Emory Report
August 6, 2007
Volume 59, Number 36

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August 6, 2007
Out of hand

By amber jackson

Stacks of programs for “Meds” — the latest high-energy production from Out of Hand Theater — surrounded Emory theater instructor Ariel de Man as she prepared for the sneak peek of a play she has been working on all year. Near the programs lay copies of an international theater journal with an article praising the innovative style of highly physical and interactive theater that de Man has modeled Out of Hand Theater after. She had thought maybe 60 people would show up for the workshop performance — designed to get audience feedback before “Meds” premiers this fall — yet 90 people had already reserved seats.

During the preview, the full house in Schwartz Theater Lab was fully engaged and more than willing to comply with the Out of Hand Theater style that involves the audience in each show. When asked if they would come see the full performance, which opens Oct. 26 at Push Push Theatre in Decatur, nearly every member of the audience raised their hand.

De Man, who has been gracing Emory’s stages since her days as a student here, has been exposed to theater since childhood. Her father, who is a director, immersed her into performing arts at a young age. “My father talks to me about plays I saw when I was two — as if I would remember,” she laughs.

As a teenager about to enter Emory, de Man already had more than 15 years of experience in performing arts under her belt. But rather than follow in her father’s footsteps, de Man planned to go to law school after earning her undergraduate degree in theater studies and French at Emory. But she kept coming back to theater; it was in her blood.

De Man began teaching at a local school and holding workshops to teach physical theater. She directed shows at Theater Emory and Theatre du Reve and acted at Actor’s Express, Geva Theatre, Theatrical Outfit, Arkansas Repertory Theatre, The Alliance and Jewish Theatre of the South.

A few years after graduating from Emory, de Man and fellow Emory alumna Maia Knispel founded Out of Hand Theater. The idea, which grew out of a school assignment at Emory, was to create theater that would appeal to a younger audience. “Theater has a reputation of being something boring that older people do and we wanted to change that,” says de Man. As co-producing artistic director of Out of Hand Theater, de Man began creating theater that would attract young people and get everyone involved in the show.

This year de Man brought her enthusiasm back to the Emory classroom as a guest teacher in the theater department. At least a quarter of the class time in her “Introduction to Theater” classes is devoted to putting students on stage and allowing them to experience the art firsthand. She knows that most of the students who take her class will not go into theater, but strives to give them an experience that will motivate them to contribute to theater in some way — whether it be as a patron of theater or a member of the board of directors for a theater company.

De Man wants her students to leave the classroom having a better understanding of theater and appreciate what it takes to create and showcase a production. “I hope that they will be able to have an intelligent conversation about theater no matter what field they go into,” she says, “and that they will at least occasionally in their lives go see something because it looks interesting, and have more insight into it than they would have before.”

Her strategy is to base almost half of the students’ grades on participation. Students learn how to write dialogue, budget for performances, advertise to the community, collaborate with each other, and of course, perform for an audience. De Man gives her students creative control and allows them to produce work that they are interested in.

“I hope that they will have a greater appreciation for theater, and be more interested in it because they have had to try out the things that you have to do in order to make a show happen,” she says.

De Man’s techniques in class are easily paralleled with the techniques she uses in her company to draw people to Out of Hand’s creations. She says the company uses three tactics: Create new shows specifically for the target audience; make all shows an event that the audience can participate in; and bring the theater to places in the community where young adults enjoy spending their time. “We’ve performed in parks, bars, bank lobbies and convention centers,” she says.

De Man’s productions not only aim to portray the subject matter, but to simulate the subject and place the audience directly into the events taking place. A popular play performed by Out of Hand Theater called “Help!” showcased society’s fixation on self-help gurus. To simulate self-help seminars, audience members were divided up according to their problems and each group was equipped with a “life coach.” Audience members were encouraged to chant affirmations together and wear name tags displaying the “problem” that they came to improve upon. By the end of the play most of the audience was willing to do anything that the life coaches told them.

Getting people involved is easy, de Man says. While no performance ever goes exactly the same as the last, most audience members are willing to fully participate by the end of the play. “Sometimes people get a little nervous at the beginning, but we are pretty good at working them in slowly,” she says.

Staying true to her style, the “Meds” preview proved to be a full sensory experience for the audience. “Meds” depicts the influence of the pharmaceutical industry on society and the economy. To submerge the audience into the world of the play, de Man encouraged audience members to unknowingly recreate their own pharmaceutical commercial by simply talking about the negative and positive aspects of prescription and over-the-counter drugs that they had taken. The performance was lively and highly infectious.

“I want people to leave thinking that theater is an exciting, interesting and fun thing to do on a Friday night — and I want them to go see another show,” she says.

Whether in the classroom or on the stage, de Man has adopted a plan that has proved, on numerous accounts, to have positive results. Her audience and her students don’t just watch and learn about theater. De Man makes them such an intricate part that the art of theater would be nothing without them.