by Rita Charleston
In a community center in a small Vermont town, five strangers gather to attend a basic acting class. Over the course of their time together, art blends with the reality of life, and nearly unwittingly the private inner worlds of these people are slowly revealed. Pulitzer Prize and Obie Award-winner Annie Baker gives us a look into the extraordinary through the seemingly ordinary with her play, “Circle Mirror Transformation,” running through Jan. 28 at Old Academy Players, 3540-44 Indian Queen Lane in East Falls.
The play opened off-Broadway in 2009, and Baker, hoping to realistically imitate true dialogue between people, wanted there to be excruciating silences throughout the action. “In fact,” says Jennifer Shorstein, who plays Teresa in the production, “Annie even wrote notes in the beginning of the script that says ‘if you don’t do the pauses and the silences correctly, the play will seem like a farce.’
“And our wonderful director, Loretta Lucy Miller, worked very hard with us to make sure we got all the stuttering, stammering and silences just right. We counted out each one. Like we counted two seconds for a pause, seven seconds for silences and so on. It reminded me of the way you learned music.”
According to Shorstein, Teresa is a former actress who was struggling with her career in New York and in a very unhealthy relationship with a man. “She also got to the point in her career where she wasn’t reaching people the way she wanted to. She also felt alone in the big city and decided she needed to make a change. So she finds herself in this small town in Vermont trying to connect with others. And when she finds an acting class in a community center, she decides it’s a way of doing something she loves, even just for fun, and meeting new people.”
In the play, Teresa is 35. Shorstein is actually 31. Not only are they close in age, but Shorstein says she can easily relate to Teresa. “I, too, lived alone in New York for four years. I met people there and did some wonderful things, but New York is a difficult place to live in. And even though you can have lots of fun, it’s still, after all, a rat race. Quite a lot of people eventually get sick of it and move on. And when you feel alone, you do find yourself drifting toward people and relationships that may or may not be good for you simply because you need someone.”
Growing up in Jacksonville, Fla., Shorstein had many friends – and many ambitions … “Eventually, I attended the Douglas Anderson School of the Arts, where I studied theater, voice and dancing. After graduation I went a whole year without doing any theater. I studied history at the University of Florida.
“It wasn’t until I got my first acting role during my sophomore year in ‘Godspell’ and directed ‘Hair’ in my senior year that the theater bug was back.” Right after finishing her studies at the University of Florida, Shorstein moved to New York, where she worked part-time for a Broadway producer and part-time at a cake boutique.
Along the way she did many other things until she was finally accepted at Trinity College in Ireland for a Master’s degree in Theatre Directing. She said, “I’ve always had a passion for learning, and I loved directing. I knew if I got a practical MFA, I’d have the opportunity to work with some incredible people.”
When she returned to the U.S., she stayed in Jacksonville for a time before moving to Philadelphia. “My parents had met here, so it was like moving back to my roots. Also, Philadelphia is an exciting theater town which I love being part of. I was anxious to try out a different Northeast city that had a significant theater scene, and Philly seemed like the right place to be.”
Over the years, Shorstein has performed and directed productions in many venues, both here and in Ireland. This is her first appearance with Old Academy. “I feel blessed to be in this show, being around other creative minds and working together to create something substantial. At the end of the day, it’s always about the story, the creation of a world we get to develop.”
When Jennifer is not on stage, she’ll do almost anything to keep herself going – from substitute teaching to housework. “Because the trick is to never give up – EVER!”
For ticket information for “Circle Mirror Transformation”: 215-843-1109.