O’Neill Foundation holds drama student workshops
By Lou Fancher
Slap, clap, snap, say your name: a half-dozen teenagers learned essential life and work skills in 33 seconds on Saturday.
Arranged in a circle in a barn at the Eugene O’Neill National Historic Site in Danville and led by actor, director and radio talk show host Donald Lacy, the basic acting exercise had the students using their bodies and voices as a rhythm section. Good listening, sensitivity, ensemble awareness, individual focus and strength, self-reliance, the power of naming — these and other lessons unfolded organically.
Spring Student Days, the Eugene O’Neill Foundation’s free, one-day workshops led each year by professional Bay Area actors, playwrights, directors, visual artists and photographers, are often a next step up in a young person’s theatrical, literary or visual art career. Hosted by the foundation and supported by grants from the Dean and Margaret Lesher and Wood Family foundations, the National Park historic site provides a dramatic setting for the workshops — rolling hills scattered with old oaks and Tao House, where Nobel Prize-winning playwright O’Neill wrote his last and arguably best-known plays.
“His legacy plays are an insight into family, but when students go on the tour, they hear the struggles he had while he was writing,” said Education Coordinator Katy Colbath. “They learn of the suffering he went through as a child that comes out in his plays. Students coming to this serene park have an opportunity to go deeper.”
The 32 middle and high school students from eight East Bay cities this year went hard after their goals, which ran the gamut.
“I’m exploring taking apart a role and making it natural,” said Aaliyah Karunaratne. The Pittsburg High School 18-year-old senior invents stories for characters to find authenticity. “I create a past. I think of why they don’t reveal their love for another person — or why they do.”
Dissatisfied with women’s roles in film and theater, she plans to return for the Saturday playwriting workshop.
“If I want to change the face of theater I’ll have to write plays and use my influence to advocate for women.”
Ian Walsh, 15, cranked himself out of bed at 7 a.m. on a Saturday morning to beat back stage anxiety. The sophomore acting student said auditions and transitioning from small to large productions require that he gain experience.
“The more work I do, the more joy I’ll bring to people by entertaining them. Every time I’ve felt sad, a movie or seeing a play makes me feel better. Theater’s reliable — music works too, but a play lasts longer than a song”
Jessica Collins, 14, claimed to be shy, but the Cal High freshman set ambitious goals for the day: to speak with a more dynamic voice, flesh out anger and other difficult-for-her sentiments and to increase the confidence she recently felt onstage.
“When we got the costumes, that’s when I could be the character. That’s when I felt I could get people out of their daily lives, make them smile, laugh.”
Isha Pandya, 15, attends California High School in San Ramon and was interested in strength of character — but from a different angle. “I want to be a 3D animation artist. I like math and art. Animation is a good mix.”
After less than 30 minutes in the digital art workshop, Pandya knew of websites to use during summer months to increase her skills, and an exercise that involved recreating well-known logos delivered quick insight into her and other students’ originality.
“This program is a good addition to school because these are professionals working in the field. It feels real,” she said.
Sunaad Gurajada, a 14-year-old freshman at Cal High enjoys writing and graphic design. Having worked his way through entry-level digital design programs, he feels his ability to capture critical sports moments — when a bat contacts a ball, when a player hits the ground — “needs more polish.”
Drawing on a computer, he said, allows him to control the moment, to focus on details. This is the exact purpose of the 30-page bios Lacy told the students that he writes about each character during the run of a play.
“The more story you build, the more real the character becomes. The play will teach you things, even long after it closes. But you have to know the whole story. (A play) is a whole puzzle, not just your part. You have to figure out where your piece fits.”
Slapping, clapping, snapping and saying your name, he suggests, is one key to unlock energy, ensemble and the “everything” of art.