Innovation on Campus
One Class Alters Three Lives
“It was like punching through a concrete wall, but on the other side of the concrete was something I never knew I needed.”—Connor Sofia, student
When sophomore R. Tyndal Mitchell signed up for Alternative Performance Methods at Georgia Tech, she thought it would be “just a fun theater class.” A neuroscience major and a member of the campus improv troupe, she was blithely confident that she’d be performing work created by others. So if a scene didn’t work, she could blame the writer. She was so wrong.
Tyndal would end up writing an original monologue and delivering a performance—so revealing—that it would move her friends and leave her mother in tears, even as Tyndal tap-danced across the stage in flippers.
Kushal Shankar, a junior majoring in biomedical engineering and headed for a career as a pediatric surgeon, delved deep into his life mission—to give people joy in a chaotic and destructive world—and found an answer to a question that had been gnawing at him for years: “How do I distract people through theater but convey my own truth?”
Connor Sofia, 23, was majoring in biomedical engineering and interested in creating “better prosthetic limbs, better pacemakers—things that help people live better lives with less pain.”
Like Kushal, Connor had some serious dramatic arts training under his belt. He certainly didn’t expect this course to upend everything he thought he knew about creating a character on stage. It did. But the big surprise came from his reaction to the series of experiences that drove the class forward. For Connor, they were “like punching through a concrete wall, but on the other side of the concrete was something I never knew I needed.”
Tyndal, Kushal and Connor. Just three of the 11 people who signed up for Alternative Performance Methods. All were members of DramaTech, the student theater group at Georgia Institute of Technology. Kushal says the 11 made a pact to take the class together. That, and they really liked Melissa Foulger, artistic director of DramaTech and an award-winning director on the Atlanta theater scene. She’d be teaching. They knew nothing about Joe Sykes, the actor who would be working with her and guiding students through a new world of performance techniques.
The New Guy
Teaching this particular course would require a very special skill set. It would engage students in devised theater—a form of collaborative creation that does not begin with a script but yields one after a process that is physically, emotionally and intellectually demanding. Joe Sykes, the unknown teaching partner and an actor with more than 15 years of theater and film experience, knew the rigors of devised theater first hand. He’d been in many productions and pre-production workshops that exploited its creative potential.
“Having worked with Joe as an actor on several occasions and knowing the rigorous amount of study that he has accomplished in this area,” Melissa says, “it seemed like a natural fit. This class was something that I was always interested in doing. I had done the theoretical work, but the hands-on exercise work was outside of my scope. Having Joe to work with on that piece helped balance the class in a way that allowed the students to learn both sides fully.”
Melissa was confident their “co-teaching” partnership would work: “Joe is a listening actor who enjoys learning. When working as an educator, you must listen to the needs of the student and adjust as you see fit. It is a delicate process and I knew Joe would handle it well.”
At first, students were wary, but Joe proved to be a vital part of their transformative experience. “My first impression of Joe was that he was one of the more hard cut professionals—actor people—I’d ever seen,” Connor says. “He would very casually slip into these exercises without giving us context but I never felt confused. I always felt I was being provided with exactly what I needed at the moment and I trusted him. There was never a moment when I felt like, ‘Oh, no. Joe is going to throw me over the edge and I’m going to be embarrassed.’ I always felt he gave me just enough or that I had enough inside of me to proceed with whatever he wanted to do.” Because Joe fostered such trust, Connor says, he was able to take more risks and stretch his skills further than he ever had before. He even learned a few new things about the nature of innovation.
“Joe helped me mature both professionally and personally,” Connor says. “I respect the man so much. I’ve had professors who… lack tact. Joe has been nothing but a levelheaded, down-to-earth instructor who I feel really cares about me.”
Tyndal put it differently: “I’m so thankful for this class and for Joe—for being himself and goofy and serious and critical and kind.”
Kushal, who thrives at the intersection of science and theater, says, “Joe has the most interdisciplinary approach to theater I think I’ve ever had out of any instructor—in 15 years of theater. It’s truly remarkable. He takes things and he explains them in the context of your field of study. I think that’s something that’s really rare and something that needs to be rewarded and harnessed a lot more in the theater community. “
Kushal draws parallels between Joe’s problem solving methods and those used in biomedical engineering. Joe’s directive “to start with your ‘ultimate concern’ then break it down” complemented the use of integrative sciences in Kushal’s field. “So it was really helpful to take two problem-solving classes—one in fine arts and one in a STEM field—and see how beautifully they mesh and how you can take a problem solving method from biomedical engineering and apply it to theater and vise versa. So, yeah, I think it was really good to see both of my favorite things—theater and biomedical engineering—blend in this class.”
There was no doubt from the get-go that the course would be rigorous. The prime directive at Georgia Tech’s fine arts program is that students can leverage science and fine arts studies—and excel at both.
Weeks before the course began, Melissa and Joe framed a challenging three-part curriculum that would cultivate advanced skills.
The first third of the course focused on Viewpoints training, designed to give actors a common movement vocabulary. “Viewpoints training helps actors form a stronger, like-minded ensemble,” Joe says. “That in turn makes innovative staging and the production of original work possible. It encourages actors to listen and move organically, rather than forcing action on stage.”
