By RORY LANCE
Trust in your students, and they will yield unimaginable results.
Two very talented students of mine, Ian and Andrew, had great faith that a student production of Waiting For Godot was a possibility and campaigned for it in the months leading up to their senior year. Throughout my career as a drama teacher, the list of shows that I thought were beyond high-schoolers had grown shorter and shorter with each demonstration of achievement onstage. A play was too challenging for high-school students only until you came across that particular group who had both the talent and desire to conquer it. So after Ian’s and Andrew’s very effective pitch, I decided to direct Godot for our fall studio production. After an exceptional set of auditions, I cast Ian as Vladimir and Andrew as Estragon. Pozzo would be played by Sean, a talented comedian and visual artist. Lucky would be played by Daniel, an intense and insightful playwriting student, and John, two years younger than the rest of the cast, would be our Boy.
The cast list was posted at 8 a.m. on Tuesday, September 11, 2001. One hour later the lives of these five boys, as well as everyone else in the world, changed.
“We’ve been attacked!” screamed Rachel, earphones still on her head as she entered my Contemporary Drama class and began giving minute-by-minute updates. So began the most surreal day I have ever spent in a classroom. The administration delayed making an announcement for fear of panicking the students, but of course, that was only making them feel worse. Most students in 2001 were already wired and outside information was constantly floating in. The administration’s silence was just adding to the confusion.
One student was twitching in his seat. “What’s up?” “My mother works at the World Trade Center.” “Go down to the office and tell them you need to use the phone and see if you can get through.” Finally, the administration got on the P.A. system and did the best they could to inform and calm the students. After that initial announcement the P.A. did not stop, for every few minutes another student was called to the main office where their parents were waiting to take them home. Finally, the whole school system shut down and everyone was sent home.
When we were allowed to return to school, I was back in my Contemporary Drama class when I saw the boy who had been twitching in his seat. “How is everything? How’s your mother?” “She got out safely.” “I hope you celebrated.” “We haven’t stopped.” I haven’t the slightest memory of what I'd said that day to try to keep my students calm and secure. But many months later, a group of our seniors were discussing their time at Edward R. Murrow High School just before graduation. Tim, a very dedicated theatre student, thanked me for the way I handled myself. “You said all the right things and took some of the fear away.”
For the first few days after classes resumed, all after-school activities were cancelled, so we couldn't begin rehearsals for Godot. So my five young actors took it upon themselves to meet in each others’ homes to start reading through and familiarizing themselves with the play. Every day they would report back to me with questions and observations, and I would give feedback as a remote director. Then we were finally able to begin rehearsals in earnest.
The original manuscript of Waiting For Godot was written in French in a child’s composition book, but the amount of critical analysis of the play takes up two shelves at Barnes and Noble. Where to begin? I read Samuel Beckett’s notebooks and other people’s notebooks on Beckett’s notebooks. We spent the first week of rehearsal talking about everything and anything the students had discovered in their own research. As we started to put the play on its feet, I decided to try something I never had before. Since there was such an immense amount of interpretation, I decided to keep all options open. When an actor had a question, I would offer three possible solutions. When they asked which one I preferred, I would recommend that they let all three live in their head. Whichever one rose to the surface at a particular moment -- that's the one to follow. Kids love the freedom to participate and make decisions. They were all eager to embrace a method where each moment would be discovered at each performance, the opposite of what they were used to with more traditional plays.
The subway system was shut down for days after the attack, so I had to drive to work. I would ordinarily drive down the West Side and into the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel, but the whole West Side was closed off, so I had to travel down the East Side and over the Brooklyn Bridge. When they finally opened up the tunnel, I got my first glimpse of Ground Zero. It was colorless. Everything was covered in gray ash, the only color you saw. Gray structures, gray road, gray sky, gray everything. I told the boys, “I think I just saw the world of this play today, a world devoid of any color.” My impromptu experience was very effective in helping to “color” the dramatic world we were trying to create.
These five young actors had a profound and unique experience. They attempted to tackle one of the most influential theatrical works of the twentieth century, open to endless interpretation, at a time when America was forced to reassess every reality it had ever known. The crisis we were facing gave this cast insights no other company had ever had to work with. And the play itself helped us to understand the gravity of the moment we were all living through in real time. The world and the theatre collided -- and these boys, caught in the middle, created something important from it all.
Rory Lance is the stage and pen name of Player Rory Schwartz. He is an accomplished character actor on both the musical and dramatic stages and in numerous film and television projects. He has also spent much of his career teaching and introducing young people to the joys and challenges of the theatre. This piece was adapted from his book My Year In Vaudeville.