Emotional Baggage

“For the first time in Yoh Theatre history, a Woodstock Union High School student has directed a play, one that from all accounts last week won the hearts of audiences on two planned consecutive nights.

For her final project in theater this year, WUHS Junior Alivia Salls worked behind the scenes to oversee and orchestrate the production of Lindsay Price’s ‘Emotional Baggage,’ a drama set in a train station centered on seven characters who, instead of carrying luggage, are strapped with emotional baggage.

‘I was looking on websites for plays, and I had picked a few but this one was very different,’ said Salls. ‘I thought there was a lot I could do with it, and I wanted to do something that was as (unique) as we had ever done in Yoh. I thought it would be fun and interesting. There was also a lot of freedom within the script to add my own personal touches.’

As an explanation of this kind of baggage, each of the characters carries with him/her heavy pieces that they are unable to put down or be away with for any length of time. This is particularly evident when the Well Rounded Person tries to pull that baggage away from them.

‘This has been a great experience,’ said Yoh Theatre Director Marcia Bender. ‘Alivia has done the entire production starting from November. She researched the ideas of staging, lighting and costuming as well as casting. I haven’t helped at all. I’m very proud of her and her peer leadership. The actors have stepped up and given her an excellent performance.’

The 30-minute, one-act play has no words and the story is told through action and gestures. All actors wear white masks that help to exaggerate the nature of their characters.

In clutching his chest, for example, WUHS Freshman Finn Powers portrays a man “Getting Over Heart Attack,’ holding a briefcase and moving very fast despite its weight. Breathing heavily and rapidly, he grabs his chest, pounds on it and begins to flail his arms and legs. He snatches up his briefcase, and his symptoms subside.

Prior to this event, the audience first views a deserted train station in early morning with only the sound of Dead End Job sweeping the floor. He has a large bag slung around his back to put trash in that he collects all day in the station. The bag weighs him down completely.

Two women enter the station. One, ‘Living in the Past,’ carries an expensive purse but it, too, is heavy and weighs on her. The other, ‘Insecure About Looks,’ carries a heavy knapsack on her back and several magazines on her arms. She is obviously unsteady on her feet but manages to sit at a nearby bench, placing the magazines beside her.

‘It was definitely challenging directing my peers because they’re my friends,’ said Salls. ‘So, at times it was hard to take control.’

Bender and Stage Manager Maggie Burns were on hand to help pull the actors, together, however, and to get everyone to focus on the scene at hand. Local resident Diane Martin helped with the costumes, the concept of which originated from Salls, and Bruce McClelland – who at one time worked with French mime Marcel Marceau’s mentor in Paris – brought the idea of the masks.

‘He’s trained in the improvisation of the body,’ said Bender. ‘He focuses on more of what’s inside a person, in his/her core, portraying a feeling.”

McClelland gave a two-hour workshop to the student actors with this in mind, Bender said.

Because there are no words, the play was originally developed using Vivaldi’s ‘The Four Seasons.’ In Salls’ production, there was minimal sound except for train whistles, some laughter and an occasional exclamation.

‘Alivia wanted the challenge of no words,’ said Bender. ‘But she does come out prior to the play and explain to the audience its process of substituting gestures for dialogue.’

Bender assessed Salls on her project using three criteria including process, preparation, and checkpoints along the way,.

‘I know how she organized her rehearsals, saw the performances, her comments, people’s reactions – basically the whole picture,’ said Bender. ‘She did an outstanding job.’

As part of the assignment, Salls also attended workshops and created a website outlining her theater portfolio. Over the past two years, she has taken part in a combination piece of ‘Push’ by George Cameron Grant and ‘The Courage Zone’ by Harriet Worrell, ‘The Wiz’ by William F. Brown and Charlie Smalls, ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ by William Shakespeare, ‘Baskerville: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery’ by Ken Ludwig, ‘The Laramie Project’ by Moises Kaufman and the Members of the Tectonic Theater Project, ‘Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’ by Jeremy Sams, ‘A Village Fable’ by James Still, “Bakkhai’ by Euripides and ‘Emotional Baggage’ by Lindsay Price. I have acted in ‘Push,’ ‘The Wiz,’ ‘Much Ado About Nothing,’ ‘The Laramie Project’ and ‘Bakkhai.’

‘I helped with costuming for ‘Baskerville’ and I was the stage manager for ‘Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’ and ‘A Village Fable,” Salls said.

She has attended workshops on social justice as well as various aspects of the theater.

She plans to continue to be part of theater throughout the rest of her high school career and to major in theater in college, she said.

‘This experience with ‘Emotional Baggage’ has taught me a lot about myself as a director and a leader,’ said Salls. ‘I’m incredibly grateful for everyone I’ve worked with, and I’d like to give a special thank you to Marcia Bender, Bruce McClelland, and Diane Martin.’”