The four weeks of Viewpoints training began with simple exercises, as when students were asked to mime serving a tennis ball repeatedly. “What happens to that action when we speed up or slow down the tempo?” Joe says. “How does the meaning of the action change? Slowed down, the action seems like a religious exultation. Sped up it looks like you’re drowning.” Over time, exercises and their implications became far more complex.
Under the Viewpoints umbrella came Composition work, which required the student ensemble to use prescribed ingredients to create a short narrative or a performance of an idea. Ingredients might include drastic changes in tempo, moments of repetition, 30 seconds of laughter, an explosion, or more startling elements. Wrangling such elements into a meaningful performance—often with just minutes to prepare—tested and furthered student skills in atypical story creation.
Melissa and Joe worked under a tight schedule during these classes. “I’d plan out classes to the minute,” Joe says. He began by warming up the class with Chairman Mao’s 4-Minute Workout—a taxing array of calisthenics. For this sequence, Melissa lectured on concepts and Joe led performance applications. (Later in the course, Joe would also lecture. Eventually both would facilitate the development of individual performances, acting as mentors, guides, directors, confessors and stagehands.)
The second third of the class focused on the Rasaboxes experience. Developed by theater maker Richard Schechner, Rasaboxes is a training exercise that develops an actor’s physical ability to portray emotions. In this class, the Rasaboxes experience acted as a springboard to character creation.
Along the way, there were multiple writing assignments—a surprise to some students. They were asked to write about Otherness, an Obsession or Passion, and most importantly their Ultimate Concern—as artists and as people. They kept class journals. The collection of probing and candid writings would help shape the original characters students would create and inhabit in the final performance—the third focus of the class. In this final performance, students would perform monologues revealing and enlivening their characters.
Throughout the course, movement was essential—agile, strong and expressive. And as the artistic challenges posed by course content escalated so did the physical challenges.
“One thing I think is hilarious,” Connor says, “is if you watched our final show with no context as to the class, you would have absolutely no idea the hours and hours of work it took to get to the place we were at. We went through physical and emotional, not trauma, but almost. We did this thing called Suzuki, which is like a physical stretching exercise. In Suzuki, you do these stretches that are basically impossible. They’re physically demanding and you can do them sitting or standing or kneeling. The idea is to make your body the perfect shape. It was a way for us to learn body shapes. I understand the motivation now.
“But the thing that Joe always reminded us when we were like 30 seconds into a position that was painful and uncomfortable but also physically strengthening was ‘Don’t forget, guys. This is impossible.’ And he’d always casually throw that out there that perfection is unachievable. But he didn’t say, ‘Oh, god, you can’t do this.’ He was like, ‘Don’t worry about it.’ That seemingly lax attitude didn’t detract from the motivation to get it right or to do it well. It kind of strengthened it in a way. My apprehensions about doing it wrong, with every exercise that we did, went away because of the way he taught it. He made me feel that no matter what I did, I wouldn’t fail at it. And that made me go further and further and further every time we did an exercise.”
The course in devised theater and alternative performance methods would have challenged even the most dedicated theater arts majors but the elective carried particular perils for the Georgia Tech students.
Melissa explains: “Georgia Tech students are driven by their brains and logic. They are scientists and they want to think about everything from that point of view. The work that we do in the theater has a logic, but it also relies on tapping into emotion in a way that no other class would offer them at Georgia Tech. Even in scripted work, there is a sense of logic prescribed by the playwright through the text that makes it more accessible for the students. This type of work in devised theatre styles is something that is terrifying for the typical Georgia Tech student. There are no rules. There are no limits. It requires you to look at yourself and use that as material for your work.
“Joe was able to guide the students through this terrifying task with a level-headed guidance that built a strong level of trust between instructor and student, so that they could open up and create the wonderful material that was part of the final show. He came in every day prepared—and then some—but was also flexible based on the need and energy of the class.”
A set of questions formed the core of the course and set the parameters for the students’ exploration. Joe explains: “What makes a character? To answer that question simply, an actor looks at a script, sees what his character says, what the other characters say about him, and what the character does within the given circumstances. Reading, learning, observing, and inferring are all part of an actor’s homework. There’s no limit to that but that’s where you start. You start with the script. But what if there isn’t a script? Where do you start? How does an actor create something out of nothing? And why would you want to do that?”
Answering these questions led the class of 11 students along a path of innovation. They would create and enliven wholly original characters. An audience would meet these fully formed characters at the end of the semester at the final performance. They would create, not thin fantasy characters or action franchise heroes, but original characters expressing humanity in its dysfunctional and valiant complexity—characters worth watching because they revealed something important about the human condition.
“All of what we did led students methodically to the original work of the final performance,” Joe says.
“This kind of character creation helps actors when they finally do attack scripts. But more importantly, as I told the students, it’s an opportunity to do something that’s never been done before. Something that’s never been seen because it’s coming from you, the student, the actor. And the only outside influences are everything that’s ever happened to you. All the things you’ve seen and heard and experienced, along with all the books, plays and media. But it’s your real life too.”
And, whether planned or unplanned, Alternative Performance Methods employed a paradigm long used by the science and engineering programs at Georgia Tech: When solving a problem, first observe, probe, record. But what happens when the space to be observed, probed and recorded is human space, interior human space? That’s where the Rasaboxes came into play.
“If the students had gotten a call from Mom and Dad asking them what they learned this year, they’d all go into Rasaboxes,” Joe says, “because it is the most alien topic. It was new to them.”
