Thursday, May 16, 2013

Performance at Marillac

Lisa Golda, Opera For All Teaching Artist

It’s the times kids really step it up for the performance that make teaching artists’ work so nerve-wracking.

I mean, exciting. I mean, exciting or nerve-wracking. Which one it is, modern psychology tells us, depends upon our perception of the chemical message from our brain.

“I know your stomach hurts,” I told a particularly conscientious, and stomach-achy, student, Charmaine, just before our performance at Marillac House this past week. “It’s the kids who care who get nervous. The kids who are too relaxed will mess up. Your nerves are telling your body that it is time to focus.”  I tried to sound convincing.  After a rough dress rehearsal the day before, which with kids is generally NOT an indication that the performance will be stellar, I was convincing myself, too.

Charmaine went on to have a fantastic show, covering lines and solos for other kids last-minute, helping others to transition on time, dancing and acting with total commitment, and in general, leading her after-school group (the rest of whom did not seem very nervous) to do their very best. I was so proud of Charmaine, for a year’s worth of hard work and a new maturity evidenced so obviously in her contribution to our show. We could not have done it without her.

I was also proud of all the kids who found the focus, courage, and enthusiasm needed to make their show happen at the last minute! And not just happen, but succeed with humor, excitement, and some genuine dramatic flair. A roller coaster ride for all adults concerned, but one with a fantastic unveil at the end.

“These kids will surprise you,” Deanna, the manager at Marillac House, told me the day before our performance. It’s the first year at Marillac for COT, and the first-ever year-long residency there. What this meant for us was that kids and parents expected to transition to other projects and activities just when our participants really had to dig in and work on their material; or, from a kid’s potential point of view, right when the most exciting part of the program kicks in!

Having written their script and lyrics, memorized their songs, and created characters for most of the year, the students, come spring, get to dance and act and make set pieces. That is usually when the kids themselves are intrigued with the concrete life their formerly abstract work takes on, and that is when they get hooked on the countdown to the performance date. That’s when they start asking if we are coming back next year, and what they should wear, and mentally preparing for what can be a new (and a little scary) experience onstage.

Our kids were tempted, at that crucial point, by volleyball and a spring heat wave, sidetracked by some ISAT tutoring that they genuinely needed, surprised by the fact that there was more to come, and lacking in understanding due to inexperience as to just what it takes to get onstage and do a show. After weeks of a rotating bunch, notwithstanding a few faithful kids who were not subjected to or did not give in to other extra-curricular temptations, we finally ended up with a substantial, but under-rehearsed, cast.

Deanna, Maureen, Jalesa, Hannah, and Ersilee gave it their all once the cast solidified, adding extra rehearsal time for the kids and pushing them to succeed. Some kids got serious at that point, but some still didn’t, and we were all on that inexorable climb to the top of the coaster together. Once you get to the top—to curtain time---all you can do, no matter how prepared you actually are, is let go and enjoy the ride. But enjoying a show that is loaded with potentially unpleasant “surprises” is a tall order for a seasoned performer.

Not for these kids, evidently. Tough as life is for some of them, these kids can toss a little case of stage fright to the side with a shrug. They’ve got more substantial things to fear, which had both its advantages and disadvantages when we were trying to get them to rehearse for a far-off performance.

But when that day finally came, they smiled. They laughed. They glowed. They threw themselves into their show with greater enthusiasm and focus than I’ve seen all year. They knew their lines cold. Our beat box maestro, Jadari, kept an intricate rap beat consistent while adjusting his volume for soft-spoken kids. Sisters Dejanae and Teshara took the creative reins in their class and got the other girls on board. Britney free-styled her little heart out in the dances. Everyone soaked up the obvious pleasure of an audience of at least a hundred parents, siblings, and other Marillac kids witnessing a bunch of kids, finally, revel in the sheer excitement and postponed gratification of live performance.

As a teacher and a performer, I’ve learned to expect anything, if not to disregard the queasy stomach that the ride to the top of the coaster can provoke, and to just hang on. I was definitely relieved, but I wasn’t surprised, by the kids’ eleventh hour transformation.

But I think that the kids surprised themselves. And as any adult who has been to a kids’ party can attest—there’s nothing quite like the joy of surprise on a child’s face. Especially if it results from your gift. Kids came out for their final bow and then stood uncertainly, all boisterous silliness and bravado suddenly vanquished by an unexpected and positive limelight. I think they were startled by how good that approval and achievement felt. I don’t think they were expecting to succeed. Perhaps they were not expecting anything.

They are, now.

“Are you coming next week?” was the breathless question asked multiple times after the show by Makhai, a faithful, if sometimes recalcitrant, attendee. “Are you coming back?”

And that was the very satisfying finale to our first year at Marillac.

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