Despite vulnerabilities and weighty subject matter, it didn’t take long for the student cast of “On the Couch” to strike the perfect comfort level.
You can’t hide behind a monologue — especially if you wrote it and the words aren’t fiction. It’s hard enough to be a teenager, much less a teenager voicing your biggest worries and existential crises in front of a crowd of strangers. For many high school students, merely speaking up in class is terrifying. Imagine doing it on stage.
Written and performed by students from Southeast, Booker, Pine View and Manatee high schools, “On the Couch” is the brainchild of 11 student actors in the self-titled troupe, Truth in Fiction Theatre Artists, and the Asolo Repertory Theatre’s Leah Page and Emily Freeman, youth directors in the company’s education department.
The focus of the play is purpose — what has a purpose, what doesn’t, how purposes change with age or professional and personal milestones. And, like the title suggests, the chief prop of the show is a couch, upholstered in a kitschy fabric almost as rich as the script.
“The topic is so pertinent to these students’ lives because they’re all in period of transition,” says Freeman, who joined the Asolo staff as an intern last June. “They have complete ownership over the script. This really is about their words and what they want to share.”
However, the play is much more than just a series of teenage confessionals.
To capture age, gender and ethnic diversity, students conducted an anonymous online survey of people ages 13 to 75, and by using various social networking sites, they posed their questionnaire to family, friends, friends of friends and complete strangers, many who reside in Sarasota and Manatee counties.
The project stems from a style of devised theater in which playwrights collaborate not only with each other, but also with groups of people outside the theater world.
“The show is kind of a collage of different thoughts on purpose,” says Caroline Burkholder, a senior at Southeast High School. “A lot of the script is based on other people’s answers — some are word for word.”
The first act opens with Booker High School senior Mona Pirnot on acoustic guitar. Folksy in a pair of cutoff denim shorts and brown unlaced boots, Pirnot, a singer/songwriter with serious star potential, delivers her lines with such wit and poignancy that nary an ounce of angst is detected in the lyrics.
“I always wanted to be a feminist, but I like guys too much,” Pirnot sings. “I always wanted to be a psychologist, until I went to one. So I thought I’d be an astronaut, but I don’t like freeze-dried stuff.”
More than half of the play is based on the actual experiences and inner monologues of the students in the show, including Booker senior Zach Hlavac’s guilt over wanting to be an actor.
“This show is so personal,” says Hlavac. “It could be weird if I wasn’t so comfortable on stage. There are so many tender, vulnerable moments. It’s a very scary thing, but that scary thing is what makes it so exciting.”
Hlavac and Pirnot aren’t the only students in the script anguishing over career opportunities. Marissa Phillips, a home-schooled sophomore from Venice, wrote a monologue about her desire to play piano for a living.
Although Phillips and her older sister, Mallory, were unable to perform in the final shows due to a scheduling conflict, they contributed personal anecdotes to the script and continue to attend rehearsals.
Neither sister had performed or participated in theater prior to signing up for the theater workshop. They auditioned simply for the experience.
“A lot of emotions have come out of this experience,” says Mallory Phillips, whose dream job is to be a wedding planner. “We’ve cried. We’ve laughed,” she says. “And we didn’t know any of these kids when we got here.”
As the cast moves into a new scene, Hlavac stretches out on the couch and prepares for his first monologue. Midway through the scene, Page turns to face the Phillips sisters, who have spent the last 30 minutes sitting in the fifth row of the Cook Theatre, studying each actor’s position.
“Any suggestions, guys?” Page asks.
They immediately throw out two thoughtful blocking ideas.
On stage, Hlavac resumes his monologue.
“Does being an actor serve a purpose?” he asks. “I really do it because it makes me happy. But does theater really serve a purpose? The benefits are intangible. I can’t put the audience’s tears or laughter in a jar.”
If You Go
Truth in Fiction Theatre Artists will perform “On the Couch: An Exploration of Purpose” at 7 p.m. April 29 and April 30, at the Asolo Repertory Theatre. Tickets are $5. For more information, call 351-8000.
Contact Heidi Kurpiela at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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