Printed on: January 22, 2013

A lesson in interpretation

Emerson High School students receive drama workshop from actors

By Christina Lords
clords@postregister.com

When Manuel Simons called out the word "injustice," nearly all of the Emerson High School students at his drama workshop represented the word by crouching down.

Not Crystal Newkirk.

She stood emboldened atop her chair, arms raised like a superhero.

"I was fighting back against the injustice," she said, "not (receiving) it."

The students were asked to strike physical poses they thought represented each word Simons called out.

It was part of a theater workshop that Simons and Mara Stephens presented last week at the alternative high school. The thespians worked with high school students Wednesday and Thursday after presenting the American Place Theatre's adaptation of the award-winning young adult novel "The Giver."

Simons is a professor at New Jersey City University and The Borough of Manhattan Community College, where he teaches speech, creative writing, and literature and film. He holds a master's degree in educational theater and a bachelor's degree in acting, both from New York University. He has about 20 years experience acting, directing and producing theater and travels the country regularly through the theater.

When student Shannon Hogoboom heard the word "injustice," she reacted differently than Newkirk.

"I thought about if you're a parent, sometimes your punishments (are) unjust," she said. "I was a parent looking down and glaring."

The workshops were centered on "The Giver" and its themes of family, the future and what it means to live in a utopian society, all the while teaching acting techniques and terminology.

In the play, 12-year-old Jonas receives a unique assignment as he makes his way through a dystopian world, one in which everything is planned by the government.

Jonas is to become the "receiver of memories" -- the person who stores the knowledge and feelings of earlier ways of life.

Simons started the workshop with a warm-up, teaching the students about different physical stances such as actor neutral.

"You're ready for anything," he said. "You're ready to give communication out, and receive communication in. That's what acting is all about."

The exercises evolved into more elaborate scenarios, including students designing a scene in small groups that represented a form of injustice.

Some groups opted to represent crime and one of its underlying causes: poverty.

Others chose to represent bullying and racism as prevalent injustices in society.

Newkirk's group created a scene that surprised even Simons: a scenario about the justice system.

"It's fascinating you guys chose to represent the justice system," he said. "The fact that you can relate the justice system as something that is unjust is very interesting."

The scenes, as well as the presentation of "The Giver," were a vehicle to talk about social issues within a workshop or classroom setting, Simons said.

Features writer Christina Lords can be reached at 542-6762. Comment on this story at Post Talk at www.postregister.com/posttalk.