I haven't seen nearly as many Fertile Ground performances as I planned to. I got sick; someone important had an important birthday... I have plenty of excuses, but here's what it boils down to: I don't deserve a smoothie.
On Sunday, though, I finally made it out to one of my most-anticipated shows of the festival: Pep Talk, from experimental company Hand2Mouth.
Pep Talk is about teams and coaches and motivation; it is held, appropriately, in the gym at the Peninsula Park Community Center, which dates to 1913. (There's a great WPA mural in the lobby featuring athletic old-timey guys in onesies tossing a ball around.)
Before the show starts, audience members are asked to fill out a quick survey with answers to questions like "who's your hero?" and "what makes a good coach?" Because this felt like some sort of vetting process, and because I am an asshole, I made sure to note that one of my biggest fears is "audience participation."* Then we slapped on name tags—last-name only—and took our seats on benches in the gym, in front of a sparse set featuring a few video monitors and a foosball table.
This show is led—"performed" seems an insufficient word—by Hand2Mouth ensemble members Julie Hammond, Liz Hayden, Erin Leddy, and Maesie Speer. In customized warmup jackets and sneakers, they introduce themselves as our coaches for the evening; together, they will consider the form and function of motivational speeches by living the form and function of motivational speeches. The audience, seated on backless benches and folding chairs, is part of the show too: We're the raggedy band of misfits just waiting for the right coach to transform us into a team.
Toward the beginning of the show, the coaches break down the elements of a successful pep talk. I'd have to see it again to track if the shape of the show fully corresponds to the pep-talk template they lay out, but I think it does: Over the course of about 90 minutes, audience members are called on to identify their strengths; team spirit is established (via rallying cries and purple jerseys); and inspirational anecdotes are deployed for maximum motivational value. It's a pep rally for people who hated pep rallies, a simultaneous goof on the trappings of team spirit and sincere acknowledgement that teams can be families, coaches can be life changing, and motivational speeches get people going for a reason.
If all of this sounds a bit rah-rah, well... that's the point. The show was conceived, the company explains in the liner notes, as much as a pep talk for the company as for the audience:
"The fact is, what we have right here is a company of theatre artists who have worked their asses off for over a decade—investing time, energy and vision into making the art, applying for funding, arranging tours, finding space, holding down day jobs and building families. All that hard work can run you into the ground, so H2M made this show because H2M needed a goddamn pep talk! And that's nothing to apologize for. It's just the truth."
I'm not sure how sympathetic the average theatergoer is to the challenges facing working artists. (Very? Marginally? No idea.) But I suspect that other longtime fans of the company will have the same reaction that I did: If you're familiar with Hand2Mouth's work, the elements of the show that are personal to their ensemble serve as a sort of nostalgic highlights reel that'll leave you feeling surprisingly moved by how much ground these guys have covered over the years. (This show, in its energy and aesthetic, reminds me of one of my all-time favorite shows of theirs, 2007's Repeat After Me.)
One of the great strengths of Hand2Mouth has always been that they allow the (pop) culture they live in to inform their work. Pep Talk owes an explicit debt to the brilliant TV drama Friday Night Lights—Coach Eric Taylor's motivational speeches are a touchstone. The ensemble draws from a variety of other references—from Mother Teresa to the personal lives of the actors—and a sharp sense of humor keeps things from becoming over-earnest.
My only real quibble: For all that certain elements of the show feel highly structured, even schematic, I walked out with some uncertainty as to what exactly Team Audience was supposed to be getting so pumped up about. Life, I guess? But, to the credit of the ensemble, the audience was perfectly willing to follow these performers wherever they wanted to lead us, even when the path wasn't entirely clear—inspirational coaching, indeed.
Peninsula Park Community Center West Gym, 700 N Rosa Parks Way, Fri-Sun 8 pm, Sun 3 pm, through Feb 16 (no show Feb 7), $20, hand2mouth.org
*Bonus tirade: I often wonder if actors and theater-type people really understand how distracting and uncomfortable the prospect of being "called on" during a show is for some of us. The worst is when a show seems to think it's doing me a favor by forcing me to "participate," which is just unbearably condescending—DIDN'T YOU READ THOSE BUZZFEED ARTICLES ABOUT INTROVERTS???—though there's not a whiff of that energy in Hand2Mouth's show, thank god. There's a fair amount of audience participation in this show, but the performers seemed pretty attentive to which audience members were up for interaction and which ones weren't. I stared fixedly at the gym floor whenever I thought I might get picked, and that seemed to work.