Written by Maddie Osborn, Primary Stages Development Intern 2019.
We go to the theater to witness stories being brought to life. It’s an opportunity to reflect and relate with one another about the human experience. Over time, however, whether we work in theater or are loyal patrons, we develop a critical eye and forget why we originally came to the theatre. Our palates become refined and we take our seats at the next show with a myopic lens, holding on to expectations of how we want the characters to make us feel. Rather than taking in the story that is being created before us, we become distracted by the details of the craft. When I attended a student matinee production of God Said This, I was stripped of my expectations and given a magical experience.
On a rainy Friday afternoon, groups of students waited outside the theater to get their tickets. Some kids were discussing their weekend plans, others their current school work, and another group spoke with excitement to our Director of Education & Engagement, Amy Harris, about their plans for college. It was easy to identify which students were more excited than others about the opportunity to see live theater. However, once they were settled into their seats in the Cherry Lane Theatre, the house lights dimmed, and Jay Patterson entered the stage, there was a unified energy of awe. As the play continued, you could feel them embrace the world of the play as they followed every twist and turn of the story. Audible reactions echoed across the theatre as the characters navigated loss, embarrassment, stress, and love. Students physically reacted by either holding a friend’s hand, looking away from a moment they almost couldn’t bear to witness, slapping their legs as they laughed with delight, or leaning in to feel a little closer to the moment. By the second or third scene I couldn’t help but relax into their approach to the show. I had already seen the play once before, but I found my preconceived notions of the show gently stripped away as I connected with the energy around me. By the end of the show, the audience seemed to be having visceral communal reactions. All at once we were being punched in the stomach but also helped to stand by the person next to us.
At the end of the play we hosted a talkback with the cast and playwright Leah Nanako Winkler. While the talkback was an opportunity for the students to learn more about the process of creating and producing a play, it was a lesson for the rest of us on how to open our hearts to the story. During the talkback, students asked genuine questions—it was evident that rather than searching for the production’s flaws, they accepted the play as a cathartic experience. A common theme that continually popped up was the expression of love. Based on the character’s explanation of “the language of love”, Amy Harris posed the question, “Is it easier to say ‘I love you’ or show someone you love them?” This sparked a passionate discussion where one person’s idea bounced off another’s, with students often citing personal anecdotes as examples. The conversation ended with the students agreeing that “showing someone you love them is generally more challenging because words are easy, but at times the raw emotion behind love makes saying it much harder.” As they commiserated over the family’s story with peers next to them and related the characters’ experiences to their own, one thing was clear: the students felt a deep connection to the play. Because the students accepted the story on its own terms they were able to relate to the characters on a personal level, which in turn validated their own emotions.
To support Primary Stages Student Matinee Program visit https://primarystages.org/explore/student-matinees.