Simple props on a bare stage, a grand piano and actors in black—now mix in stories of dating, aging, visiting family graves, resisting fast food, feeling lost, feeling angry, feeling better—and The Transformation Has Begun.
That’s the title of BMCC/Tribeca Performing Arts Center’s recent show in its series, Writers in Performance 2010, a culmination of three months of writing, revision, and rehearsals led by Program Director Mario Giacalone and featuring a cast of over a dozen actors, including current and former BMCC students.
“Writers in Performance is a process more than anything else,” says Giacalone, a singer/songwriter in his own right, and founding member of the Root Theater Collective and Mass Transit Street Theater. “In that process, a group of strangers from diverse backgrounds and styles come together to workshop with theater exercises, build an ensemble and develop their writing.”
The artists pooled impressive credentials—master’s degrees in performing and writing; radio, TV, off-Broadway, film and festival experience; major media publications, acting awards. They came to New York from Montego Bay, Philadelphia, Oklahoma, Harlem, and the Pacific Northwest. They’ve raised families, served in the Army, and just started college.
What they created together, is indeed transformative.
Performing starts with listening
“A big part of the workshop,” says Giacalone, “is listening to these diverse voices without comment or judgment. Also, listening in different ways through the theater exercises, we learn to ‘hear’ non-verbal communications, those made with movement, and eye contact.”
The group shares their writing in the beginning of their three months together, and Giacalone makes the final cut, working with his assistant, playwrite Caron Levis. Besides focusing on theme and poetics, they hone professional skills necessary to performers in a variety of fields.
“Once pieces are chosen, they learn how to turn something that is written, into a performance piece,” says Giacalone. “They learn about staging, blocking, timing, and how to put into practical use the ensemble work they participated in, during the beginning of the workshop. They also learn about editing and re-writing pieces.”
From war games to dating games
“I was good at doing character voices,” says Transformation writer and performer Audie Rhodes, a BMCC student and member of the Army Reserves. “I did impersonations for the sergeants and everyone. People thought I was actually hilarious.”
Rhodes first applied his comedic talent during basic training in Fort Jackson, South Carolina, and Fort Sam Houston, in San Antonio, Texas. The piece he wrote and performed for Transformations, “Dating Game,” sees the humor in another area of Rhodes’ experience—online dating.
“It’s hard enough,” he says, “to be your real self, and this character has three ‘selves’—three profiles, because he doesn’t know what he wants. He’s as oblivious to himself as he is to others.” In particular, he’s oblivious to the young lady sitting next to him, played by Tiauna Clark, who has wanted to date him, all along.
Rhodes, who studied at Rusea’s School of the Arts in Hanover, Jamaica—his country of origin—had a difficult transition to life in New York City. He found refuge in Covenant House, a shelter on 42nd Street in Manhattan, then Rites of Passage, another shelter. All the while, he continued pursuing his acting career, and on his way to perform as a guest star on Ebony and Ivory, a WVIP/New Rochelle radio show, he got lost, stopped for directions at an Army recruitment center, and found his way, so to speak, to a new career.
Now a theatre major at BMCC, Rhodes is part of the Accelerated Study in Associate Programs (ASAP), which provides a peer network and faculty mentoring for students committed to graduate with their associate degree in two to three years, then either transfer to a four-year college or enter full-time employment.
“Thanks to ASAP and the Post GI Bill,” says Rhodes, “I can pay my bills and complete my education.” That is, until the Army Reserves calls him in for deployment, his war-game and medical readiness training are put to use, and an audience of soldiers gets back one of their favorite performers.
Finding her Spark
Tiauna Clark got her start in theater at the age of five in her living room, singing an original song and accompanied by a one-eyed clown doll, according to her father, Anthony Clark, who traveled from Colorado Springs to see her performance in Transformations.
Now, Clark is a Video Arts and Technology (VAT) major at BMCC, “because things are going digital, and I wanted to learn about cameras,” she says. “I plan to be a producer and develop my own work, even if it means shooting the show myself.”
Besides writing and performing for BMCC TPAC’s Writers in Performance series, Clark is part of the College Discovery Program, and credits counselor Vanessa Rozzelle for being “the most supportive of me and my goals”—one of which is to produce a documentary, now in its planning stage.
“Spark is in preproduction,” she says. “It’s going to focus on traditionally under-represented communities and their schools, and show the inequalities of situations that create an effect on the way people in the urban setting act.”
“Missing in Action,” the piece she wrote and performs in Transformations, follows a young woman’s thought process as she considers where she’s been, where she’s going—and how tempting it is, to drop out of the race altogether.
Change is constant. Rot is useful.
The Transformation Has Begun opens with an ensemble piece by the same name, written by Jennifer Moore. “It all began with a Happy Meal,” the lyrics declare. “It shrank but did not rot.” That piece leads into Moore’s “Everything Real Rots,” looking at cultural messages that erode people’s values.
“Americans spend more money on fast food than education,” the piece goes. “Junk food, junk mind, junk love…does media make us happier?”
That theme is echoed throughout the evening’s performances, and brought to life musically with accompaniment by pianist Akie Bermiss.
Terese Loeb Kruezer, in one poignant solo piece, talks about cooking for her family, then reaching a stage in life where she is alone, ordering take-out. In another piece, she describes returning to Munich, Germany, to find the graves of her family—their presence there means they survived the Holocaust.
Vivian Chu’s piece, “I Hate This City,” reveals her disillusionment, when the acting career that helped her fall in love with New York, never happens. “He’s Coming” is a sensual piece by Lauren Popper, performed by Lauren Breland, and “High There” by Alexis-Mae Martinez examines a marijuana habit.
Others include the comic “Travel Plans,” by Miebaka Yohannes; “The Having,” by Isis Phoenix, and “I M a Warrior 2,” by Kate Foster.
BMCC alum Cassaundra Marie, who first participated in Writers in Performance when she was a theatre major at the College, wrote and performed her original piece, “Three Women.” Elicia Manners, now a Writing and Literature major at BMCC, wrote and performed two solo pieces, “Inspire” and “Wings.”
“I’d never presented my writing before,” says Manners. “It changed me. I was more of a quiet person. Now I’m more open, and when I write papers for other classes, I’m more confident. Plus I had to do a lot of revising for my pieces that went in the show, and that really helps me out with my academic writing.”
Manners, who grew up in Flatbush, Brooklyn, also notes that the symbiotic relationship between performing and being a student relates to the support she’s found in her instructors, especially Chamutal Noimann, of the English department.
“The way she teaches, she’s so passionate about it, it helped inspire me about my own work,” says Manners.
EDITOR’S NOTE: For upcoming BMCC Tribeca Performing Arts Center events, go to www.tribecapac.org