The Mad Hatter Experience
It all started last June with Wendy Wasserstein's article in The New York Times. She described a program she had participated in, in which she took a group of teens to see several shows, including musicals and dramas. It was so interesting to learn which shows had spoken to them. Parade was their favorite, as I recall. There are so many reviews that speak to adults, and it is fairly obvious which shows are geared toward small children, but teens are a more difficult group to gauge. I was so moved by Wasserstein's column that I decided to revive a club which had been long defunct at my school, but which was originally created to take our high school students to the theatre. The club is called The Mad Hatters (and while I certainly recognize the reference to Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, I still haven't found out exactly why they chose this name.)
Some of our students go to theatre regularly with their families. Some had never been to a Broadway or Off-Broadway show before joining the club. In the spirit of creating better audiences, and with the help of many theatre-lovers who post on All That Chat, I composed the etiquette guide which follows:
When you attend theatre as a Mad Hatter, you represent not only Midwood High School, but also me, your parents, and high school students in general. Make us proud. Please adhere to the following rules of proper theatre etiquette.
There is to be no eating or drinking of any kind in the theatre. If you need a cough drop, unwrap it before the show begins. DO NOT crinkle wrappers or make any unnecessary noise during the performance. Do not chew gum.
Please refrain from talking during the show unless it is an emergency. This includes during the overture, set changes and black-outs. Save all your comments till intermission or after the show. If you want to, you may jot down notes in your journal to yourself (NOT to others) during the performance. Also, no matter how much you like a song, please don't sing along :)
All cell-phones, beepers, watches that have alarms, and electronic devices of any kind must be turned off before the show. It is UNACCEPTABLE to allow beeping or ringing during a performance. Audio or video taping of any show is ILLEGAL, as is the taking of photographs in the theatre.
Most performers will be happy to sign your Playbill for you, and will enjoy hearing what you thought of the show. If we wait at the stage door, please be polite.
Dress nicely. I'm not talking evening gowns and tuxedos, but nice casual clothes.
Arrive early. I will expect you to arrive 1/2 an hour before the curtain-time to pick up your ticket. DO NOT BE LATE. Remember, subways can be unreliable, so leave plenty of time to arrive early.
Go to the bathroom before the show begins, if at all possible. As a suggestion, I discourage drinking liquids for at least an hour before any show. Bathroom lines (particularly for the women's bathroom) can be long and I expect you IN YOUR SEAT before the lights go down after the intermission.
ENJOY YOURSELF!!! Laugh and applaud when appropriate! This is LIVE theatre and the performers need that feedback.
In general, you want to be extremely considerate of all the audience members around you. I want them to think to themselves, "What wonderful young people these are! How splendid that they enjoy coming to the theatre! They must have a fabulous teacher!"
Silly me. I expected an easily manageable group of about 10 or 15 students to show up for meetings. Instead, we have over 70 students in the club, with about 30 students going to each show. It is more or less first come-first serve, with preference given to students who haven't gone to a show recently. At our post-show meetings we discuss the show we have seen, and my students are learning how wildly divergent opinions can be. In a sense, every student sees a different show, depending very much on what life experiences and prior theatre experiences he or she brings to the show. (For the record, only about 5 of our members are male.) The club members are also required to keep a journal to record their reactions and ideas after each show. In this and subsequent columns, I will share excerpts from those journals.
Our first show was Kat and the Kings. The show explores the effects of Apartheid on an up-and-coming rock and roll band in Cape Town, South Africa in 1959. Classified as "colored," the band is barred from reaching the success they might have if they had been white performers. My students appreciated the show's very personal exploration of Apartheid, which never became pedantic or preachy. As one student noted, "Kat and the Kings was an insightful look into South Africa and the struggles of the African people. The play takes place at a very significant time in South Africa when Apartheid controlled people's lives and dreams...[This show] was a great way of learning about what being "different" is like. Though those who were [of mixed descent] reached success, they never really had it all. The group in the story believed in themselves, but society didn't let them cross the barriers, and it gave them the idea that they never would, not because they weren't talented, but because they were colored.' To be happy, they'd have to leave [South Africa]."
As Marjorie, an 11th grader put it, "Even though I had learned in school about the life of South African people during Apartheid, Kat and the Kings let me see it through other people's eyes. In school, I doubt I would have ever learned about a rock and roll band and their struggle to fulfill their dreams. I feel I left the theatre with an even better understanding about what people went through during their struggle to survive the color barrier." Elizabeth drew a comparison to another show she had seen when she wrote, "I liked how the play combined entertainment and the historical aspects of South Africa. This show reminded me of Cabaret and how the performers were in their own world in the club, but then they realized how the war would put an end to their paradise. Kat and the Kings was like this because the segregation against the "colored" people prevented them from prospering to their full potential. In both cases, there were outside forces which put an end to the fun." For some students, however, the show could have gone into more depth. According to Elena, "The way they talked about their lives was too simple and there wasn't enough detail." Katie, an 11th grader echoed this: "I felt that the storyline was held together with a thread too thin and it could have been more developed. I would have liked to have seen more story and fewer songs." Personally I appreciated the fact that, unlike a movie of the week, the show does not try to explore every single aspect of Apartheid. The injustice of that system is made clear through the very personal ways it affects the characters.
Many students complained of the difficulty in understanding the accents of the performers. The show originated in Cape Town and according to Jody Abrahams, one of the stars of the show, they have slowed it down considerably for American audiences, but the accents do take a bit of getting used to. 11th grader Alexandra complained, "A lot of the time during the show I wasn't able to understand the words being spoken by the performers, not only while they were singing, but also when they were speaking." Most enjoyed the show immensely despite this, and noticed that they had less trouble with the accents as the show went on.
Overall the students were delighted with the energy level and the singing and dancing talents of the cast. The only cast member whose performance was consistently commented on in a negative light was Kim Louis. According to Jasmine, a 10th grader, "For some reason, Kim Louis, who played Lucy, seemed out of place. It might have been due to the fact that she was the only female cast member. I don't want to be misunderstood, though. I cannot discredit her acting abilities, because her performance was great, but when she sang her songs it brought the performance to a monotonous level. She has a great singing voice; it's rich and savvy, but too husky for the songs she sang." Their favorite performer was Jody Abraham, who portrayed the Young Kat. His charisma and exceptional singing and dancing garnered a great deal of praise.
I think Zlata said it best when she wrote, "The bodies and feet of the dancers beat out the rhythm of the music to the fastest hit on the drums. The music itself was marvelous. I love it when you can feel the rhythm in your blood." The music, which has the flavor of classic 50s rock and roll, has an infectious beat; it is impossible to sit still as you watch the cast defy gravity with its dance moves. The audience is engaged so completely that by the end everyone is clapping and waving their arms. With its incredibly talented cast and its very funny book (despite the serious underlying themes), Kat and the Kings has an appeal for audiences old and young; what's more impressive is its appeal for the more difficult to impress teens.
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