"I promise. I won't make you do anything ..."
Those words came from Markus Potter, a gangly stick figure in mostly denim and gray, topped by a shock of unruly brown hair. He spoke to a few dozen students gathered in the black box, UAA's Harper Studio, for Shelly Hewitt's "Intro to Theatre" class. Mostly beginners and non-majors.
Potter is a pro. He founded and is artistic director for the NewYorkRep. He came to campus this week as part of the production for "Stalking the Bogeyman," running April 1-24 on the UAA Mainstage.
Potter adapted and directed the play based on Alaska journalist David Holthouse's personal story of rape and revenge, then staged it in North Carolina and Off Broadway. UAA's production will be the West Coast premiere before the work goes to London this summer.
"UAA is playing a very important role in the shaping of the story," Potter said. "There's a brand new draft after New York. David really was the mover behind it — new characters and a lot of new material. So UAA is going to be the first cast to take this new material, stage it and work with it."
Since arriving, Potter has thrown himself into cast meetings and rehearsals, and team-teaching with UAA theater faculty.
Within seconds, Potter had the intro students in a whirling dervish of physical exercise. They walked quickly in every direction about the room. They stopped, locked eyes with one person, breathed in unison and then split to the next encounter. They leaped in the air and high-fived with vigor and an "Oh, yeah!" They formed a circle, locked hands every which way and then tried to unwind.
"The record is 14 seconds!" Potter teased. They took longer, but succeeded.
All this activity was about "getting into your body," Potter said. "The main thrust and goal of this class is to generate raw material for new ideas."
Soon he had them flat on their backs, eyes closed, in reverie — reaching for their first memory, the first time they felt proud, or fearful, or confident. Back to their first kiss, or wish for a kiss. What tastes, what smells?
Then, they were age 40; then 60. Then the oldest they could imagine, just a few years before death: "Can you see what you look like at 90?"
Finally, they were ready. He sent them to their notebooks to free write in silence, a monologue addressed to one person, from whom they wanted one thing. No name on the paper, no stopping for five minutes. "Don't allow your brain to process … don't allow your brain in intellectualize…."
The results were moving. As class progressed, students voluntarily made their way to the room's center to deliver monologues and stories. About a mother's love for a son. About a regretful break-up. About a brother who couldn't cry for his sister's death.
"Write that!" Potter exclaimed. "Write that tonight!"
Another day, he worked side by side in Ty Hewitt's period acting class, an upper division drama elective where seasoned theater students tangled with thick and formal lines from Euripides. In clusters of six and seven, they chanted as a Greek chorus, imploring a city as holy as Athens to turn away from the bloody killing of its children.
Again through exercise and physicality, Hewitt and Potter invited the students to catapult language over the top, to take their gestures and body positions beyond the pale, to arrest and own the verbs that propel the story forward.
They transformed from stony Greeks into writhing, pounding, snarling Greeks, unleashed to plead their case. The pitch and energy in the room erupted, actors and teachers going full throttle.
"You can always dial it back to a seven," Potter told them. "But it's a lot harder to get it to a nine if you've never been there."
Later, I had a chance to talk with Potter about being in Anchorage and working with UAA students. He complimented the warmth and welcome of the city, the department and the students he'd met.
"I have seen tremendous talent and tremendous openness in the UAA students," the equal of anywhere, Potter said.
I wondered if it was hard to parachute in as the New York expert. He laughed.
"I have to admit, I had incredible anxiety. I was scared to death.
"I talk to students about being nervous to perform or to speak in front of people, and they often talk about how they manage it and suppress it. My advice is to try to convert it into something that might fuel the character.
"I do the same as a teacher, acknowledging my own fear but diving in and doing it." He paused and smiled. "I try to enjoy the process of being scared."
Potter knows of fear, recently. His second day in Alaska, on a snowmachine on the Deshka, he got disoriented and lost. Panic struck.
"My wife and I had just applied for life insurance … I was hoping I'd qualified."
My guess? That'll end up in a monologue someday.
Kathleen McCoy works for UAA where she highlights campus life in social and online media.