When you attend a student matinee at Lincoln Center Theater, you know you're in for a memorable time of it. The kids laugh at any hint of inspired silliness, groan audibly at any sign of injustice, and, if there's any suggestion of sex, are liable to hoot in a way guaranteed to make an actor adjust his or her timing.
In other words, students, who are prepared for performances in their schools by the talented teaching artists of LCT's Education Department, are vibrantly alive. This week, at a Wednesday matinee of A Free Man of Color, the 927 students in attendance were something else, more than usually I mean: they were extraordinarily attentive. Newspaper pundits and professional pessimists love to moan that texting-mad teenagers have such fractured attention spans that they are unable to sit still long enough to eat dinner let alone to take in a two-and-a-half hour afternoon of live theater.
But I'm here to tell you: the quality of the students' attention was inspired. What John Guare, in a post-show talkback with the teens, called the "magic bridge" that exists between performers and patrons was especially enchanted at the matinee. Jeffrey Wright, who plays Free Man's main character, Jacques Cornet, spoke for everyone present when he told the students that "the consensus backstage was that you were the best audience we've had."
The students - who came from fourteen New York City high schools - asked excellent post-show questions. A boy named Kenan, from Opportunity Charter School, asked Guare what inspired him to write the play, and Guare talked about a conversation he had several years ago with the production's director, George C. Wolfe, about creating something for Wright.
Melinda, from High School of Fashion Industries, asked if it was difficult for actors to transition between film and theater. Wright responded that each form has its advantages and differences. "Theater allows space for language and story," he said, as well as for "an immediate relationship with the audience."
Kyle, from PACE High School, asked if the production involved any improvisation. He was told that while the play has a set text, written by Guare, that actors can bring an improvisatory type of freshness and danger to each evening's work. "Each performance is different," said Mos, who plays Murmur, adding that he re-reads Free Man at least once a week to find new meanings in the text.
Tiffany, from High School for Environmental Studies, wondered whether the actors who play slaves find such an experience difficult. Derric Harris, who plays a slave in Free Man, replied, "The first time there was a rehearsal for 'the Slave Ensemble' it struck a chord in me." He added, "We live in 2010, so it's easy to forget where we come from."
Teyonah Parris, who plays multiple roles, commented, "It might be easy or safe to stay detached from the experience of being a slave onstage. But then you realize, 'This is my people's story,' and it can't help but do something to you."
Brendan Lemon is the American theater critic for the Financial Times and the editor of lemonwade.com.