04 September 2010

Interview with Sharon Barshinger

This is the twenty-fourth interview in the “Where are we now?” series. Take a moment to peruse the INTRODUCTION AND INDEX to this series. I have divided this interview into titled sections to assist you in finding or keeping your place in the text.

Interview with Sharon Barshinger,
Director of Players of the Stage
at her home in Hellertown, PA
19 July 2010


IA: So let’s start out talking about Players of the Stage, and then we’ll move from there to what you learned at NACC, and then on from there. So first of all: Would you just tell us, tell my readers, what Players of the Stage is?

SB: Players of the Stage is a youth/community theatre. We have students from age five to twenty-five that regularly participate in our productions and our camps. We try to do a lot of the classics for our shows, and then we base a lot of our repertoire for scene work on the classics as well. We’re also a Christian theatre.

IA: Why did this get started? What is its goal or purpose?

SB: Well, it got started by getting together to do a Christmas program for a senior citizen’s group at a church that my dad used to pastor. My older sister Anna was the director at the time and she just thought we would get together and then stop after that year. But then it just kept going! I don’t remember exactly when I wrote the mission statement; it’s got to be four or five years ago. But as we were doing it, we sort of saw the impact that live theatre can have on people. So the main purpose is to glorify God and to bring His light into the world of theatre. We want to do that equipping our students and starting from the Church and then reaching out into our communities as well.

IA: Had you seen some instances of theatre impacting people that inspired you this way? Do you remember any particular stories?

SB: Well, when I was younger and we did this, probably the first time the light switched on for me was when we did The Best Christmas Pageant Ever for the first time and we had a couple people visit our church after they came to the show, and people talking about its impact. And seeing it impact students’ lives personally, too. The high school kids that are now the leaders of the group. I don’t know if they’ve ever become Christians, but the opportunities for them to learn about God through acting is unique.

IA: Because they were playing roles of people who believed that? Or roles of people who were asking questions?

SB: No; they were playing just every-day roles, not necessarily Christian or agnostic, but just being in an environment where we were doing it for God. Everything was based on our understanding of who God is, in how we act and stuff; so that was a springboard for it.

IA: So how is that different, then? How is an everyday rehearsal in a Christian theatre different than a rehearsal of the same play in a secular context?

SB: Well, I’ve only been involved in secular theatre at Northampton Community College. The first theatre I was involved in wasn’t Christian, but it was pseudo-Catholic, and so a lot of the same morality was there. A big difference that I saw was a huge amount of competition. And very cut-throaty. We had a couple people who were very nice, and you knew that they didn’t hate you! but you’d be rehearing and you’d do something wrong, and they’d chew your head off and then spit it out. It was nasty at times. So the competitive interaction was the biggest thing. And then just the foundation of the work. Why are they doing the show? Is it for fun, for personal enjoyment, for glory, whatever? Versus the foundation of: We’re doing this for God, primarily.

IA: Players of the Stage puts on two full-length plays a year, right? And then you have drama camps in the summer. So you see it as being both an educational and a performance institution?

SB: Yes. Definitely.

IA: Are you training students in the fundamentals of acting as well?

SB: Yes. At camp, we go through stage geography, stage presence, don’t do that, don’t put your hands in your pockets, all that kind of lovely jazz, and the basic rules. And then as they get older, during this fall I’m hoping to start teaching kids how to break the rules! Because some of them, you know, these were great rules when you were young, but now you need to know how to break the rules so you can actually act. I’m very excited about that.


IA: What’s an example of one of the rules you’re going to have them break, and how?

SB: The biggest rule I teach them right off the bat is hand positions. Some of this is a fallout from the lady that Anna and I were taught under. She was very romantic and picturesque and idealistic in how she did stuff, so all of the women were always told to hold their hands in what I call the “pregnant lady” position, which is clasped hands right under the bust, like if you were a pregnant woman who is due and has this huge stomach and is resting her hands on top of it. And not moving your hands at all and being very proper all the time. Well, that’s what I’ve taught, which really is helpful when you’re dealing with young kids and you’re like, “Please don’t just randomly move your hands; it’s distracting. So do this” and that’s OK. But then when the kids get older and you watch them play these characters, they’re stuck in rigid and limited hand movements, so it prevents them from making body gestures that would be different for each character. So I’m hoping to bang that out. We’ll see how that goes.

IA: That will be a big challenge for them. They’ve made certain physical habits; to break out of them. But that’s where creative freedom comes in. So this woman who taught you, then, had a particular theory and/or training herself: she had a very controlled, polite, possibly even artificial way of presenting oneself physically?

SB: Yeah.

IA: Did that come into the voice, the diction, and the character development? Was it an overall theory?

SB: Yeah; I don’t know what you’d call it. She never really taught much theory. Even character development was a very emotional process. She was very anti-Method acting, in theory, but just getting involved emotionally with the character was huge with her, and always making it very “lovely.” I don’t think she grasped how something ugly can be beautiful, and sort of was afraid of that. It was artificial, I think, at times. Great stuff, but just very neoclassical. Like those great paintings: Oh, that’s beautiful, but it’s not real.

IA: That’s seems kind of ironic to me, that she would say, “Be emotionally involved with the character,” but then, “Be lovely.” Because if you were really emotionally involved in the emotional life of the character, then only a very small percentage of her emotions would be lovely. Except for a very narrow range of characters that probably wouldn’t be very interesting to play.

SB: It was so hysterical, because she had this great artificial British accent, too, and she would have you talk—we would always talk lovely, round, nothing sharp, nothing harsh.

IA: Have you seen other theatre presentations of that style in this area or in other places?

SB: Not really. The closest thing I saw was, I think, a mockery of that style. My director from NACC lent me a video recording of The Prince of Homburg (which is a really weird play). It has that style; it’s just over the top. The content wasn’t necessarily lovely or picturesque, but the way they delivered was. I think it was supposed to be a joke.

IA: Is it melodrama that we’re talking about? Or is that going too far?

SB: Yes and no. It depends on…I don’t know. A little. Certainly a little bit of it was melodramatic. But it wasn’t: “This is our style. We do melodramatic plays.”

IA: Because I think that if you do melodrama intentionally you have to be using it satirically—if you do melodrama on purpose, you’re making a satire of it.

SB: Well, no; we definitely were never making satire.

IA: So it was very serious. One of the reasons I’m asking this is (my observation has been somewhat limited) that I have seen quite a number of theatre productions in this area, in eastern Pennsylvania. Professional productions, college productions, and younger student productions. And by and large the majority of them have been what you’re describing; have been an artificial, “lovely,” style with fake voices, and if there is emotional interaction with the character, it’s on a very limited range. It’s been very refreshing the few times I’ve seen plays in this area that have not fallen into that. So I wonder if there is a regional style going on here. I have not seen this to be the case in other parts of the country. So I gather, then, that this is not the kind of mindset that you bring to your directing?

SB: It’s not something I intentionally bring to my directing. I’m trying to steer away from that—being a very melodramatic person myself, I could fall into that. But I don’t think it’s something that’s beneficial to acting. The thing that I loved about Northampton Community College was the realization that acting requires thought—lots and lots and lot of thinking. It’s not something that you emotionally just do. So I’m trying to get that brain power into acting as well.


IA: Let’s talk about some other things you studied at NACC. What I’m most interested in is new plays and playwrights. Were you involved in any world premiers or new plays that hadn’t been performed before or were you reading new plays or who were some of the playwrights or plays that you came across that were fairly new.

SB: I don’t know how new Metamorphosis was; it was a new translation of Ovid; we did that last spring. I don’t think it has been done a whole lot; it’s relatively new. That was interesting, but scandalous. Especially the way NACC did it, of course. A modern understanding or retelling. We had this fellow, a Greek actor come to our school; Yanni Simonides; he did a one-man show of the death of Socrates which was something that he had developed and takes around. NACC doesn’t have the kind of grant money to bring in actual world premieres or anything like that. But they like to do newer stuff. When they had Norman Roberts there, who started that whole program, they did one classical show in the fall, and then whatever else throughout the year. I think they’re going away from that, unfortunately.

IA: For more new ones?

SB: Yes.

IA: When they did the classical shows, did they have a new twist, or did they just kind of present them in the usual way?

SB: Well, the only classical one I ever got to see was Julius Caesar, which they set in the ‘40s in a museum instead of the actual setting. So that was interesting.

IA: I saw that, too, and I thought there were definite overtones of today’s politics, as well; I thought that was intentional.

SB: Yes. And it was funny: the director, Ron Henegan, who is one of my favorite professors, was open to casting Cassius as a woman, which would have been really funny, because it was during the Democratic Primary, and then we would have had a black Antony and a female Cassius. That didn’t happen, but…

IA: …there were many women playing male roles. Was that just for demographics?

SB: Yes. And usually our women are stronger actors than our men.

IA: How about plays that you read or studied? What were some of the more modern writers or contemporary writers that you came across?

SB: We spent a lot of time in the ancients. But we read some Beckett. That might have been the only new one that we read.

IA: Are we still looking at people like Becket as being ground-breaking? Do they still have that effect on us? And Brecht, Berthold Brecht? Do we still look at this as if they just did this yesterday and it was astonishing?

SB: I think so. I don’t know much about Brecht. I don’t think he’s really popular around here, if he’s performed around here.

IA: No.

Note: The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey is producing a “reading” of The Good Woman of Setzuan this fall.

SB: I sort of stumbled across him when I was doing a paper. But Becket, the whole Angry Young Men movement, was so odd. It was very small, but the writing is much more powerful. It’s just these couple of authors and these couple of plays and they’re just so random and weird. We read Endgame. Crazy play! People in barrels and chessboard things, and you’re like what in the world is going on? I think it’s very powerful but very confusing. It’s still very new.

IA: Does Edward Albee fall into that movement? And what about Tom Stoppard; he’s younger than they, but I think he fits?

SB: The Angry Young Men, and the Existentialists in general; that started after World War Two. I think that it’s still seen today because we’re still suffering. I think it’s really the same thing.

IA: And what is it?

SB: The overwhelming question of existence. It doesn’t mean anything. Since there isn’t any meaning in Existentialism, we get Postmodernism, which is there are no absolutes, there are no morals, we can do whatever we want, which leads further to the absurd, which is like cyclical theories and styles of thought running together.

IA: Then you have Theatre of the Absurd: facing up to that fact and saying, Well, OK, maybe life has no meaning; let’s make Art out of that, out of the lack of meaning.


IA: You wrote a play for a class at NACC. Do you want to tell us about it?

SB: It was called To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time (you gave me the title!)—

IA: Marvell gave us the title—no, it was Herrick.

SB: One of those people! The gist of the play is that it starts out in a coffee shop and two friends meet and Winter tells Rose that she’s pregnant. Rose is extremely upset about this. So Winter storms out and there’s this lovely little fellow who’s known as the Janitor; he goes over to Rose and tells her to be a better person—

IA: Stop being a hypocrite?

SB: Yes. And so Rose goes back to remembering her self-conscious journey of how hypocritical she’s been and how she used her status as a virgin to rate other people to make herself feel better and twisted the actual reality of what virginity is supposed to be about. So that’s sort of it.

IA: When you started out writing this, you had a different purpose from where you sort of ended. You were driven into this by certain cultural factors, by your social surroundings, by large trends that are going on in our society: what were those:

