Friday, February 12, 2016

Jungalbook: The Director

Director Troy Lescher
As the HSU production of Jungalbook got closer to opening night, the cast was working on fight choreography and brushing up on their drumming for a percussive moment. Director and new HSU Theatre, Film & Dance department professor Troy Lescher paused to talk about what audiences could expect.

 “There’s a lot of action,” he said. “In our staging, scenes are short and fast. There are a lot of light moments in the play, moments of joy and humor and pleasure, but also some heavy and dark moments. The jungle is a place of adventure but also of danger. That’s one reason this story appeals to young and old.”

 New audiences can be captivated by the characters coming to grips with themes of loyalty, identity, friendship and coping with fear. But older audiences can share in the discovery. “We sort of know what The Jungle Book stories are,” Lescher said, “and we sort of don’t.”

 “It’s also a play that has fantasy and magic in a realistic setting,” he said, “so it’s a challenge to create that with lighting and sound and transforming the space.”

 Using the startling premise of Edward Mast’s script (and all of his words), the play is set in a contemporary playground. But Lescher also devised a framing story that provides a rationale for skeptical adults, and especially skeptical kids.

 “Our story begins with a group of fourth and fifth graders, all in drab school uniforms, during recess in an urban schoolyard. The recess monitor, a PE teacher, notices that they are so absorbed in technology that they aren’t engaging with one another, and they aren’t using their imaginations."

" So he gets the idea of sending a jolt of electricity into the playground by involving them in an activity called The Jungalbook. The students discover pieces of clothing in the ‘lost and found’ container, and use them to inhabit various animals in the story. And that’s how human characters transform into the animal characters.”

 The main character is Mowgli, who starts out believing she is a wolf, then wonders if she is a bear, before deciding what kind of a human she will be. Although Mowgli is a young boy in The Jungle Book stories and the Jungalbook script, she’s a girl in the HSU production, played by Camille Borrowdale.

 “For most of the parts, gender isn’t specified,” Lescher said. “Once I cast the antagonist—the tiger Sheracon—with a female actor (Jenna Donahue), I thought it made sense to cast a woman as the protagonist as well. From a storytelling perspective, that works better.”

 “Also, one of the major themes of the story is bullying, and although we sometimes think that young men do all the bullying, research has shown that young women do as much, but in different ways.”

 As a theatre actor, Troy Lescher was following a fairly conventional path. From elementary school and high school in his hometown of Bloomington, Illinois, he performed in the usual plays and musicals. He continued on that path in college at the University of Virginia. But then he won a job as the performing mascot—the Virginia Cavalier—and everything began to change.

“I was one of three young men who performed at football and basketball games, wearing that costume and a huge mask on my head.” Some of the actor’s primary tools—words, voice and facial expressions--were gone. “I began to embrace physical acting work, where it’s more about the body as a communication tool in storytelling. That got me into clowning.”

 After college he moved to New York City, interned with a clown troupe and became a street performer. He clowned at corporate gigs, took a one-person puppet show to public schools and libraries, all while acting in off-off Broadway shows and pursuing a Masters in Fine Arts at Brooklyn College.

 He started teaching during his nine years in New York, and completed his doctorate in Texas with a dissertation on clown training. “I was still drawn to movement work,” he said. “It’s amazing what our bodies can tell an audience.”

Cavalier Troy 
Lescher couldn’t account for his interest in theatre. “My father was a truck driver, my mother was a hair stylist. How I wound up in this I don’t know.” It was only much later that he learned his maternal grandfather had performed for awhile—as a clown.

 While his wife began teaching English at CR, Troy started his latest gig--as an assistant professor in the HSU Theatre, Film & Dance department—and almost immediately, as the director of Jungalbook.

 That process began with concept meetings with designers in September, and auditions in November. Then the havoc of an academic schedule came into play. “There are lots of breaks in this period—Thanksgiving, Christmas, semester break and a week when everybody goes to the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival. Plus finals. So what’s normally a six or seven week rehearsal period is spread out over six months.”

 But that did provide opportunities for actors to go deeper into the story and their characters, on their own. After early weeks analyzing the text and building an ensemble, Lescher gave them some homework, relevant to the physical acting they were learning.

Most would be portraying animals--not only the bear, tiger, wolves and panther that drive the main story, but also elephant, python, monkey, hyena, vulture and buffalo.  “I asked each of them to screen four or five Youtube or National Geographic videos of the animal they were going to play, to zero in on postures, style of movement, respiratory patterns, the sounds of their animals, so we could incorporate this into their acting work.”

 He also asked them to read the appropriate pages of Animal Speak, a popular book by Ted Andrews about animal totems. “The book talks about individual animals, what they represent, the energies they give off and their connection to the world. I asked them to read the sections that apply to their animal, to give them an idea of that animal’s significance, what makes it unique. I wanted them to develop respect, and fall in love with their characters.”

 Inhabiting their characters physically provided student actors with insights beyond this play. “Teachers talk about ‘the light bulb moment’ when students suddenly understand an important idea. I love to see when actors do something with their bodies or voices or even their emotions, when they make an acting choice that surprises them—and they realize ‘That was in me, and I just found it.’”

 Lescher is eager to experience how they apply these insights to performing Jungalbook. “I want to empower them as storytellers. And that’s what I tell them—it’s your story, you’re the ones who will go on stage and share this tale with the audience. I hope they will enjoy and embrace every moment they have on stage. The run is over in just a couple of weeks, and I hope they own and embrace every moment along the way.”

 “So I’m excited to pass the torch to the students come opening night, and see them run with this thing--and blow the doors off. Because that’s what we should be doing.”

No comments: