Albert, the main character in War Horse, describes his hunter colt, Joey, as "spirited" and says that this quality "is the best thing about him." Spirited is also an apt description for the New York City high-school students who attended this week's schools matinee of the production. Organized by the LCT's Open Stages Education Program, which prepares the students in advance with three in-school lessons (there's also a follow-up), the event is always a high point in my yearly calendar.
The intense energy of teenagers always affects how I feel while watching a performance; this week's experience was no different. I've never had such a visceral response to the end of the story. Similarly, Seth Numrich, who plays Albert and who himself enjoys working with public-school students, told well-wishers after the matinee that he felt more overwhelmed than usual during the show.
Other cast members told me that they, too, were jazzed to play for a student audience. Why? In general terms: actors work hard during the course of a long run to keep a production emotionally alive, and a highly responsive audience helps them maintain a non-static relationship to their material. When they get laughs or detect under-the-breath comments during a performance (yeah, actors hear that audience stuff!), they can feel their perspectives refreshed.
During the post-show talkback, during which students could ask the actors questions, Alyssa Bresnahan, who plays Albert's mother, said, "I feel at some points in a performance not just what my character SHOULD feel but what the audience is feeling then, too. And today was so exciting in that regard." Boris McGiver, who portrays Bresnahan's husband onstage, added, "An audience and the actors together form a hologram"-- an image that appears three-dimensional. "If you take away the audience, you're left with nothing. Today was quite a hologram."
I don't want to pretend that all actors appreciate student audiences. I've heard a few express mild annoyance after such shows, especially with precisely timed farces where a raucous response threw off the actors' timing. (My advice: if you can't handle a lively crowd, what in the heck are you doing in a comedy?) More often, however, actors love having their performances shaken up. Nothing can feel more deadly than polite laughs or polite applause. Better to have emotionally engaged teenagers than respectful anyone else.
And the adolescents at this week's War Horse matinee certainly were unbridled at times. (A little applause, please: that's my first equine metaphor in weeks.) A few of the comments I heard during the show, especially about the authenticity of the horses, are simply too earthy to share -- I risk offending the delicate sensibilities of some Backstage Blog readers. Other responses were amusingly city-kid: a boy behind me kept talking about "the duck." (He meant the show's goose.) My favorite comment, though, was unmistakably street-smart. It was uttered by a girl who, rapt with attention all afternoon, during the play's climactic scene turned to her friend and whispered, "If they kill that horse, I'm going to rush the stage and start World War Three!"
She meant it.
P.S. I can't complete this blog entry without name-checking the New York City schools that sent students to this week's matinee. A hearty thanks to all of them:
High School for Environmental Studies
High School for Health Professions
High School of Fashion Industries
Lower East Side Preparatory High School
Manhattan Theatre Lab High School
Marble Hill School for International Studies
MLK for Law, Advocacy & Community
Justice Murry Bergtraum High School
Opportunity Charter School
PACE High School
Professional Performing Arts High School
Vanguard High School
William E. Grady High School
Brendan Lemon is the American theater critic for the Financial Times and the editor of lemonwade.com.