Think of a pattern of nine (3’x3’) very large boxes taped onto the floor. Each box is labeled with a Sanskrit word and it’s English translation. The pairs of words identify the primary emotions paired with their modes of expression—their rasa. Loosely translated, the pairs are desire/love; humor/laughter; pity/grief; anger/anger; energy/ vigor; fear/shame; disgust/disgust; surprise/wonder.
“Students began,” Joe says, “with magic markers on big sheets of paper, devising expressions, leaving drawings, words, and stories that defined each rasa for them personally. Then they got on their feet and jumped into a box. The thoughts and images they had just recorded shaped their bodies, altered their expression. In that space they tried with every ounce of energy to embody the rasa they had just described on the sheets. They twisted and bent, exalted and sang.”
Then they moved through the boxes outlined on the floor, performing, interpreting, and expressing the emotions represented within each box. “We gave them time to reflect and reenter the boxes. Sometimes they moved through the boxes alone; sometimes they visited in pairs, exploring and expressing together.”
Literally jumping into expression of emotions was new for many of the students.
“I have been doing improv for the past two years,” Connor says. “Improv is just throwing yourself into things and trying to be ok with whatever happens. Joe’s sessions were like improv on steroids. Improv is like throwing yourself into a lake. Joe’s class is skydiving.”
They all jumped.
“I think one of the most important things for me,” Kushal says, “was Joe would say, ‘Ok, we’re going to jump into this. We’re going to use what we’ve used in the class so far, so Viewpoints—duration, tempo—all that. And we’re just gong to channel this emotion and you’re going to write down real life examples—what makes you feel fear, what makes you feel anger and we’re going to jump into it.’ I think that was my favorite part of the whole course, Joe just saying, ‘Here we’re going to jump into this. Trust yourself because I trust you.’”
Still the work was not easy.
“The Rasaboxes were an incredible experience from both ends,” Tyndal says. “It forced me to look at emotions in a way that I hadn’t before and it forced me to look at emotions as something raw…. It was structured but not structured. We would go box to box but it was up to us what we did. We did a lot of physical work with it as well. Within each Rasabox we were to physically embody what we think that emotion is to us and Joe would come around and say, ‘I see what you’re doing but do it more. Feel it harder.’ He really pushed us. It was strange to know someone was watching you when you were in the moment—so focused. But being told ‘feel it harder’ required myself and everyone else to dig deeper and I know that’s what he wanted from us and ultimately what helped us in succeed and create characters that had so much depth.”
Joe recalls working with one student, “I’d say, ‘You know, you’re pretty good but you’re not doing anything with your fingers. It’s pretty good but let’s make it more intense. What happens when you bring your left arm backwards and you lift your chin up? Oh, it’s so much more intense now that you’ve engaged more muscles, more parts of your body—it’s a clearer picture, a stronger image.”
The student was skeptical. “He always thought that was a little bit of bullshit—acting with your whole body,” Joe says. But after seeing Joe play an exasperated Oberon in a contemporary take on A Midsummer Nights Dream, he understood. “He said, ‘Joe, you’re right. You’re right. I could see you acting with every piece of your body. I could see the tension in your hand….’ It’s not the most impressive thing, but it is acting with your whole body. If the audience could see just my hand, they wouldn’t have to see my face. If you can act well with your face and your torso, how much better can you do it when you engage everything else? So the student was excited, saying, ‘That was great. I get it!’ And I’m thinking, ‘Oh, my gosh. It worked!’”
“Every step we took led to the creation of our final characters and the final performance,” Tyndal says. “But in every step we did, Joe showed us and believed in us and showed us that he felt we were creating something worth seeing—even the stuff that didn’t make it into the show. It’s like if you watch someone in awe as they create their art. That’s what he would do for us. And that was so rewarding—to have someone with such high skill show us and tell us that our work was hitting what he wanted and that we were doing it well. And he was proud of us. That was just great.”
For Tyndal, there was an added, very personal benefit to the Rasaboxes work. “It’s helped me with negative emotions especially,” she says. “If I can’t tell if I’m angry or sad, I can think back to what I did physically to embody those emotions and how that physicality made me feel. If I’m lying in my bed in a certain way, I can think, ‘This is close to what I did when I was embodying sadness. I’m probably feeling sad; let me address that.’ It’s an outside-in approach. We all seem to start from within, which seems to be such a confusing cloud.”
Joe explains the artistic process: “Within the Rasaboxes, students embody an emotion. You’ve taken a word that you have some knowledge of—everyone understands what the word disgust means, or the word shame—and you’re trying to define it with just your body and it may start off stereotypical but when you allow the details to creep in, it becomes much more exciting, much more dynamic. The reasons behind the shape or form of the body are personal to the performer, but universal to the audience.”
Joe is animated when he talks about the value of the Rasaboxes experience to the Georgia Tech students. “These are scientists and engineers. They are people used to thinking before speaking, thinking before doing—and that’s a smart thing to do in all aspects of your life—but in a safe environment, where you’re being asked to come up with original work, sometimes the best thing to do is not think and just do.
“And that moment where you are physically exerted and your brain is blanked—through exercise rather than meditation; meditation would take too long; it’s only an 80-minute class—that moment when you jump into the Rasabox and something takes over your body, you have a moment to be a singular being inside a box and, yeah, you thought of these ideas—what it is to be enraged—but it’s going through you freely, without any stops, any impasses. To even touch that with your pinky finger is a great accomplishment.”
Joe takes the thought a step deeper. “It’s so hard in acting to believe yourself, while you’re doing it. To think you’re being truthful. When an actor says something like, ‘I could feel myself becoming the character,’ I’m doubtful. As an actor, you’re always outside yourself; you have to be. To be a technically sound performer, you have to be aware of where your light is and how you can be heard and whether what you’re doing can be interpreted in the way that you think it should be interpreted. There are all these technical aspects. But in Rasa, which is not a performance, the students have a moment to be a singular being inside a box experiencing pure expression.”
And they did. “If you ask me right now,” Connor says, “how I feel about anguish I can give you an answer…. But when I was in Joe’s class, in that Rasabox, I was nothing but anguish. I felt myself almost on a tipping point. I had never been more in tune with this emotion before. The same thing applies to happiness and joy too. It’s not just sad emotions. I had never been more in tune with those emotions. I was embodying them with everything I could possibly have at my disposal. Yeah.”
During advanced sessions with Rasaboxes, students learned that each rasa box offered them an opportunity to explore a world of physical expression. They learned to improvise, layer and mix the various rasas to create intricate expressions. In time, they learned to enter a particular emotion, not through a space marked on the floor, but through breath, gesture, facial expression or movement—from the outside to inside.
From Rasa… to Body Shape… to Story
Once students had explored the rasas, they each chose one that would provide the emotional core of their character. And, in turn, the expression of their rasa dictated the shape and attitude of their body. “The first ingredient to the whole recipe is the shape of the body,” Joe told students. “If you keep that shape of the body throughout the entire process, one, it’s going to hurt, but two, it will be incredible to finally watch. And, of course, make some adjustments so you’re not in pain all the time.
“The next step is to think of a character that lives the way you’ve designed your body to approach this emotion. How does that character then move in space? And if you are someone who is arched from the waist with arms spread out and that’s what it means for you to embody vigor…. What do you do? How do you move around the space? How does that character interact with other people? What story does that character have to tell, just based on the creation of a shape in your body?”
The body shapes expressing the various rasas provided a parade of unusual figures—the visual starting point for a Freak Show of characters.
Students researched famous circus and traveling freaks, picking out those who had meaning for them. They discovered that often it was just one oddity that created otherness—separating “freaks” from their audiences.
The next ingredient was their character’s passion. For this element students drew on their own journal entries and an essay on their personal passion or obsession. They completed new essays and worked in pairs to edit and highlight the most vivid and visceral elements. Relying on the structure provided by the Composition work they’d done earlier in the course, students put together multimedia shows—slides and movement—highlighting their passions. The movement portions incorporated their rasic pose.
Joe and Melissa then asked students to carefully consider their own otherness—what makes them different from everyone else. “ ‘Think about the details,’ ” Joe said. “ ‘What is it that makes you different from everyone else? What makes you feel alienated? Why are you the only one who feels this way about this type of thing?’ It’s a hard thing to ask.”
Joe made a careful distinction: “While otherness is the third ingredient to this character we’re creating, at each step we apply the initial rasa that you have. When we apply these initial poses, everything shifts and becomes not you. Even though you’re taking everything from yourselves, it’s easily seen that the character is not you because you’re not standing the way you stand, you’re standing the way whatever character you’re about to create stands.”
The last ingredient was each student’s ultimate concern. “Here we wanted people to address why they perform,” Joe says. Kushal’s response shows the depth of personal investment felt by class members: “Mine was making people happy,” he says, “distracting them from all the negativity that’s going on in the world today and channeling that into something else, be it positive, sad, happy—just embracing the universe that a show creates. That’s why we have theater and that’s what theater has been for me my entire life.” But that concern left Kushal with an intractable problem—“How do we distract people but convey our own truth?”
The Final Performance: the Characters Speak
The dynamics of the Freak Show and the profound impact that creating original characters had on the students is best revealed through their personal stories.
Connor’s Story: Hector Kissinger
Senior Connor Sofia, 23, was just finishing his degree in biomedical engineering. He planned to design devices that would help injured veterans and people with debilitating medical challenges live better lives. After four years, he still enjoyed messing with theater. He had serious training in various theater techniques; he was pretty good at improv; performed slam poetry; tutored kids in public speaking; he’d even worked as stage manager. His secret passion, in off hours, was to steal away to decaying urban settings where he would shoot pictures, catch the decline from new angles, scramble over rotted floors, ravaged pipes and broken glass to get one more shot.
He loved his life in Atlanta—the challenges, the friends, the not-home of it. At home in Illinois, a sister with a debilitating chronic illness and a family acting as her sole caregivers often made life stressful. Atlanta was his new frontier and he’d just begun his exploration.
He almost didn’t take Alternative Performance Methods. Busy schedule. One of many electives. But his friends were taking it. And, he’d just been cast as Ernest in the upcoming DramaTech production The Importance of Being Earnest. In the end, theater just made life better for him.