SB: Well, I was in an acting class last spring, and I was just very overwhelmed by the sexual innuendo—well, it wasn’t even innuendo; it was sexual comments! All the time! And how all the material was all about sex. And just interacting even on a personal level with some of the girls, seeing how hurt they were after all of their sexual encounters. I came home one day after class, walked into the house, and said: “Mother, I’m going to write a play about sex!” That took her aback a little bit, but then I explained what I meant. I was trying to make a defense of virginity, but as I wrote it, I realized how easy it was even for me (I based Rose off of some of the experiences that I have had), but how easy it was for me, especially at NACC, to think that I was a better person because I was a virgin and most of them weren’t, and how hypocritical it was, going against its essence. I like to talk a lot about the symbolism of sex, representing intimacy between Christ and His bride, the Church, and I’m taking it to this conclusion that if sex is a symbol, virginity must be a symbol of your heart being free from idols, being pure for God. And so then the play became more about that, shifting from my target audience being these “heathen” college students who sleep around every night, to us in the Church realizing: A. Most of us aren’t even virgins any more, same rate as non-believers; and B. We’ve lot our way in understanding what sex and virginity and all that is. I was thinking about the play in the last couple of days, and I’m feeling bad that I wrote it at that time and hope that the ones who read it weren’t offended, or thought that I was attacking them.

IA: The people in your class?

SB: Yes. My professor didn’t feel attacked, so that’s good.

IA: Well I think that the shift of audience is quite clear, and I think that the message is quite clear. And I think there’s a third message as well, which is that symbolism about idolatry. It’s a symbol to the church to put aside other idols as well, especially when those idols have to do with some kind of self-congratulation or some kind of arrogance and self-perceived righteousness. That’s great! But the other message is in your play as well: the message to “the world” that there is a different way of expressing sexuality than the average one.

SB: Yes, it’s still there. And my hope is I am, I guess you could call it brutally honest (well, I don’t know how brutal; I could have been so much more brutal), just about the reality that to be a virgin doesn’t mean that you have to be free from struggle, or that you have to be asexual or whatever. And so I hope, too, that if it were performed, some non-believers would be there and they would see that, yes, we do want to be virgins, but not just because it’s a moral thing to do and not because we want people to deny their libido or something.

IA: Right, and not even as just a physical status; you’re talking about a heart-status before God and a whole life of humility. So do you have a vision for this to be performed?

SB: I don’t know. I really have to reread it and see what I should do with it. I think it should be worked on again.

IA: Who would the audience be now? Does it fall in between the two audiences?

SB: Yes, I think it does.

IA: Why?

SB: Because, well, one the one hand it is meant for the Church, but I think the Church would be sort of shocked and offended.

IA: Why?

SB: Because we don’t talk about sex! and “Oh, wow, I used that word”: things that the Church is sort of fuddy-duddy about. Also, the two girls that talk about their sexual struggles are girls, and there’s sort of a thought in the Church that girls don’t lust, that they’re very pure, very chaste.

IA: So it’s too honest and open for the Church; how about for the other audience?

SB: For the other audience, I think that it’s so topical, and it’s just like virginity-virginity-virginity-virginity that it’s too in your face. My Dad, the other day, suggested: “You should make it longer, because I don’t think that a non-Christian audience would like it like that.” And I think he’s right. Especially to bring the ideas of hypocrisy and idolatry home more, to make it clear that Rose is using it that way, would make it more palate. Because even though I did make that shift, it’s just not there.


IA: So, you’ve been developing this thing that’s almost like your signature: For each of your drama camps or recitals or performances, you do a dramatic, semi-choreographed Psalm or other Scripture passage. Do you want to describe it?

SB: Yes. We typically do Psalms. What I do is I take a Psalm and figure out how many kids I have, split them up into groups, and then I try to figure out what movement would fit either the emotion or the actual depiction of what is being said in the verse. Then we have them move around, they speak together or speak in parts, stepping back and forth. And then I did a piece called “Redemption” after The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, where I took snippets from Genesis 1:1 through Revelation 22:21, and in condensed form try to talk about the history of Redemption, and have the kids represent different elements: the veil that tore, angels, all that kind of stuff. I used to dance, and I love dance, so for me it was like merging dance into theatre.

IA: So it’s visual and it’s auditory, so it’s like dance, but also sort of special units: you have sort of masses coming together and breaking apart. You usually have them all in black, is that right? For that one you couldn’t; they were still in costume, as I recall.

SB: Yes. Sort of unfortunate, but it worked out OK.

