“Here’s the problem with comedy,” Nathan Keepers announced to 10 rapt middle schoolers, having just taught the group the basics of a purposeful and theatrical trip (you have to drag one foot slightly behind the other, so the stumble appears natural). “[Comedy] is watching someone fail at doing something, but they don’t know that they’re failing.” He tripped again, adding a shocked look for good measure when his feet betrayed him.
Keepers, an actor and director, is one of several instructors at Merrimack Repertory Theatre’s Young Company in Lowell, a yearlong theatrical learning experience divided into middle school and high school sessions. Once merely a summer camp program, Young Company, revamped two years ago by the theater’s director of education, Amy Menkin, with encouragement from Artistic Director Sean Daniels, now ties MRT’s educational programming to its seasonal programming. This means a two-week summer session with instruction from MRT affiliates — Keepers will direct a show in the 2017-2018 season — and sessions throughout the school year, which include observing MRT rehearsals and attending classes by MRT staff and artists. The middle school summer session this year centers around physical comedy and culminated with a student-written farce.
Not every student who enters the high school session is considering acting as a profession. “There are kids who are in it just for fun,” Menkin said. “It gives you a good, diverse group who are there for whatever reasons they want to be.”
Watching members of the group drag their feet around the room in mock stumbles, swerving to avoid each other as they essentially rehearsed failure, it was easy to imagine what those reasons might be. It was easier still to forget that the students were between 11 and 14 years old, an intensely vulnerable age. They appeared poised and in complete control. This, Menkin said, is part of the point: creating an experience that will serve as a foil to middle school and all its limitations.
“Using your creativity and your imagination and thinking outside of the box is a really important goal at this point, because it can be applied to pretty much anything,” Menkin said. “These skills are not always taught in school.”
But the content taught in Young Company is only a small part of the environment Menkin cultivates, one in which failure is accepted as a crucial part of risk. “One of the first things I always do is make sure that they all know that everyone’s opinion is valued and that they shouldn’t be afraid to do anything,” she said. “I remember being that age. … It can be very frustrating. [The kids] want to be independent. They also want your guidance. You have to work hard to find this balance of doing both.”
Menkin hopes Young Company jump-starts a further expansion of MRT’s educational programming that will, ideally, broaden the scope of the theater’s popular student matinees and include classes in local schools and community locations that are tied to state curriculum standards. For now, it’s enough to watch middle school students somehow, miraculously, grow self-assured without realizing it. This, beyond Keepers’ hat flips and secrets to a perfect somersault, is the real comedic trick.
Keepers’ final exercise asked students to imagine that they were walking through a door to a make-believe stage, where they would find an audience they didn’t know was there. The comedy of the moment is, naturally, in the vulnerability, the not-knowing, the necessity of performing spontaneously and without thought. One girl, when she entered, simply burst out laughing.
“She wasn’t acting,” someone whispered. Of course, acting was never the point.
Photography by Sidney Hoang, courtesy MRT.