PORT ANGELES — A small audience of about 30 people, primarily mental health professionals, seated themselves in comfortable chairs and couches in a theater-in-the-round at Studio Bob in late August for a preview of “Every Brilliant Thing.”
They were asked if they would be willing to participate in the play. Those who agreed were given cards with numbers and words on them and some of them were later asked to join actor Emma Jane Garcia to play important characters in the protagonist’s life as she journeyed in recollection from childhood to her present age.
“Audience members are asked to contribute to the story in a variety of ways throughout,” Garcia said. “It ends up being pretty low pressure, as the situations explored are all so close to real life and there is a distinct intimacy and trust created in the space. It doesn’t take acting or public speaking experience to feel comfortable jumping in.
“It’s amazing how quickly the audience begins to feel like they are deeply familiar with the others in attendance that evening. The contributions are mostly light in nature and audience members have so far done a great job reacting to the scenes just as they would in real life.”
Garcia had to memorize more than an hour and a half of monologue. She led audience members to improvise along with her.
Beyond the words, she spoke the entire time with her body, conveying her age in gesture. Her hands spoke most eloquently.
“I could not have chosen a better actor for this,” Director Mindy Gelder said. “She has a real strength in connecting to the audience and playing off what people give her.”
Participant Kimberle Ykema said: “Not only did I enjoy the show, but I was intrigued by Emma Jane’s ability to make a bunch of regular people feel like part of the action.”
Said Ken Winters, a participant: “I found the show fabulous. I was very impressed with how personable Emma Jane was in both the story telling and her audience interactions. It really felt like she was telling her own life story. Most people will relate to various parts of the story.”
Garcia said later that directly addressing the audience in this way was challenging.
“I think a huge anchoring point comes in the way the audience responds with so much compassion and empathy,” Garcia said. “I find myself feeling like I’m just sitting down over a meal recounting life experiences to trusted friends. That comparison continues throughout the performance as I notice audience reactions and it directs me to new directions.”
Said Nicolina Miller: “I ran through a lot of emotions when I arrived there and realized it was a participatory event … but I was soon lost in the play itself.
“I’m no longer nervous about going to more plays set up like that. And that’s a testament to a mental health play — it helped me move through that social anxiety into a brighter, more expansive place.”
Emily Matthiessen is a reporter with the Olympic Peninsula News Group, which is composed of Sound Publishing newspapers Peninsula Daily News, Sequim Gazette and Forks Forum. Reach her at email@example.com.