“One time in Joe’s class we were talking about our ultimate concern—what’s the big thing for you? What’s your driving force? Everyone else had these really high-concept, awesome concerns like, ‘I don’t know if I’m being true to myself in theater, in acting.’ My ultimate concern was going home and having to deal with a situation that I couldn’t affect in any way. The point is, for me, every time I do a performance and every time I throw myself into something, it’s not only fun and amazing and terrifying and emotional, I feel like things get easier. I get better at coping with things. My Mom is a social worker so I probably have all these other reasons, but, yeah, that’s an important aspect of it.”
Perhaps the biggest emotional jolt of the class came with Connor’s Rasaboxes experience. “Joe said, ‘Embody this rasa; be this as much as you can.’ And my first time, I was terrified because a few people in the class who had done similar exercises before were like, ‘Oh, yeah, this is going to screw you up.’ By all accounts I should have been curled up against the wall, rigid, not doing anything. But the second I got where I needed to be, I was right where I needed to be. I was able to do the thing I needed to do and all the fears I had were externalized and my body just contorted in the exact way it needed to project what I was feeling. The whole concept is kind of abstract. Coming from an engineering background, it was frustrating for me not to be able to break it down by numbers but at the same time, I think what makes it so great is that I can’t.”
Connor offers an example. “You know how heartbreak makes your shoulders go forward and your chest compress? And how when you feel triumphant, you want to puff out your chest and take longer strides? It was like that but turned up to 10,000. I’m not sure why or how but if you ask me right now how I feel about anguish I can give you an answer about my family, right. But when I was in Joe’s class, in that Rasabox, I was nothing but anguish. I felt myself almost on a tipping point. I had never been more in tune with this emotion before. The same thing applies to happiness and joy too. It’s not just sad emotions. I had never been more in tune with those emotions. I was embodying them with everything I could possibly have at my disposal. Yeah.”
Connor credits Joe with creating an atmosphere that allowed him and others in the class to venture into unknown territory.
“Joe was a great facilitator for the kind of environment he wanted to make. We needed to feel like we were vulnerable and pushing ourselves. And there is a danger in that. Vulnerability invites danger. It’s a fact of the matter. But if I had to do it anywhere, I’m glad I was doing it with him.”
During more advanced sessions with Rasaboxes, students learned that each rasa box offered an opportunity to explore expression. Later, they were able to reflect on the body form, gestures and movement that comprised their expression. In time, they learned to enter a particular emotion, not through a space marked on the floor, but through breath, gesture, facial expression or movement—from the outside to inside.
Joe guided students through an array of techniques designed to help actors work from the outside in—from, say, body shape to emotional response. “So, in engineering,” Connor says, “you learn two different ways to solve the same problem. You learn how to solve a pipe problem with pressure or with temperature. It took a long time, but I think that Joe got through to me that the whole point of the class is leaning to go from the outside-in as an actor, not the inside-out. He definitely got me to the point where I can go both ways now. I didn’t think it was possible before I came into this class.”
This new knowledge nearly submarined Connor’s performance of Ernest in DramaTech’s The Importance of Being Earnest. “I was in rehearsals. I was doing my thing from the techniques I knew—that I had grown up with and I had known. But then here’s Joe saying there’s a whole new way to do this and at first it really screwed me up. I was acting as Ernest—this kind of weird character in the Oscar Wilde play—and I always did it this way. I know how to act. I know what to do with my face. How I move. And then Joe comes in and everything I’m used to doing doesn’t feel right anymore.
“It was like there was a second hemisphere to this whole acting thing I’d never considered before. And once I knew about it, I couldn’t do things the same way anymore. It felt inauthentic to keep doing things the way I had been doing and not take in this new knowledge. I do feel like I was finally able to integrate the two. I am nowhere near as knowledgeable about the stuff as Joe is, of course. But now that I know that this sphere even exits, I’m able to integrate that with my previous acting experience. And now I have something that is way more dynamic. It’s more movement based. I feel like it’s more free flowing. I’m so glad I have that on my tool belt.”
Connor didn’t pick a rasa for his original character; rather he accepted the challenge of the last unclaimed rasa—laughter and humor—a detour from the dramatic work he usually chose. “Laughter is a concept I feel I’m not familiar with in the slightest, which is really ironic because the play I was rehearsing for, that I was the lead in, was a comedy. Prior to doing that show, the stuff I was doing was very personal, very dramatic and gut wrenching. But all of the sudden, I’m in a comedy, and I’m learning all these new things with Joe Sykes, then I’m in the laughter Rasabox and it really forced me come face-to-face with lightheartedness, which is something I’d never done before in my life, or from an acting perspective.”
Still, the first draft of his character’s monologue was drenched in drama. “The rasa was still laughter but I made it a very bitter sort of laughter. It wasn’t lighthearted at all. It was a bitter-40-year-old-man-who-hates-his-life kind of laughter. He thinks it’s funny because he’s still doing it and he can’t make himself stop.”
Luckily Connor stopped.
He told Joe he hated his piece, that he wasn’t pushing himself out of his comfort zone—to him, the whole point of class. “The time for revising was not then,” Connor admits. “The performance was two weeks away. Joe had been working with me on it. We were rehearsing. And I needed to get my undergraduate thesis turned in. I was also writing a 23-page paper about biomarkers and traumatic head injuries. So I was kind of busy and I was coming to Joe with ‘I don’t feel good about performing something that was not as I good as I could make it because I stayed in a place I shouldn’t have and didn’t get of my comfort zone.’ And Joe was like, ‘OK just rewrite it and we’ll figure it out.’ And so I did. And the new piece had jokes in it and it was awesome!”