IA: Usually they’re all in black, so you’re working with the sounds of the voices together, apart, antiphonally, singly…

SB: And the shapes of the bodies and the lines that you can create. It’s fun. I just took a class on Intro to Theatre, and we read Oedipus Rex and I fell in love with it, and I fell in love with the Greek Chorus. My professor talked about this production of Hamlet, where the director identifies three personas of Hamlet, so he has three men play Hamlet, and they’re tied together, and they would shift and turn around whenever that side would come out. And so I thought both of those ideas were cool and sort of merged them with what I do now: My own version of Greek Chorus/various personas. Except we don’t tie people up.

IA: And as a way of presenting Scripture. And then the other art form of yours that I wanted to ask you about was your interpretive Sign Language songs. Do you want to describe that?

SB: Another combination of dance, into sign language. It’s still words, but a different kind of words. I took sign language for a long time and we started signing songs for church, you know, just pretty blah, just signing. And then as I got into dance, learning how to extend lines of the body, so extending the actual sign as a way of extending the word (because, you know, signs equal words). So we’ll take a piece of music, and sometimes there will be words in the background, sometimes not. If there aren’t words, usually the audience knows the song pretty well. And then trying to sign it in a way that’s both the deaf could understand if they were reading the signs, but then I also try to make it into a dance—except I don’t move my feet, just my upper body.

IA: So the signs are still legible; they’re still the actual American Sign Language symbols, but you’re drawing them, you’re taking longer to do them, maybe doing them further from the body or closer to the body or more extended to go with the music.

SB: Yes.

IA: So these two things are very similar, I think. You’re finding ways to present text visually as well as audibly.

SB: I tried incorporating some sign language into the Scripture reading, but it didn’t really work too well. That’s OK.

IA: I love that. I love working across the genres and mixing the arts. And of course you’re using music as well. Do you use music with the dramatic Scripture readings as well?

SB: Yes.

IA: Does that work, or does it distract from…

SB: I think it works. I don’t think I’ve had music for the entirety of one of them. For “Redemption” I had a chorus of people in the background singing hymns part of the time, very quietly. And then I played a song at the end of it. We did Psalm 24 last year, and in the Trinity Hymnal there’s a hymn version of it, so we did it once and then we sang it.

IA: Do you think that you have synesthesia?

SB: What is that?

IA: Synesthesia is two totally different things. It’s a literary technique, a technique that poets use, a figure of speech. As a figure of speech, it means saying something as if it affects one of the five senses whereas in reality it affects another. So the simple ones are saying, like, “I taste the wind.” Because you don’t really taste wind. What you might be doing is you might be smelling a very strong scent that’s being carried on the wind, and if it affects you strongly, you feel as if you taste it. OK? But it’s a beautiful poetic device, because, well, even saying: “I feel your pain.” That’s a bit of a metaphor. What I mean is that I’m starting to feel emotions of empathy towards you; but I don’t really feel it, especially if your pain is physical and mine’s only empathetic. So that’s what it is.

But there actually is—it’s considered a disorder, but it doesn’t actually have any, as far as I can tell, any negative affects—but there are people to whom this actually happens. That if they write letters, they see different colors for each letter. Or if you play the piano, they see different colors or smell different scents or feel different physical sensations with different pitches of the scale. And there have been a lot of famous artists and poets who have had synesthesia, the medical kind.

So it seems that you are doing something that is intentionally synesthetic: you’re trying to help people experience visually and physically something that’s usually only audible.

SB: No, definitely not.

IA: I think it would be a great disorder to have. I think it would be sort of heavenly: to be able to see and feel music as well as hear it.


Spencer said...

Hey, I'm on the internet. Awesome.

Iambic Admonit said...

Matthew: thanks for stopping by. But is that all you have to say? What did you think of the interview?

Chrissie Momo said...

Thank you for sharing the interview link! I'm doing a paper on POTS and this will be very helpful. Now I won't have to interview Sharon because you did it for me. :)

Skip Smith said...

Nice Job. Thanks. I enjoyed it.