BWW Interview: Getting to Know Local Theatre with Kyra Lehman: Proximity's Youth Program
Getting to Know Local Theatre with Kyra Lehman: Proximity's Youth Program
A talented cast of Proximity Theatre's youth performers, with the addition of Artistic Director Kyra Lehman and Executive Director Ken Urbina, brings a stunning performance of A Mermaid's Tale, adapted from the lore of Hans Christian Andersen, to the New Vic Theater. Proximity presents a movement-based retelling of the story of a mermaid who falls in love with a human man (film star Sam Star (Ken Urbina), in this adaptation), whom she rescues from the sea. Through a magical transaction with a malevolent sea witch, she trades her voice for legs that elicit shooting pain with each step. The mermaid (Katya Tashma-Rapp), Marina, is silent, a specter who walks gingerly but with purpose despite the pain of each step, towards her destiny. The tragedy of the tale is that Sam, for whom she has given up her previous identity, cannot love her back. She's ethereal and devoted and he's entranced by her; but her silent otherworldliness is inaccessible to him. For the bargain with the sea witch to be complete, either Marina or Sam has to die. Unable to kill the man she loves, Marina accepts her fate.
Having never seen a Proximity production, I wanted to understand the impetus behind the design and storytelling model of the show. I spoke with Ms. Kyra Lehman, who directed and choreographed A Mermaid's Tale, to gain an idea of Proximity's unique process for creating this moody, heart-wrenching piece that utilizes silent movement to impart the overwhelming sadness and beauty of unrequited love. Passionate about the theatrical artistry of storytelling, Lehman has created a youth program that involves intensive discovery and collaboration. In Lehman, I found a director and teacher dedicated to fostering trust in her young cast and providing the space to explore the depth of their authentic emotional capacity. Most impressive, the product of this guided, personal investigation was clear on stage, especially in the notable performances by Katya Tashma-Rapp and Stephanie McPhee, who play the mermaid, Marina, and the sea witch, respectively. Both girls, still teenagers, offered sophisticated performances with emotional nuance that suggested a genuine and personal connection with the material that far exceeded my expectation based on their young age. McPhee, as the sea witch, delivered power and intensity that suggested a deep emptiness well-suited to the design of the character, which Lehman describes as "the mermaid's shadow": the embodiment of her fear. Tashma-Rapp, as Marina, personified a number of dichotomies: delicate durability; wise innocence; joy and devastation. The pain of Marina's burning legs, while not evident on her face, was vivid in each unfaltering step.
While the production was impressive, learning about Proximity's creative process was equally fascinating. Lehman, a Santa Barbara native, grew up being inspired by her father, Eric Lehman, another local theatre artist and A Mermaid's Tale script writer. "I grew up with my dad teaching theatre in Santa Barbara," Lehman explains. "I grew up with him doing this work, so I've always really loved it. I had a spinal surgery when I was about twelve, so I was paralyzed from the chest down. I was such a lover of dance and movement and theatre, and all that was taken away from me for a while. My life has been this reintegration of person into body. That's where the basis of a lot of my work has been born."
Lehman describes her fascination with movement as specific to the true, honest way performers move in their body-not when choreographed, but when given a context in which to explore authentic physicality. During the workshop/rehearsal process, the performers (in this case, teens ranging in age from 13-18) are encouraged to explore themselves through a variety of exercises, including guided, written self-evaluations. "The workshops always start with the kids. I give them a lot of writing. For this one, I gave them a questionnaire that asked, 'What do you fear? Have you ever been in love? What did it feel like?'" This work is designed to reframe how the performers see the world. "We have a whole section on beauty," Lehman says, "because, especially with young people, I try to make them reassess what they're seeing from their own point of view rather than based on everything they've been told is beautiful...we talk about the idea of sacred beauty, of grotesque beauty, of the surprisingly beautiful. Every week we have a discussion of beauty so we can find those moments in our show. We're always trying to frame every moment with that...the hope is that the kids start to treat their lives with a little more care and keep their eyes a little more sensitive to when the light is beautiful, or when a certain texture is touching their skin. Or when they're sitting with someone they really love they can start to understand: Wow, I'm sitting with someone I really love."
Proximity's goal isn't to produce plays, but instead to produce art, and to use the rehearsal process as a place to teach teens to access and present themselves with a depth of honest expression. Lehman supports bravery and sincerity in her cast's performances, and describes her performers as stunning when they learn to unravel. "Every inch of their skin has been thought about. Everything we do deals with the body and getting them to ask questions and to articulate what they're going through," Lehman says. She challenges her performers to look at their production as a piece of truth rather than as a vehicle for drama that will be liked or disliked by the audience-a pertinent lesson for anyone seeking to survive in the arts. In A Mermaid's Tale, the specific thematic issue introduced is the ability to survive heartbreak, which Lehman believes leads to the recognition of inner truth: "When you're broken and when you have this feeling that you have to go towards something-when it's really pure-it's like taking a leap of faith. It's really about this girl's journey towards herself, and bravery and fear and vulnerability, which I'd say is what all my shows are about."