Cue: big smiles.
Connor’s character, Hector Kissinger, was an odd mix of Connor’s ultimate concern—coping with a challenging family situation that he could not change; his passion—taking photos in decaying urban settings, a dangerous and thrilling exploit; and his laughter rasa.
“Hector Kissinger was an acrobat who had a disease that made his bones as brittle as glass. So every night when he performed on his trapeze, he did it under the threat of death. But it was his way of coping. He wasn’t afraid of his disease because he faced it; he was nose to nose with Death every second he was up there. I really enjoyed that character. I really like him a lot.
“When I did my performance, I was in this performance rig that we got from Amazon. I was upside down, 9 feet up in the air and it was so exciting. Oh, my gosh, there’s nothing like doing a monologue about not falling off something when you’re on something you could fall off of.”
“One of the first jokes I made… picture my performance rig and a ladder set up stage left and I enter stage right, so I have the entire length of the stage where I’m walking incredibly slowly just to start my act. I say, ‘Hey everyone, I have something amazing to show you tonight,’ and I do this little jig and I point to the whole set up. ‘This is my stepladder; I never knew my real ladder. Ha ha!’ And every time I did that people loved the stepladder joke. It was amazing. The whole monologue went like that—a bunch of cheeky one-liners and I still got that feeling of uncomfortable laughter from people. I’m still 9 feet in the air doing a monologue about falling off of something.
“It was very cathartic for Hector. He would say, ‘I have this disease and if you hand me a piece of paper too hard, my bones might break, buuuut, right here and right now, I’m in control. I am looking Death in the face.’ For him, part of that was the excitement. But, for me, it combined a couple things I do—one, I photograph decaying urban structures because I think they’re awesome. That’s kind of the fear aspect coming out in Hector. It’s high places. It’s risk. It is facing that risk. Two, Hector’s home life. He’s one of the only freaks in the show with no physical manifestation of his illness. Hector looked like a normal dude, except that he could only walk like a half mile an hour, an extremely slow speed, and he jokes a lot.
“And in his home life, contrary to his freak show life, he was treated like a handicapped person. He has a parking space and people treat him very delicately. And he hates that. He hates it because he feels like a vase in an antique store. And he doesn’t want that illness to define him. And this relates to how Joe and this class helped me personally. It helped me deal with things going on with my own family and my personal life. From the danger perspective, it helped me bring full circle why I do this stupid thing—a form or urban exploration where I explore rundown structures and take pictures. It helped me contextualize that a little bit more.
“One thing they always teach you in acting is to visualize and if you see yourself do something, you’ll be able to do it. Being able to visualize Hector in my own mind—someone who was able to succeed despite having a difficult home life, was good for me. It helped me visualize a better life and me interacting with my family. For me that was very valuable. Catharsis can overcome angst.
“Professionally speaking, I now feel that I have a better repertoire of skills to do more acting gigs, which I fully intend to do. But also, I feel that I can empathize with people better, which is good in any job context, professional or not. I learned how to do a trapeze routine for this final, right? I had never touched a trapeze in my life. But the night of the final, I’m hanging upside-down. So, like everything in life, being exposed to things you’ve never seen before and being able to—not overcome them—but integrate them into yourself, helps you with the next thing, and the next thing, and the next thing.
“If Joe had come up to me on day one and said, ‘For the final you will be hanging upside down from a trapeze swing in a leotard performing a monologue about battling a debilitating illness,’ he would have snapped my suspension of disbelief right then and there. But he didn’t. He guided me to make something amazing without ever forcing my hand. And while I have very little in common with the acrobat character Joe showed me how to create, I feel that by watching him take risks and succeed that I can do it too.
“In a way, the entire class was about risk taking and innovation. I’ve never had a debilitating illness or an urge to try trapeze, but the performance worked because the core of the source material felt like it came from my very soul.
“Also, I’ve never been in a class that guided me towards a place of such complete vulnerability before. There’s a huge risk to vulnerability, but also a huge reward if it’s done right. Joe knew how to do it right.
“Taking those risks worked, and Joe showed me how without me even knowing it. The class made me want to take more risks, because if something as crazy as all of that can move me forward as a performer, a professional and a human being, who knows what other things I’d never considered before might do the same?”
Tyndal’s Story: Barbara Whitmoore
Whenever R. Tyndal Mitchell stepped into the anger Rasabox, Joe urged her to “go deeper…feel it more.” “I thought it was really something I needed to explore,” she says. And for some reason, Tyndal, a 20-year-old neuroscience major, was drawn to a traveling curiosity with outsized feet. “Her feet were monstrously big,” Tyndal says. “Other than that, she was completely normal. And that made her a freak and I thought that was really strange—that that would make her worth seeing as she traveled the country.”
Tyndal used all the tools she’d developed in the class to figure out the connection between a big-footed woman and anger. Her work led her to create Barbara Whitmoore, a big-footed woman who desperately wanted to be a tap dancer. “I picked tap dancing because it’s all feet. If you can’t move your feet fast, you won’t be a good tap dancer. That’s all she wanted to do but she had these feet that made it impossible for her to do that. That was the root of her anger.
“Barbara Whitmoore was the Freak Show barker; she ran the spectacle just to give herself a chance to perform. No one else would let her. She wasn’t good, but she thought she was incredible. It was a sense of delusion in my character.”
