Vivian Magruder slinks out from behind the curtain and onto the Manitou Art Theatre's stage. She's wearing a flamboyant, pink taffeta dress with rhinestone-embellished straps. She begins awkwardly fumbling with an earring before revealing that she's taped it on, unable to find its back.
"That's good clown," comments MAT co-founder and artistic director Jim Jackson.
The 52-year-old Magruder is rehearsing her performance in 10 Minutes Max, the MAT's annual roundup of local talent.
Of the 14 dancers, musicians, poets and comedians who comprise the show's cast, Jackson has worked closely with half of them to develop their performances.
Like Magruder, magician Bob Hill took advantage of a recent, three-month MAT writing workshop. Hill's performance is based on psychometry, the belief that people leave their aura on personal objects. Hill largely had his performance worked out, but Jackson, with years of acting and clowning under his belt, helped him fine-tune it with blocking cues and the like.
For other performers, like Magruder, Jackson helped create a story around a character they'd brought to class.
"When people don't have material prepared, we start off with a writing exercise," says Jackson. "Then we go, 'OK, what are the pictures that come to mind from that writing? What is the action?' So we start accumulating some building blocks of the story."
Magruder began acting again, after a 25-year hiatus, in workshops offered at the MAT during its 2007-08 season.
"For years I was depressed because I wasn't following my heart," says Magruder. "My life was controlled by fear."
Though some view performing as a means to overcome fear, Jackson says a more important element of acting is being committed. In each of his classes, he likes to employ an exercise in which he places a rolled-up sock on stage, forcing participants to search for it with their eyes closed. He says part of the lesson is commitment. The other part, where he slips a bar of soap in the sock and whips students, teaches discipline. (OK, not really.)
During auditions, Jackson gauges which performers will need more work, and he'll only work with those he sees as truly committed. Patrick Dougherty, a local actor and writer, brought in an hour-long piece about the Columbia Records bill he received when he was 9 years old. After the first three CDs for a penny, they kept sending him more. He portrays the scam hilariously; Jackson's challenge was working it down to the 10-minute time slot.
The point of all these classes, says Jackson, is to expand the arts community.
"The workshops give people a chance to experiment," he says, "and hopefully they can take that and put it into a public sphere throughout the region, to create that community of performers."