Words: The Breath of Life by Jackie Walling

Time edges its way towards 2:00 p.m. when I walk into Hardes Theater off of Central Avenue in downtown Phoenix. The dramatic foyer lighting brings me to the usher, smiling, waiting for my ticket. I smile back and want to say, “I’m with the band,” but instead I croak out something to the effect of arrangements were made and give my name. I’d come for the matinee of The Burn, an Arizona Premiere show, and a follow up interview with director E.E. Moe and the full cast. The usher waves me through with an assigned seat.

I wander into the theater hallway and it opens up to a quaint stage glossed in deep indigo light. Four school room chairs diagonally cross the left side. Stage right, I suppose, if I am correct in terminology. Stage left sits a larger desk with a rolling chair fashioned underneath, and a shoulder bag hanging off its back. A large chalkboard serves as a backdrop. I scout the seating numbers and sidle down to seat A. Front row, stage left, cozied right up to the stage. If I stick my foot out, I can probably trip one of the actors.

I’m a writer, or one in training. I like to put words on paper so they do things to people. Make them feel things, visualize things, think about things. I can draw things out, YELL AT THEM, emphasize what I want and if I think theymightreadsomethingtooquickly, I can….

Slow…..

Them.

Down.

#Withmywords.

But I rarely talk. I function brain to paper, but actors don’t have that luxury. They have to function paper to verbalization, with the brain in between. I make my words look pretty in different fonts and placements, they bring their words to life.

When the lights in the audience dim, playwright Philip Dawkins’ script of The Burn comes off the page through the bodies of the cast members. Dawkins’ words are interpreted to bring bullying and cyberbullying to the forefront of classroom conflict as the story of a high school teacher and the four lives of his students unfold. Hints of Arthur Miller’s, The Crucible, seep out to intensify the idea that “demonization of the ‘Other’” is resurfacing in society as a negative result of social media. Conflict arises in the on-stage classroom, but is shown to follow the students’ lives home by the use of social media audio effects—swoosh, bloop, bleep, ping!—and verbalizations of “hashtag,” “OMG,” “LOL,” and other commonly used lingo. Dawkins layers a plethora of societal meaning, but he stresses the struggle to find one’s identity with his clever theme of three hashtags that create the essence of the play: #seeme, #hearme, #doyouknowme.

I’m still processing everything that just happened when I informally meet the cast. J.C. Lawler—who plays Erik, the school teacher and recovering alcoholic—leads me backstage, through two curtains, past dressing rooms, into the lounge with a couch and small smattering of chairs to set up for the interview. I’m eager to get behind the scenes, literally, and into the minds of the characters I just saw on stage.

Director E.E. Moe, kind with an easy sense of humor, walks in first and we jump right to it. I ask her my big question first. How did she bring the words and this play to life?

“I’m working with a living playwright,” she says.

The playwright has the original idea, the concept, and the vision.

“My conversations were direct, Philip Dawkins really made himself available to me and to the cast.”

E.E. says she was intrigued by this play, in part, because of its relevance to addressing social issues pertinent in today’s society. Dawkins is known for focusing on younger audiences and reaching out to disenfranchised communities, but the messages his work presents cross all age divides, and the number of elements he juggles is complex. After witnessing this play, I concur.

E.E. lived with the script for five months before rehearsals even began. She developed a study guide of bullying and social media statistics for the cast to reference and required each person to read The Crucible to ground the backstory of the play. To make words come off the page, she says it is imperative “to bring the reality forward and to have the absolute truth in it.” All showings of the play were true to Dawkins’ words. “We didn’t backtrack on anything in the play, we were unapologetic about where it went, but that, I feel, is something that you need to be. Truthful with any script that you’re doing and developing.”

During this time, the five cast members trickle in—stage names Tara, Shauna, Andi, Mercedes, and Erik—and we sit together in an oval. I pose a similar question to them: how do they bring this script to life as an actor?

Mary Townsend—who plays Shauna, a female student obsessed with knowledge, but starving for everyone’s approval—says Dawkins articulated exactly what he wanted on the paper. “All the likes, the ums, the ellipsis, the pauses are all written in. As an actor, I think it’s really important to honor those things exactly as they are written.”

Megan Holcomb—who plays Andi, a female student who is gay, a great basketball player, but never off of academic probation—agrees stating, “I want to acknowledge the writer and the specific words he chose and not use a synonym word.”

Townsend says, “The main goal is to be word perfect because there is a reason these words were chosen. We want to be respectful of that. If those words are not perfect, it’s our job to make sure that we get the same point across and that we move onto the next part to make sure all the points [of the play] get across.”

