The Torch Bearers

Hester Kamin is the Director of Education at Gulfshore Playhouse.

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Jeff Binder with the cast of the Teen Conservatory’s Into the Woods. Summer 2017.

 “Is there mascara all over my face?” asks Clare. We’ve just finished watching Jeff Binder in The Price, and for the first time, his students have seen him act. Everyone is getting out Kleenex and hand mirrors and surveying their bloodshot eyes before running into the hallway and jumping up and down to offer their congratulations.  I’m swept along in their wake. It’s like being with a group of hummingbirds.

Our students are moved by the entire production of The Price. They talk for weeks about Marilee Talkington’s delicately nuanced portrayal of the tough-talking but fragile Esther, about the pathos and humor Stuart Zagnit brings to the character of Solomon, about the raw power and barely contained brokenness they see in David Whalen as Walter (qualities, they tell me breathlessly, that he also brought to The Fault in Our Stars.) They discuss the complex but loving relationship between the characters of Victor and Esther. They talk about the troubled relationship between the two brothers and debate again and again who was right and who was wrong about the past and whether, ultimately, the brothers might be able to reconcile. (Yes, they say hopefully.) And they all give Jeff the greatest compliment anyone can give an actor: that they felt what he was feeling. Angela says, “When he made that face that guys make before they’re about to cry, I lost it.”

But underneath their discussion is wonder. They are astonished that as teens, they are not only seeing theatre at this level, but learning from actors this great. They sense that they have become part of something bigger than themselves: they are the newest in a line of artists stretching from the beginning of time, each passing the torch to the next generation. They see the flame: it’s there. It’s palpable. Jeff and Marilee and David and Stuart are holding it out, holding it up, handing it to them. Our students will grow up. And when they do, they will be standing on the shoulders of giants.

In the arts, we throw ourselves into the fire not once, but again and again. We do it when we take on a role that makes us nervous. When we go to an audition. When we sit before a panel. When we stand up to speak in front of a group. We are told, again and again, from childhood classes and auditions, that we aren’t good enough. That there are more roles than people. That there are five hundred people for every job in the performing arts. On stages, at dinner parties, and in front of classes, I have suddenly panicked. I have asked myself, What am I doing here? Why should I be the one out of five hundred?  I am an impostor.

And then I think of the people who have believed in me.

The cast of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, who I have known since I was four years old.

My friend, playwright Christopher Durang.

And my teachers. I chant their names over and over.

My acting teacher, legendary French theatre artist Jacques Lecoq.

My dance teacher, the Alvin Ailey dancer Jose Meier.

My movement teachers, Babs Bailey and Tim Carryer.

My poetry teacher, Jim Daniels.

If they believed in me, who am I not to believe in myself? I am standing on the shoulders of giants.

I think of Jacques Lecoq saying to me, “Don’t be beautiful. It’s too small.”

Our students may not all go into the performing arts. But they will always have each other’s friendship. And ours. And they will carry these experiences with them for the rest of their lives. On a day in their adult lives in which they are plagued by doubt, they will remember that they are part of an enchanted circle. They will remember how they wept when they saw their teacher Jeff in the opening night of The Price. They will remember how they felt when David Whalen walked into the room unexpectedly early during their rehearsal, set them at ease, and calmly gave notes. They will remember that they were young and full of hope and promise, and yet they were taken seriously. They will remember not to be beautiful. It’s too small.

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The Teen Conservatory performs Into the Woods. Summer 2017.

 

3 thoughts on “The Torch Bearers

  1. OH, Hester! I am in tears as well! Beautifully expressed and poignantly written. You have learned from the best and now, you are passing on your gifts! Thank you for being here! Thank you for sharing your gifts. Thank you for all you do!

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