Five close friends acting as strangers gather in a room and form a circle. They pause. And then: a collective breath.
“One of the tenets of our theater classroom here at Pomona College is taking the collective breath together,” said Mark Diaz PO ’22, who stars as a divorced carpenter in the upcoming production of “Circle Mirror Transformation.” “We’re all breathing the same air, and we’re all in the same space — it’s a really incredible feeling.”
During the past two years, we’ve watched as the collective breath grows dangerous. Instead of community and release, the collective breath is now defined by exposure and sickness.
Yet the upcoming production of “Circle Mirror Transformation,” which will be performed at Seaver Theatre Oct. 7-10, marks a powerful transition back to shared space and community.
“Circle Mirror Transformation” is an intimate play about five strangers learning how to act. Set in Vermont, the play tells the story of four New Englanders who enroll in a community center drama course. The cast of characters consists of a drama teacher, a divorced carpenter, a retired actress, a shy high-schooler and the acting teacher’s husband.
The acting classes, taught by Marty, are bizarre. Marty instructs her students to act as baseball gloves in one class and beds in another. They’re instructed to count as a collective group without interrupting each other. A husband gives a monologue as his wife. The students swap stories of meeting strangers on subways and teach each other to hula hoop. Someone falls in love.
“Circle Mirror Transformation” is an exercise in quietude: painfully long pauses, nervous breathing, deepest secrets written down on scraps of paper.
The play is awkward, and often uncomfortable, but that’s the point.
“I knew I wanted there to be excruciating silences,” playwright Annie Baker said in an interview. “I knew I wanted a doomed class romance that left one character embarrassed and the other heartbroken. I knew I wanted the characters to deliver monologues as each other. … Eventually, I realized that the fun of the play is the fact that it’s confined to this dull, windowless little space.”
While the characters start as strangers, the Pomona students playing them are dear friends. Four of the five actors began in the same Basic Acting class during their first year at Pomona. This poses a challenge: How do the actors reset as strangers before every rehearsal?
“It’s kind of amazing to see how much we’ve all grown and changed, but I think we can all remember that first day when we all met each other in freshman year,” Mark said. “So every day when we walk in, we can kind of create this freshness.”
The characters are able to offer each other mirrors, reflections of themselves. In “Circle Mirror Transformation,” eye contact is a painful but necessary two-way reflection, and artificial ice-breaker games mirror true bonding.
“There’s this really beautiful moment at the beginning and end of the show,” GiGi Buddie PO ’23, who plays Marty, said via Zoom about the same movement sequence used to open and close the show. “We did the last movement sequence, and there was just this beautiful moment, at the end, where we’re all standing in a circle, and we all get to make eye contact with each other and share this moment with each other.”
While recovering from the emotional and physical distance separating us during the pandemic, there is something special about the opportunity to witness small moments of connection in “Circle Mirror Transformation”: the way new friends orient their bodies to each other, the unrelenting glare of quarrelers, the silence between husband and wife betraying what their voices aren’t ready to say.
“It’s weird to draw connections to quarantine, because I’m sure that’s not what was intended when it was written in 2009,” Tray Hammond PO ’22, who plays Marty’s husband, James, said. “But it’s cool to see the way a show can transform, and the ways that we’ve transformed it.”
To watch these connections form, break and reform in a space as small as a black box theater only heightens the intimacy.
When asked to describe her character, Buddie offered a paradox.
“Connection and disconnection,” Buddie said via Zoom. “Circle Mirror Transformation” bursts with paradoxes: actors learning how to act, strangers who love each other, lovers who are strangers.
Strip away elaborate sets, lights, costumes and a large cast, and we’re confronted with the daily pains and joys that we’ve been missing for so long: connection and disconnection, communication and miscommunication. “Circle Mirror Transformation” is the right play at the right time.