Vol. 16, No. 25 – Sept 6 – Sept 19, 2023 – A View from House Seats

by Shirley Lorraine

A Glimpse into Actor Training and Trials

Santa Paula Theater Center has once again brought a thought-provoking and unusual play to their main stage. The current production is Circle Mirror Transformation by Annie Baker. The play garnered an Obie Award for Best New American Play in 2009. The title refers to a specific theater game used to prepare actors for the unexpected.

Set in the small town of Shirley, Vermont, the action takes place in a community room lined with mirrors. Five students have signed up to attend the multi-week acting class designed to help them open themselves to each other, to themselves, and to be adaptable to whatever comes their way as they embark on the adventure of being on stage.

Their reasons for attending vary greatly. Theresa (Shelby Dickinson) is already a professional actress but who feels a need to get back to basics after the end of a relationship. Shultz (James James) is newly divorced and feeling out of place both in the class and in the world. Lauren (Amber Shea Hodge) is a petulant 16-year-old with a few chips on each shoulder. James (William Hubbard) is married to Marty (Victoria McGee) who is leading the class. It is unclear whether he is there of his own accord or if he is there to support his wife. In any case, he participates willingly.

The play is a true ensemble piece. Each actor has spotlight moments before blending back into the group. The circle rotates with each player having their time to shine. All five participants struggle with different aspects of the theater games, reluctant to share too much with strangers and yet willing to play along, for the most part.

As they engage in verbal and physical games requiring thoughtful or quick responses, they each stumble before finally finding solid footing. As individuals, their personal circles also grow and shrink as they find ways to relate to each other.

A few audience members were overheard questioning what the actors were supposed to gain from the seemingly fruitless and repetitive exercises. The object of the games was often not apparent. If you haven’t been to an acting or improv class, this is foreign territory.

The repetitive nature, for me, created a plodding pace. Whether that was a directional choice or written to be so, I found myself thinking there should be more. There are moments when no actors are on stage and the audience is left looking at themselves in the mirrors. Intentional? If so, in my mind, that’s a deep stretch to ask an audience to make.

While each individual character showed a flash of depth, none were fleshed out enough to make me want to root for them. The playwright attempts to pull the whole thing together in the last moments, giving a glimpse ten years into the future as a “where are they now?” Honestly, it wasn’t enough for me to be engaged. But you may feel quite differently.

Circle of Transformation continues through October 8. www.santapaulatheatercenter.org.

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