Even a single word change such as “can’t” vs “cannot” can significantly change the context and meaning of the line. E.E. says, “The playwright’s words are sacred.”

When the actors receive the script for the first time, they read the whole script straight through, solely for the story. Then they read as individual characters. This is when each character starts to come alive, through the perceived relations to other characters as well as the storyline itself.

When it comes to memorizing, each actor has their own tricks. Townsend favors reading the script aloud right away. Holcomb is an auditory learner and uses an app to record her lines so she can listen to them anywhere. Lawler is also an auditory learner, but emphasizes “giving life to the lines” is what really helps him learn.

Lawler says, “I depend on blocking when we are in rehearsals. I’ll try different variations until I find something.” Blocking refers to the movement of actors and how they are staged in the play. He describes trying out different places and movements on stage, and through this process of trial and error, some lines or “moments of clarity” begin to take shape. He states, “Put the time and effort into memorizing, not just mentally, but physically. There is something to be said for muscle memory whenever you are reciting these lines or talking.”

Regardless of learning method, the whole room laughs when it’s admitted the first read through sounds completely different from the second.

While the words are sacred, the actors are responsible for the phrasing of those words and develop their characters from the written text. E.E. says, “When you’re developing character, the main source is the text itself. What other people say about you is really significant, there are major clues right there. About the nature of your character, what you say to other people. You go to the text, it’s the rehearsal and verbalization.”

When I ask about the intricacies involved with character development, Bethany Baca—who plays Mercedes, a Latina Christian Conservative perceived as the ‘outsider’ at school—says it depends on if she can personally relate to the character. She stresses the importance of doing her own homework. “You need to focus on your character, what’s your background, make sure you know who you are as a character itself as opposed to being unsure.”

In a sense, what the play calls for is #doyouknowme or maybe even #doyouknowyourself.

“Every play is a human being on this Earth and that’s the beauty of acting, is that we can, not mimic, but just be human to another human that’s on this planet,” says Baca.

The script should be a natural dialog. The words are taken at face value, but when they are vocalized in context, the natural phrasing begins to take shape and the character traits are released within the context of the scene. The words begin to shape the character so that later, the character can shape their words.

Townsend says, “It’s our job to figure out what our character’s motivation is, what obstacle they’re facing in that scene, what the moment is before coming on stage,” and she emphasizes to “do your part in rehearsal.”

All of the actors receive line notes during rehearsals and are “kept honest” by stage manager Zachariah Fallon. He consults with the actors about missed lines or flubbed words. The actors take those notes home and apply them to improve their performance. Many plays are structured with redundant phrasing, important to the informing aspect of the play and driving the message home. Fallon’s job is necessary to ensure the actors are staying true to the script throughout the arduous process of rehearsals.

I ask the group if they ever feel intimidated by the character they are portraying.

Mia Johnson—who plays lead role Tara, an intelligent black female student who’s popular, but “fiercely attacks” outsiders—is completely opposite of her character. She’s thoughtful as she says, “I didn’t feel intimidated, but I felt very challenged.”

For all of these actors, it comes back to the relevance of the play and the need for this story to get told. “Every time we have a show we’re impacting people through the story that Dawkins wrote,” Johnson explains. She rises to the challenging role of Tara because of her personal interest in the character. “She has this wall up and that’s what a lot of kids deal with. I need to be this character to help the story get told.” She also mentions how putting on her high heels helps turn her normal class to sass.

Holcomb adds, “I might feel intimidated sometimes by what my character needs to do, but I don’t feel intimidated by my character. My character doesn’t have a voice unless I am the voice for them and so I feel privileged to take that on. It’s like I’m working with my character and we are presenting who this person is on stage.”

They’re passionate consensus? They choose their characters and the stories they believe in and what they want to fight for.

Lawler states, “We [all people] are made of stories, we tell stories, and we listen to stories so I think it’s important to tell people’s stories. It’s important to tell those stories no matter what the obstacles may be.”

There’s beauty in the words that make stories, their desire to be told, to be written, to be shared and translated into a larger meaning. The passion these actors have for their work comes out in their performances and in the words they choose to share with me. I feel fortunate, that with my words, I can share just a fraction of the work that goes into how these actors express theirs.


Originally from Indiana, Jacklyn Walling is an MFA candidate studying creative nonfiction at Northern Arizona University. She enjoys writing about the realities of life and has a vested interest in horses. Her work has been published in the magazine Chrome.


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