Games of Life and Learning: 'Circle Mirror Transformation'

Wendy Goldberg knows her way around new plays. After two decades of staging them, mostly in Chicago, she moved to Connecticut to lead the O’Neill Theatre Center...

Wendy Goldberg knows her way around new plays. After two decades of staging them, mostly in Chicago, she moved to Connecticut to lead the O’Neill Theatre Center, the nation’s premiere spot where new theatrical and musical shows are workshopped — written, tried out, refined and tuned up for subsequent production. For several weeks every summer in New London, Conn., she is the ringmaster of a big circus of actors, directors, writers, composers and even a bevy of reviewers who show up for the National Critics Institute. It’s a heady time and an annual opportunity to play a part in shaping what will be entertaining theater audiences in seasons to come.

She has a few windows of time during the rest of the year to keep her own skills sharp, which she does by guest directing shows at regional theaters. She’s returned to the Cincinnati Playhouse for her fourth production, this time staging Annie Baker’s Circle Mirror Transformation, a recent play that was a finalist for the 2009 Pulitzer Prize in drama. 

The show is about theater — kind of. Five people are engaged in an acting class in a community center in a tiny Vermont town. One is an actress who has fled New York City after a lack of success. There’s a recently divorced man and the teacher’s not entirely willing husband. The youngest is a girl hoping to be cast in her high school’s production of West Side Story. The teacher puts them through a series of acting exercises, one of which gives the show its title. 

“Circle Mirror Transformation is an ensemble-building and energy-transferring game,” Goldberg says. “They stand in a circle. One person does a physical move with an audible sound. The group mirrors that, then it’s passed on to the next person who has to transform it. They take what they’ve received and transform it to something new. One goal is to work together as an ensemble, being silly and vulnerable. The second is to be free and loose in your body and your voice.”

The play features several acting exercises, and Goldberg says she’s done every one of them personally and used them with actors. 

“In a voice class in grad school, we were told to close our eyes and writhe around on the floor while ‘exploring our natural voice.’ We were making guttural sounds atop blue gymnasium mats. It just sounded so absurd, so at one point I opened my eyes, sat against the wall and watched. I realized that the teacher had left. When she came back in, I closed my eyes and went back to what I was supposed to be doing.” 

Goldberg recognized that she was observing rather than diving in as an actor. “I think I knew I was a director in that moment.”

For Circle Mirror Transformation, Goldberg assembled a cast of performers she has worked with before. It’s an interesting show since it requires trained actors to portray untrained actors. “That’s not to say that these people I’ve selected are these characters,” she hastens to add, “but they’re very close to them. They’ve been telling me how much they understand their character. I want to say back, ‘I know, you might be that person!’ ”

For most audiences, it will take a few scenes to understand what’s going on. Goldberg says, “When I saw it on Broadway, half the audience didn’t know what was happening in the first three scenes. It creates — and acknowledges — a certain level of frustration.” At one point, Lauren, the 16-year-old character, asks the teacher, “Are we going to do any real acting?” 

Goldberg loves the way Baker’s script helps an audience unfamiliar with the games and the acting exercises to understand the vocabulary. She admires the playwright’s attention to detail, down to the level of indicating precisely how long certain pauses need to take when a character responds to a question or an instruction.

Each character has some level of growth that comes about because of the acting class. 

“For some, it’s significant,” Goldberg says. “For others, it’s like a half-step forward after taking two steps back over the course of the play. Everyone understands themselves much better by the time we leave and knows what has to happen to be happy in their lives. Not that everyone leaves the class changed. But they know what they have to do next to live a full life. That happens to everybody in the play.” 

And it’s what audiences will learn, too.

CONTACT RICK PENDER: [email protected]

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