As Julia Schleifman begins to perform her one-person show in front of Carol Cadby’s Theater Acts IV class at Yorktown High School, her classmates, who were chattering distractedly minutes before, settle down and focus on Julia’s performance. They watch and take notes to critique her as she conveys a message through the persona of Jessica Lynch, former Iraq War POW.
THE ONE-PERSON show is the culmination of what these students have learned in the last four years of theater. Ginny Mohler describes the assignment as "something I’ve been planning since I was a freshman." She and other students have been observing and admiring one-person shows throughout their years at Yorktown. The assignment is not merely an exercise to warm up for ensemble performances. Tyler McKee states that, to the contrary, "If anything, other shows help us with this."
The assignment is not a simple soliloquy; in fact, it comprises their final exam. The end product is supposed to be 30 minutes long. The students write, direct and produce the entire piece, which incorporates music and lighting. They are also required to create a flyer and program for it. Students perform in front of the school, with the option of an evening performance, which Cadby encourages. She asks the students if they plan to invite their parents, and gets a mixed reaction. "Your parents hardly know what you do in theatre," she says with slight exasperation, adding, "[They] don’t even know what goes on in your heads."
The goal of the assignment is to convey a message through a historical figure. As Jenny Statler puts it, "It’s about communication. You need a message to drive the show." In Julia’s case, she is portraying Jessica Lynch in order to convey the message that "the media tends to exaggerate and stretch the truth," she explains before her piece begins. At moments Julia-as-Jessica is being directed as if in a Hollywood movie, and in others she is expressing her fears in her diary.
After Julia’s performance, Cadby and her students spend a few minutes discussing it. First they seek to clarify her message, to make sure they understand what she’s getting at. Then they spend some time deliberating the mechanics of the show, offering suggestions for ways that Julia can use props and effects to illustrate her message. After talking for a while, the students hand over their written notes and comments to Julia. All of the students must go through this type of critique. The final performances won’t be held until later this year, but in the meantime, students perform gradually lengthening versions for the class as they refine their acts.
Other historical figures portrayed by the students include Michael Jackson, Tupac Shakur, Judas and Bob Marley. Missy Landis, who is portraying Judy Garland, says that the message of her performance is that "things aren’t as good as they seem." John Duatschek is portraying Marlon Brando, and his message is that "fame corrupts." He spent several minutes asking the class for ideas on how to use costumes or props, illustrating that the students rely on each other’s input.
JENNY STATLER is performing as Gloria Estefan to express the message that music can get you through life’s obstacles. "With Gloria Estefan it’s easy because music got her through so many hard times," she said.
Nico, the late model, actress and singer, is being portrayed by Jane Potthast. "Her message was to live life to the fullest, but she ended up depressed and wishing for an early death. She was not involved in her own life." Jane says the hardest part of the piece is the ending, and Julia, who’s struggled with the ending to her piece on Jessica Lynch, agrees.
Alexandra Hargrove is conveying her message through George W. Bush, which she admits is a "satirical" piece. She is using his own speeches and phrases to illustrate that he has "twisted the truth," she said. Her overall message is that "power is often gained through manipulation and deceit." Even though she is using Bush’s own words, such as an excerpt from one of his post-9/11 speeches, she can portray her message by putting emphasis on certain words or dragging out sentences.
Cadby doesn’t allow applause after class performances. According to Julia, this is to ensure that "all students are shown the same amount of respect." That’s part of the reason that the students rely so heavily on the feedback of their peers. While the performance itself may only involve one person, the class as a whole works together so that each student does the best job possible. It’s clear that the students haven’t only learned how to act, but they’re learned how to give and receive criticism.