This past Saturday, I took a drive through a ferocious, and unseasonably late, rainstorm to the house of an eleven-year-old theatregoer named Sydni. I was interviewing Sydni and her mother, Sarah, as part of the research into the intrinsic impact of art that we are conducting/commissioning at Theatre Bay Area, in this case video interviews with a small group of everyday theatre patrons to understand why they go to theatre, why they value it, and what it means to them.
We were videotaping the interviews in hopes of crafting advocacy materials, so when we arrived I chitchatted with Sydni and her mother and stepfather while Erin Gilley, the videographer, set up her stuff. Sydni, who was eating what looked like chicken noodle soup for breakfast, was shy, talking into her soup, refusing to look at me, deflecting by talking about and chasing her cats. We sat down once Erin was set, Sydni snuggled with Sarah, and began.
The question set I use for these interviews is one of the most elegant and compelling I’ve ever seen. Adapted slightly from the original, which was created by Alan Brown of the research firm WolfBrown a few years ago, the question set eases interviewees in with basic questions about themselves, who they are, what they like doing with their spare time.
The interviewee catalogs his life in terms of the things that make him feel fulfilled – and then he’s asked to think about all of those activities and to try to connect the dots. What are the common threads, what do those specific activities say about you? What themes emerge, and what do they mean? Only then do any questions about theatre come into it at all.
This gradual peeling of the individual, taking him by the hand and encouraging him to draw conclusions and commonalities about his experiences and choices, unlocks, at least in the adult subjects I’ve interviewed, a free-flowing font of ideas. Interviewees are surprisingly eloquent about the interconnections of their interests and, when primed with those connections, are able to speak incredibly coherently and forcefully about how theatre fits into the schema.
When asked to delve into a specific memorable theatre experience, eyes tear up, voices get breathless and excited, bodies become frenetic, bouncing around the frame and then sitting stock still, gesticulating to make sure the magnitude of the memory is apparent. When, in turn, asked why theatre matters, the big core question, and why they’re passionate about the arts, and what a world without theatre would be like, the interviewees speak with a vociferous forcefulness that is a dream.
That is, unless the interviewee is an eleven-year-old girl. And a shy, introverted, artistic, awkward eleven year old girl at that. Then, words seem to fail.
Sydni does love theatre, that’s clear. She has seen Wicked eight times in her short life, starting right after the show opened in 2003 – when she was, incidentally, four years old. On the wall of her bedroom hangs what can only be described as a small shrine to the show, centered on an autographed posterette of the original New York cast and surrounded by ticket stubs, buttons, a raffle card from the Wicked lottery and, most touchingly, a single green feather that escaped a costume and floated into Sydni’s lap during one of the shows, gently pasted to the bottom left corner of the frame.
This is a girl who not only saw her own middle school’s play this year, for which she was the spotlight operator, but who also went to see the local high school’s play and not one but two of the local elementary school plays. When asked directly, she says she likes theatre, plans on seeing more theatre as she grows up, plans on being in more productions (though only backstage).
And yet for all that, she is, in fundamental ways, unable to engage with this question set. Her shyness forces short answers, monosyllables spoken into her chest as she nervously plays with her hair or follows one or the other of her cats with her eyes as they dart around the room. When I ask her to talk to me about Wicked, she summarizes the show, very literally, listing out the characters one by one and then briefly summarizing the scene chronology in the play. When I ask her why she likes going to theatre she says that she likes musicals because of the music, and that she thinks that Wicked is “cool” and “neat.” She often checks in with her mother, their eyes locking as Sarah encourages Sydni to continue. She says seeing the show with her best friend made her “happy,” but when I ask her to elaborate I can see her make the attempt, her face furrowed as she tries to formulate the beginning of the words to describe the deep joy that she felt (or something, I can only speculate), and then just as quickly lose the thought to adolescent awkwardness and a lack of confidence. Instead the forming sentence collapses into a quietly mumbled “I don’t know.” Her eyes dart at the bright lights we’re using to film and she goes silent and her mother takes over.
I find myself getting confused, frustrated and desperate, going off script to throw out obviously leading questions, which she dutifully answers with relatively unusable monosyllabic Yeses and Noes. What was meant to be an hour-long interview is done in half that, and we shut down the cameras. I am at a loss as we begin to pack up, and then her stepfather suggests that Sydni show us some of her artwork.
She perks up, bringing out first a large paint cutout of Minnie Mouse that she proudly says she did at home just because she was bored one day. She parades spot-on line drawings of other Disney characters, detailed geometric abstractions in marker and colored pencil, forced-perspective drawings of cities and towns, and beautiful, bold color-block drawings of her cats that are as strangely vibrant as they are accurate. Her mom says that the art allows her to let out her feelings, to express what she’s not able to say. I see what she means.
When I was Sydni’s age, my mother took me to see Les Miserables on Broadway in New York. The theatre, in my mind, is gigantic, cavernous, full of heads floating above me, cloaking the ceiling from view. It is impossibly dark, and I feel impossibly far away, and yet I can clearly see the golden light bathing Fantine as she sings her dying song, and the carts with their wheels rolling even as the giant turntable allows them to stay in place, and Javert flying into the water as the bridge soars away into the sky and Cosette in a black lace dress under a bridge and Eponine cradled in Marius’ arms in speckled faux-rain light, her face shaded on one side and yellowed as though by a streetlamp on the other. And most vividly, most vividly the giant barricade crashing in from the sides, impossibly large, a testament to the transformative power of the stage.
It is one of the most detailed memories I have from that age, and I have no doubt it’s part of why I value theatre so much today. And when I think about it, I’m not sure I could have articulated why it mattered so much to me had someone asked me then. I’m not even sure I could have recalled the specific details I do now, or would think to do so if someone asked me to tell them about the show. And to be honest, I had a pretty tenuous hold on the details of the plot. If asked to try to talk about what I felt when that barricade emerged from the wings, I probably would have had trouble, touching something that I understood held a value that I didn’t really yet understand. It is totally possible, even likely, that articulating that would have been too difficult, especially to a stranger, especially with bright lights in my face and my pajamas still on, and I might pull away and settle back into my everyday blasé language. Just as Sydni had.
As we prepared to depart, Sydni went back into her room and returned with one final drawing, this one of the Yellow Brick Road, with Dorothy, the Scarecrow, the Lion, the Tin Man, all of them, arms linked, marching into the distance like the famous scene in the movie. Except the Road had been transplanted into a large and threatening-looking city, each building labeled for what is was used as, all in blues and blacks and grays. At the left, a tall skyscraper, labeled “Jail,” stretched from the bottom to almost the top of the page. And sitting on top of it, sketched smally and tiny enough that I missed it until Sydni proudly pointed it out, was the Wicked Witch, escaped from the confines of the jail, green and black, watching the heroes dance their way to Oz.
When I told Sydni how talented she was, she beamed into her chest, turned, and disappeared, not to be seen again. Erin and I ducked back out into the rain, shouting our goodbyes and driving away.
It’s good, I think, as I go about documenting this project of creating a vocabulary and a measurement system to talk about the intangible power of theatre and art, to be reminded that some things just sit inside us, ours and ours alone. I hope that, when she’s older, Sydni is able to articulate what those eight trips to Oz meant to her, how they molded her, what memories they made. But maybe she won’t be able to. All the same, it’s good to know a shy kid has found her outlet, and that through art she has been able to throw into the world a little of what’s inside her awkward smile.