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Unpredictable Encounters in The Rubber Room

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Five strangers meet for the first time in the “rubber room.” That’s not just the plot, it’s also the reality for the actors in each performance of The Rubber Room, written by Gary Garrison and Roland Tec, under artistic direction of Janice L. Goldberg and Kristine Niven. “Without a net” is what they are calling this new genre of theatre, combining scripted work and improv, where actors who have never met play characters who have never met.

How do they pull this off? Five directors are given an original script. They cast their characters and begin rehearsing in separate spaces, each cast having absolutely no contact with the others. Come performance time, 25 opening nights are hosted with 25 different casts. For each performance, the Production Stage Manager chooses one actor from each of the five companies to perform. Thus, the actors are meeting each other for the first time when they step on stage, just like the characters in The Rubber Room.

The Rubber Room is about three teachers, a security guard, and a reporter who meet for the first time in a new Reassignment Center, or the “rubber room” as the teachers call it. Up until April of 2010, these rubber rooms were makeshift classrooms where teachers accused of various violations and inappropriate behaviors were sent to sit for months, sometimes years, and collect their full salaries while their cases were adjudicated.

Although the script is the same, each performance is unique and is greatly impacted by the actors’ portrayal of the characters and their reaction to those sharing the stage with them. Non-verbal cues such as intonations, tones of voice, facial expressions, pauses, sighs, and gestures have a major impact on the dynamics of the cast and the delivery of the entire story.

I was fortunate enough to catch one of the performances on February 18th at 7 p.m., starring Cecily Benjamin, Ben Sumrall, Desmond Dutcher, Kristine Niven, and Blair Goldberg. I was impressed not only by the sheer talent of this cast, but also by the spontaneous chemistry they shared on stage together. The performance started out with Benjamin’s character, Larissa, walking into the rubber room and slamming her book down on the desk in great distress. A couple of minutes passed by without her saying a word. Yet during this time, her character’s aggravation and discontent were clearly communicated in the way she threw her purse into an empty chair and infuriatingly huffed and puffed around the room.

It is Larissa’s first day in the rubber room. “I am the victim here!” she tells Alan, a security guard who is scolding her for walking around the building unsupervised. A heated dialogue ensues between Alan and Larissa as Alan tries to regain his authority and enforce his rules, during which he furiously slams his clipboard down on the desk unexpectedly startling Larissa as much as the audience.

As the second rubber room occupant—Sinclair, a disgruntled History and Civics high school teacher—joins Larissa, personalities start to clash and tempers flare. Sinclair has been in the rubber room for two months and two days and has no interest in anything other than drinking his coffee and reading his newspaper. Daytona, the suspiciously cheerful third teacher, arrives with a smile on her face and a thermos in her hand, which Alan the security guard immediately asks to inspect. When the fourth teacher, who actually turns out to be a journalist named Patti, enters the room, the first three teachers find some camaraderie in their resentment and distrust of her. The plot thickens when Patti discloses that news camera crews are gathered outside to cover a breaking story involving one of these teachers.

Stuck in this room together, the teachers plead their innocence and challenge each other, while the audience becomes increasingly compassionate and empathetic towards them. Placed on crumbling pedestals, these teachers have come to resent the pressures of having to be mentors, role models, counselors, confidants, rule enforcers, and caregivers to their students. Their authority is not respected and their rights are irrelevant, especially if a student from a family with connections wants them “out.” Teachers are human. They make mistakes. They get drunk. They curse. They make bad decisions. And as they sit and wait for a bureaucratic system to decide their fate, they can only hope that they will be judged not only by what they’ve done wrong, but also by everything they’ve done right.

In The Rubber Room, the elements of surprise, suspense, and unpredictability are shared by the actors and the audience as they experience what happens when strangers meet under strange circumstances. This piece brilliantly explores a controversial issue through an insider’s lens and shines a new light on one of the oldest professions on earth. Although the last performance was on February 20th, should The Rubber Room ever open again in New York, I suggest you get in there and take a seat.

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