8th Grade Play: Taking Breath

8th-Grade-Play-2015-087-X3 (1)

Do you have a favorite song?

What do you think will happen when you die?

What is your biggest joy?

What is your biggest fear?

These are just a few of the questions that 8th graders asked the people they interviewed for this year’s production, “Taking Breath.” The play was based entirely on interviews students conducted with an astonishing range of people, including a homeless woman, an aspiring dancer, a Ukrainian gymnast, a teen mother, a pastor, an activist who spent over 20 years in jail, and an pair of opinionated pre-school girls.

This particular style of play, based on interviews with actual people, was adapted by drama teacher Jana Barber. “I love monologists like Spalding Gray and Anna Deavere Smith,” she said. “I was also inspired by the Laramie Project [about the 1998 murder of gay student Matthew Shepard] which was based largely on interviews.” Jana helped the 8th graders find their subjects, accompanied them to interviews as far away as Napa and Mountain View, edited 30 hours of recorded conversations, and wove all the voices together into a powerful whole.

“This type of play is a lot more work than the other ones we do,” she said. “That’s why I only do it every four years. Still, it’s one of my favorite genres.”

The answers to the questions the students posed were moving and eloquent, funny and sad, yearning and philosophical. “The people we interviewed had amazing essence,” said Jana. “And the kids did a spectacular job.” Malkia, playing one of the directors of the San Francisco Mime Troupe, talked about what it’s like to raise a black son: “If someone was to misunderstand who my son was, that could mean his life—I guess there is a really big fear around that. And I’m angry about that.” Aubin interviewed a 95-year-old man whose biggest joy is helping people,  “I’ve helped a lot of people,” he said. “And my biggest joy is that they come back to thank me.” Sean interviewed a Google executive whose biggest fear is mortality: not being around to watch his children grow up. Ana’s character, a teen mom, said her proudest moment was getting three A’s in school the previous semester, while also taking care of her small son and holding down a part-time job. “I can’t believe I did all this. I’m so proud of myself!” she said. Asked what happen when you die, Danika, as a preschool girl, said,”You might turn into something that you aren’t, that you’ve been dreaming to be, like a butterfly!”

The production was flawless on opening night, but getting there was rocky at times. Several  8th graders developed strep throat the week of the play. Cutting and shaping the 30-plus hours of interviews to make sure all the characters and topics were represented was also a challenge, according to Jana: “I drove the kids crazy because I kept saying, ‘Okay you are out, you are in. We have too much love, we need a little more joy!’ I was still giving kids new lines the night before the play.”

“When we were in the middle of it, we weren’t sure how it was going to turn out,” Ana said  “But it all came together in the end.”

The play turned out to be an exercise in empathy: it forced actors and audience alike to see the world through other peoples’ eyes —which is why Jana says she loves this dramatic genre so much. “As humans, we all get stuck in our own worlds,” she said. “It is good for us to bloom, to look through the eyes of others, to try to feel the heartbeat of others. It forces you to drop some of your assumptions and prejudices.”

The 8th graders also recognized the value of the experience, and were still elated a week after the performance. As Lucia, who played an award-winning  TV producer observed, “It was good for us to meet and talk to people who aren’t our own age, and get a sense of experiences that are so different from our own.”

For the audience, watching the 8th graders take on such diverse and demanding roles—and doing it so well—was both poignant and profound. The last question in the play was, What takes your breath away? a reference to Shing Xiong’s famous quote: “In the end, it’s not going to matter how many breaths you took, but how many moments took your breath away.”  Lea’s character, a doctor paralyzed in a head-on collision on the Golden Gate Bridge, probably provided the best answer: “It’s what you put out into the world. That’s what takes your breath away.”

— by Connie Matthiessen, photos by Russ Curtis. Watch a video of the play, also by Curtis, here.

Recent News