Tyndal turned the typical interpretation of anger on its head. “There’s a lot of modern interpretation of anger. I didn’t want that in this show because I thought anger is worth exploring in its real form. I played with the opposite of the idea that when people get angry they get kind of crazy. Instead whenever she was incredibly angry, she was completely sane and calm. And when she appeared happy and giddy, she was in her delusional state where she thought that she was the best dancer in the world. I wanted her anger to be real. That was very important to me. It came from a basic desire to show one of the Rasaboxes as just what it is. I didn’t want to layer something else—crazy—on top of it. She was a complex character in terms of her balancing of different emotions—with her predominate form being angry and completely sane.”
Tyndal wore flippers on stage. “And I performed a very brief tap number in them. That was a journey.” And Barbara Whitmoore stomped. “I channeled the small child who’s angry. Every move was intentional and very sharp. Anger typically is sharp, with hard edges.”
The big-footed Barbara Whitmoore was defensive in posture—except when she was dancing. “Then she was open. Arms open wide, chest out. Physically open, because, weeks before, while exploring anger in the Rasabox, my anger was always turned in. And it was Joe who said, ‘Stop turning in. Show me your face; show me your body. Show me anger—open.’ So I had to explore that. And there’s a direct correlation between what Joe did to help me explore anger as a rasa and my performance of Barbara. I didn’t want her anger to be super internal. I wanted her to have a sense that ‘I may want to hide away from the world but I’m still a badass woman and I’m going to be large and in charge.’ Barbara took her deformity and anger and channeled them into being powerful.”
Once Barbara’s shape, personality and modes of expression were in place, Tyndal let her loose on the audience.
“I kept my chin up. But I never smiled. I was stoic the whole time, with the exception of the wild moment where I danced. I was thrilled and excited.” And she yelled at people. “I yelled at members of the audience for looking at my feet. I would mention my feet and I would look for someone who was looking at them and then I would demand: ‘Look at my feet!’ and be even more angry at that point. My feet were a catalyst to anger. I could suppress the anger into power until there was an obvious reminder that someone wasn’t looking at me as the powerful woman I wanted to be. That’s what set Barbara off.”
In writing a monologue for Barbara Whitmoore, Tyndal drew on the many writing assignments she’d had in class. “Melissa and Joe had us write about our greatest fears and our greatest concerns—about this class specifically. One of mine was, ‘I’m afraid I won’t get taken seriously as an actor.’ And so I used that to shape Barbara’s fear of not being able to be taken seriously because of her feet.
“Once I created Barbara and she had her depth and the dimensions that I wanted her to have, it wasn’t too hard to write a monologue.”
“Having to do our own stuff, when I had gone into the class with the expectation of doing work by others, made me feel a lot more vulnerable. If I had done something silly or dumb with someone else’s work, I could say, ‘Oh, it’s just how it was written. It wasn’t me.’ But having to go up there and be Barbara but with everyone else knowing this is Tyndal underneath makes you extremely vulnerable.
“But my friend, Connor, gave me a hug and said, ‘I hear exactly you in this piece.’ And my Mom and Dad came up for the performance and my Mom cried when I finished. She said, ‘I heard you in this piece and all of the anger you feel. Sure, Barbara’s anger is that she can’t dance and that she won’t be taken seriously but I heard you underneath.’
“To know that that level of honesty was still within my piece in its final presentation was absolutely terrifying and absolutely exhilarating because I had done what I wanted to do and it was successful.
“There’s this sense of excitement when you’re super vulnerable because for a while you don’t know how they’re going to react and you’re in this limbo: ‘What’s going to happen? I don’t know.’ And it’s the thrill of the unknown. That was the biggest difference—going into the class thinking it was going to be me performing other people’s work versus performing my own—from nothing to a final performance that I’m incredibly proud of. We worked from the ground up in that class and it was so rewarding.”
Kushal’s Story: Charlie
Kushal Shankar, a junior majoring in biomedical engineering, is just starting his journey to become a pediatric surgeon. But he’s a veteran of musical theater. President of DramaTech during the academic year, he took Melissa and Joe’s class as a way to delve deeper into alternative performance techniques, give himself a mental break, and get to know his DramaTech friends better. As he talks about his life—in India, Great Britain, Spain and the US—he sounds the confident explorer. He’s clear-eyed about his own plans and motives. Certain of his path. Why then, did he choose fear and shame as the rasa that would be integral to the character he would perform?
First, Kushal says, he’d had an introduction to Rasabox techniques in other theater classes and he was committed in this class to work at a deeper level. “I picked fear and shame because it was the one, growing up, that I was least comfortable with. So I was exploring the rasa that for me was horrifying because my immediate thought was ‘I need to look at my fear and shame and how I experience that in my life and I need to see how that translates into a general sense for people.’ If I’m trying to convince people that there is a path to humanity in theater, that there is humanity in the world, I need to look at my humanity and figure out exactly what that is.” No small task.
He began by journaling about what scares him and adventures he may be missing because of a fear of failure. He researched how other people portray fear and shame and how they experience them. “It was really a very positive learning experience. I ended up watching a lot of YouTube videos and shows. I started playing with my own body language, working with Rasaboxes in and out of class. I learned that cultural differences play a major role in how we portray emotions like fear and shame. I ended up portraying them in a way that felt right to me. I have a very mixed bag of cultural backgrounds so, for me, fear was being introverted physically, being smaller. I explored that in myself and how it reads to an audience. And I think looking at how other people did it gave me ideas on how I could further communicate.”
