By TOM CHESEK
Regular followers of Two River Theater Company might find themselves a bit taken aback when they check out the new show inside the mainstage Rechnitz auditorium where the 2011-2012 season recently opened with a Much Ado About Nothing that boasted a large cast of Broadway vets, a Tony-nominated director and a script by one Will Shakespeare.
When the play known as No Child… goes up in previews beginning Tuesday, theatergoers will look upon a spare set design populated by a single performer a player who also happens to be the playwright.
Those who feel they’re not getting their money’s worth should know that No Child… is a critically acclaimed, Obie-winning hit that’s been seen by over a million ticketholders, with over 600 performances Off Broadway as well as major productions on both coasts and both sides of the Atlantic pond.
They should also know that No Child… is not a monologue but a full-fledged comedy-drama featuring some sixteen speaking parts young and old, students and faculty, male and female, funny and not so all of whom just happen to be played by native New Yorker Nilaja Sun. In fact, Ms. Sun, who won that 2007 Obie for her work here, originally scripted this play for a quartet of actors, and has been carrying the workload of four people ever since the play’s earliest performances.
Sun based her play on her experiences as a teaching artist in the New York City school system.
Pitched as “a love letter to teachers,” and depicting the classroom dynamic of a lone figure facing down and attempting to win over a much larger, and perhaps not always fully attentive group, the play is based on Sun’s experiences as a “teaching artist” in the NYC public school system specifically a Bronx high school, where she endeavored not only to introduce a group of kids to theater, but to present the sort of challenging work that’s often shied away from by the pros.
The teacher in No Child… works with her kids on a production of Our Country’s Good, the 1988 drama (by Brit-born Timberlake Wertenbaker) about convicts in an 18th century Australian penal colony staging the Restoration-era comedy The Recruiting Officer. In other words, it’s three plays in one, for value-minded consumers.
Sun, who briefly stepped away from acting in her show to pursue some other projects, returns for this high profile engagement to reunite with her original director, Hal Brooks (seen previously in Red Bank with TRTC’s 2010 production of Steve Martin’s Picasso at the Lapin Agile).
Opening Saturday, No Child… kicked off its stay in Red Bank with an October 24 “Love Letter to Teachers” event aimed at professional educators in the local community. The playwright brought a discussion of her work and experiences to students at Asbury Park High School, and the play will also serve as inspiration for TRTC’s annual “PlayBack” project in which an ensemble of area high schoolers create, rehearse and perform an original theatrical production on the Two River stage (more on that to come in these pixelated pages).
The Drama Desk at redbankgreen greeted the Sun on one of those warm days just prior to Winter’s premature entrance.
redbankgreen: I wasn’t aware at first that your play was originally done with an ensemble of actors. Has the script changed considerably since then and does it contnue to evolve and morph depending upon the audience that you’re facing at any given performance?
It’s very close to the play I wrote, exactly the characters I wrote I’m a ‘word perfect’ kind of writer. It’s important that I not change it around too much, so when I go somewhere like Ireland I like to see how this story that’s set in the Bronx resonates with the audiences there. You find the similarities and the differences, and it comes from the audience instead of the words.
You play such a variety of roles within the story, including an old janitor who’s kind of like the Greek chorus in the play. Is it basically centered around the point of view of the teachers, or are you coming at the audience from the perspective of the kids as well?
It’s a love letter to teachers everywhere. Teachers are under-represented on the stage, in the popular culture, especially when you consider how many lives they touch, and how important is the work that they do.
But the lingering feeling you come away with, when you see the show, is a belief in the kids. Teachers are trying to develop strong, community-minded kids, and it behooves anyone who’s around children to acknowledge that they could truly be working with the the real leaders of tomorrow.
I’m wondering how you hit upon the idea of doing OUR COUNTRY’S GOOD for the theater project within the story it’s surely not an obvious choice, and a definite challenge for the inexperienced actors who might not find much point of reference in that script.
I was interested in the idea of imprisoned people performing theater these kids have to go through so much security just to get to class, its like theyre in prison. They don’t have new supplies, books, equipment, but they encounter all these high tech security devices.
As a child of the city, I know how important it is that we see representations of ourselves. But the representations can be found within characters that seem to come from a completely different background. When kids step into the shoes of another character, they find similarities to their own lives.
Then as the kids develop as actors, does the emphasis shift to exploring characters completely outside their own lives and experiences?
Doing theater allows kids who feel very much alone to live through someone else for a moment, It shows that there are other ways to live in this world. Youre stretching them, reminding them that theres a whole world out there beyond the neighborhood they live in.
Your play looks to be a great fit for the school matinees that they do over at Two River Theater, whereas Shakespeare tends to be a tougher sell.
You know, in the hip hop generation, seeing Shakespeare, understanding it, being able to explain it, is something to be proud of. Its like an introduction to rhyme and the rhythms of spoken word in performance these kids get that.
Do you interest kids in acting as an extension of the spoken word, poetry slam thing?
A lot of kids take to spoken word kind of like therapy. Having strangers listen to their words for the first time, whether it’s something directly from their lives or from their imagination, is a validation.
Now that there’s a lot of information out there about you and your show, and kids have so many ways to find out things, would it be impossible for you to maintain that basic teacher-student relationship anymore? Would the kids expect to be turned into characters for your next show?
When I teach, which I still do, I try not to tell kids about this show, but it’s tough to keep anything secret these days. I walk into a room for the first time and I get the feeling that I’ve been talked about before I got there. I miss the days when they didn’t know about me and my work when I saw the kids as they really are. There are very few discipline issues now.
So the kids are being extra nice out of, maybe not phoniness, but a certain self consciousness about dealing with you as a public person?
I am of the idea that kids are inherently good. It’s just that in the past, there were all these masks that you’d have to chip away at. I feel like I do see their true colors in fact I see their light shining brighter and earlier. I guess that when you have some experience teaching in this environment, you go in expecting a certain amount of resistance and when that resistance doesn’t happen, you think ‘this is not real.’
Well, you do make it clear that this is a work of fiction based upon real life incidents. Having not caught the show, does what we see basically follow the pattern of your experiences? Is it essentially a story arc of breaking down resistance, learning trust and cooperation, creating something of value?
What you see in the show is a transformation that occurs over a six-week period. It’s not all peaches and cream and rainbows at the end. And real life doesn’t always follow the script, either when I taught in East New York, the kids that I worked with were resistant almost to the end.
Basically it’s just me and a few chairs, for 65 minutes. But it’s not about me, not the story of my life. It’s about being a teacher, being one of the kids I just want to give a sense of what these kids’ lives feel like.
No Child runs in previews November 1 through 4 ($37-$42), opens November 5, and continues Wednesdays through Sundays until November 20. Running concurrently at the “black box” Huber Theater at Two River Theater (and newly extended through November 20) is the world premiere comedy Seven Homeless Mammoths Wander New England. Take it here for tickets ($45-$67; age 30 or under $24).