t stop growing after her six weeks in Marty’s class. I was shocked when I heard that I would be playing Lauren. The actors in this cast have more years of experience than I have of my life, and I’m trying to learn as much as I can from working with them. As for “creating meaning,” probably every good actor I know has told me that they’re frequently troubled by the idea that they don’t really know what they’re doing. So describing the technique is a difficult thing to do, especially because I’m such a baby actor. Robert DeNiro said, “Sometimes I get moments I know are right on the head, almost an epiphany, knowing you’re exactly there; you’re in the moment, in character. Most of the other times it’s just a struggle to get through it and hope that it’s right.” My experience thus far has been pretty similar. Some of the most important things I’ve learned so far include:
- Trust your instincts; they are good.
- You can’t ruin everything. It’s a play. It’s bigger than you.
- You don’ t have to “solve” the play, you only have to interpret it.
- First-year Meisner work, though it has positively shaped my life, has also caused me to lean towards self-indulgent, playing-at-emotion-acting that I need to keep in check.
- Focusing on the other person is the groundwork for everything.
- I am still learning.
• So . . . you share a first name with one of the greatest playwrights of all time, Anton Chekov. Any connection there?
Anton is a name used a lot by Russians, Anton Chekhov was Russian and an actor, and I’m part Russian and an actor… maybe I am the reincarnation of Anton Chekhov!
• Who are your acting inspirations?
As cliché as it may be, the winner goes to Johnny Depp.
• When did you first become involved in theatre? What was that experience like?
My first experience in the theatre was an ensemble role in my high school production of Hairspray and I had so much fun and it just felt so right to step on that stage. One production wasn’t enough so I had to keep doing it!
• How did being part of the Junior Ensemble prepare you for working on stage at NVA?
The Junior Ensemble had given me the tools and training I needed to perform at a professional level in a professional environment.
• What’s your dream role? Or, if you could play any role, what would it be?
If I could play any role, it would have to be Sweeney Todd or Jean Valjean (which I will play one day) =]
• What’s your spirit animal? (Bet you didn’t see that one coming!)
No, I didn’t see it coming! Umm, it would have to be a walrus cuz walruses are awesome! (duh)
• How old are you, if you don’t mind us asking?
• Are you a local boy?
Yep! I’ve lived in Oceanside since I was 7.
• Do you have any hidden talents?
I sing opera, I am a professional sign spinner, I can solve a Rubik’s cube in 60 seconds
• What do you want to be when you grow up?
I want to be a professional actor.
• And finally, since your first mainstage show here at NVA was WAIT UNTIL DARK . . . are YOU afraid of the dark?
Yes, I actually have nightmares that Daren will come after me in the middle of the night and try to murder me. Good thing I have a night light!!