For the next step, Kushal, as he often does, stepped into the intersection of science and the arts. In a biomedical engineering class, he was working on a solution to the underreporting of mild traumatic head injuries among football players—a helmet that changes colors based on the amount of force at impact. “So I took that and designed my own character. Because everyone else in the show was a freak, I thought it would be good for visible contrast if I were the only one who was not a freak. So I was a normal character in this show.” A boy named Charlie.
During his research into otherness, Kushal discovered that within disenfranchised communities there is often another disenfranchised community. “There is always a minority within a minority. I think it’s important to look at the intricacies. There are minorities in majorities and there are majorities in minorities and I think I felt kind of affinity towards representing that unspoken minority within a minority.
‘So I wanted to communicate—by being that stark difference—that ‘Yes, we in the Freak Show are your entertainment; however, we are human beings, with dreams, goals, rich emotional lives. Yeah, we’re different but we are part of this emotional spectrum that you, our audience, also experience.’ I started brainstorming. I wanted someone who was relatable, who the audience could like and honestly say, ‘That was me at one point in my life.’”
The name came first—Charlie, an adolescent boy. Two classmates offered to adjust their characters to be Charlie’s parents. “We realized this was a great opportunity. We had two attractions in a freak show who had a kid. It brought a whole other level of humanity and familial relations to the entire show.”
Kushal kept asking himself, “So what? What am I trying to convey?” It became his mantra. “And I think that was my favorite part of the course, getting to delve deeper. Joe was so great. He was like, ‘Don’t fight it. Just keep going with it. Go deeper and deeper and deeper until you can’t get any deeper.’ I kept asking, ‘What can someone get out of this, from hearing this?’
“Charlie is a part of a community that’s disenfranchised but he’s not like anyone in that community. Why does that matter? Why does he matter? Because he’s a person, and if he’s a person, he has hopes and dreams. He has wants and wishes. He wants to know what normalcy is. He is desperate for it. So that became the focus and the premise of my character—that desperation and longing for normalcy because he’s scared and ashamed that he doesn’t have it.”
Charlie first appeared on stage with his Dad, played by fellow actor Jackson Vance. “In my scene with him, his character is a heavy lifter who’s unable to speak but who wants to relate a story. I just walk on stage, as Charlie, and I read his story for him. That was his entire act. And at the end of his act he says, ‘I love my son. He’s a good boy.’”
Alone on stage, Charlie grabs a coat rack and dances with it—just a kid, happy in his own world—but still ashamed that he’s unlike the others around him. “One of the lines in the show was, ‘No one else here does anything like me; I’m the freak.’” Charlie is also ashamed that he wants out of the Freak Show—out of his life with his parents. And he’s fearful about venturing alone into a world he knows nothing about.
“It was honestly a very hard monologue to write because a lot of it was based on my character’s love for his mother and how he didn’t want his leaving to be misconstrued as his being ungrateful. For me, that stems from something very personal. In Indian culture, it is uncommon for children to leave their parents’ household when they go to college. So when I went to college, I really wanted my mother to know, ‘This is not me being ungrateful. Thank you so much for all that you’ve done. This is my adventure. This is what I need to do.’ So this was a part of myself that went into this character.”
Charlie began asking the audience questions. “That’s another thing that became very helpful to me as an actor in this course, Melissa and Joe made it a big deal to question the audience. That’s something I like doing even in musical theater.”
Charlie, with a spritely lilt in his voice to cover his fears, asked audience members about items that to him were wondrous mysteries. “I asked someone in the front row what a movie theater was like. It was amazing, not only to try to convince an audience of something but also to put them in that uncomfortable position of thinking, ‘Wow, I am talking to someone who clearly does not know anything about what I deem to be normal.’ This class gave me that power and that’s something I am never going to forget. That was the best feeling.”
Kushal realizes that his experience easily could have been different. “In the beginning of the course Joe read something to the effect that a director saying the words ‘I want’ can potentially be the most detrimental thing to an actor and to a production. And Joe stuck with that the whole course. And I know that’s not how the real world works. And the fact that he didn’t use the words ‘I want’ the entire time, that was really significant to me and important to me.
“It gave me a license to do things on my own. If, at any point, Joe or Melissa had said ‘I want this,’ it would have changed the way I developed my character. And, honestly, I think that would have changed the course of how that production went for me. I’m glad that they made it a ‘me project’ and not a ‘them project.’ It was all focused on the student and what the student got out of the course content and I think that’s the most amazing thing to see in an acting course at a technical school.”
Kushal ticks off the things he gained from the course. Confidence. A new facility with scripted theater. Trust—something that’s often touted in theater circles but rarely achieved. A refined problem-solving process—‘How to take a general problem, break it down component by component, look at what’s there. Examine your purpose for doing a project. There’s always a purpose there even if it is just ‘you were assigned this.’ Think about why. Break it down, piece by piece. Don’t tackle it all at once. Then slowly piece it together through an iterative process. That’s something I got out of the course.” And, perhaps most importantly, a path to revealing his own truth through theater.