Of course, these are common themes in all forms of storytelling. Drama is conflict; it's personal investment in a situation; it's finding the connection between the internal and the external struggle. Lehman recognizes that connection, and casts her shows in an effort to challenge each of the performers to find relatability between their character and their personal lives, another important lesson for burgeoning actors. Recently, Proximity created and performed a show called Teenage, an original piece that Lehman describes as "turning the teenager inside out." She and Proximity create work that is based in the experiences of the kids- work that they can relate to so they'll be interested in the emotionality behind the story. Lehman admits that in A Mermaid's Tale, a casting change was instituted halfway through the workshop program to take advantage of real emotions that were manifesting in her cast. "My sea witch (Stephanie McPhee)- I originally had her playing the mermaid; and the girl who's playing the mermaid now (Katya Tashma-Rapp) was the sea witch. I always wanted her to play the heart, this girl Marina, but for some reason I didn't give it to her. And halfway through it became so clear that her experience-she's going through this gnarly heartbreak-changed everything. And they felt it. I think Steph (McPhee) is getting something out of playing the sea witch. She's really shy and quiet and she has this inner strength that's crazy. The girl who plays Marina (Tashma-Rapp)-it (the role) puts her life in context."
In terms of storytelling, Lehman describes her shows as experiential rather than linear. The aim is to allow the story's raw emotion to bubble to the surface without the constraints of traditional storytelling structures. Proximity's goal is always for productions to touch people, to spark a conversation with the audience. "We definitely ask people in the audience to work, and not in an elitist, intellectualized way. I try to touch on stuff that isn't always the most comfortable-I feel like my work tends to trigger people; tends to expose things, and sometimes that makes people feel uncomfortable. I feel great when people have strong reactions. I would never want everybody to love my work. I just want people to have a response to it. I would rather take a big leap of faith and let the pieces land than try to make it a comfortable experience for everyone," Lehman insists.
A Mermaid's Tale does exhibit elements of non-traditional storytelling in the way the script is written: above water, in the world of the humans, the audience watches fairly conventional theatrical scenes unfold (a movie set featuring actors playing actors on the set of "The Evil Ocean," a camp-fest that allows the cast to show off their comedic chops); below the ocean, there are no words-only movement. This is a statement of belonging: even when Marina is granted legs to walk amongst the surface dwellers, she remains voiceless and must depend on physicality to convey her needs and desires. This construct makes Lehman's choreography the basis for the story's context rather than a dependency on words or music. The choreography comes from intensive study and composition of movements explored in the workshops: everything is filmed, and then watched and re-watched. Movements are sped up, slowed down, repeated, reversed, and turned upside-down. Ken Urbina scores all of Proximity's shows to Lehman's movements rather than Lehman choreographing to the inherent story told in the score-Lehman describes the creative process as having physicality come first, then music-words are always last.
Proximity's performances are beautiful and provocative for audience and performers alike. In A Mermaid's Tale, the performers both ask and answer the questions of "What is love? What is a lover?" Lehman's vision is that love is a vehicle for momentum: Marina falls in love with Sam and gets that first taste of a desire so strong that she's willing to conquer even the fear of leaving her world for a chance to achieve her passion. "She ends up surrendering to death," Lehman says. "To me, that's how it feels when you want something so bad that you feel like you're going to die if you don't get it...but that pain-that's where you find yourself. So for me, the ending isn't about death, it's a celebration of the character finding out that she's actually very much alive. In the last moment, she stands there in that pain and that exposure and she finds herself completely alive."
Lehman, through her work with Proximity, explores this theme of what it means to exist in the world; what it means to be alive. "I'm so compassionate to how hard it is to be alive and to the fact that we're all doing the best we can. I think we're used to seeing things that are beautiful, but I'm interested in people's flaws because I feel like I have so many. I feel like one of the most bizarre people alive," she admits.
And yet, bizarre in this case isn't a curse: Proximity is making art of substance and interest. Proximity's productions allow both performers and audience members to reach out and touch something outside the mainstream, even if that sensation was previously unavailable to them. Proximity's youth program invites teens to learn the art of performance while thinking critically about the meaning of every aspect of their character and themselves, and how it all relates to their own lives. This skill-set is crucial for all performers, but more importantly for all teens: the ability to be analytical and honest about one's emotional state isn't only an acting necessity; it's a skill that will push the performers toward success, not only in the arts, but in all aspects of their future, adult lives.
Get to know the impressive work of Proximity Theatre: