Minneapolis director channels yoga training: ‘There are so many shared breaths in this play!’ – Minneapolis Star Tribune

Theatermaker Lauren Keating thought she would have a side hustle as a yoga instructor.

She was carving out a directing career in New York in the mid-2000s when she briefly thought that another love, yoga, could be a complementary gig. Bad idea.

“Turning that thing that brings you peace into something you are trying to monetize? I found that very stressful,” said Keating, who became certified as an instructor. “And it’s just as hard to make a career as a yoga teacher as it is to be a director, so it was a dumb plan.”

Still, both disciplines come in handy as Keating tackles her debut at the Jungle Theater, Bess Wohl’s 2015 comedy “Small Mouth Sounds.” It’s set at a silent retreat where six people interact in surprising ways. The play’s title refers to noises people make when they’re supposedly quiet.

We sat down with Keating, an associate producer at the Guthrie Theater (where she directed the last several productions of “A Christmas Carol”), to ask how yoga interplays with her stage work.

Q: How do you describe the play?

A: These six people are all in the midst of, or following, personal crises. We’re never told specifically what those things are, so it leaves a lot of room for audiences to bring their own experiences into the play, which is one of the things I love most about theater. There’s almost no yoga, because they’re on more of a spiritual or meditation retreat, but they do have yoga mats and one character is described as a yoga master or guru.

Q: Have your yoga and theater practices overlapped?

A: I occasionally did workshops in the theater community. At the Lark’s play development workshop [in New York City], I would go in early and do classes for whatever staff wanted to show up. And I’ve definitely used it in rehearsal processes.

Q: Did studying yoga assist you as a director?

A: It was helpful in terms of learning how I want to show up in front of, and lead, a room. Also, it was great to have more vocabulary around physicality and bodies and how to stay healthy and safe. That is training I still use when I talk to actors, as well as understanding the limit of your own expertise.

Q: How so?

A: As a young director, you feel like you need to have the answer for everything — that’s what it means to be good at your job, being the authority in the room. But I worked a lot with [Tony Award-winning director] Dan Sullivan and one of the most revolutionary things from that time was hearing him say, “I don’t know.” I can be the expert at the things I’m expert at, but also open to other things. Another thing I witnessed Dan doing brilliantly is hire people he trusted, communicate well and then allow them to do their best work.

Those are shared qualities between [yoga and directing] because in yoga you are leading people through things that are in some ways prescriptive — “We’re coming into Warrior One now” — but there are breath cues that happen differently for people and you’re doing these things in a way that feels good for your body, not in the exact way I’m telling you.

Q: Does the yoga/spiritual/meditative quality of the play ask anything special of the audience?

A: We don’t have much exposition at all. So, down to some of the simplest things we expect from a play, [Wohl] doesn’t give us those because she’s saying those things are not important. What is important is how we see people in the world and how we show up for each other. It requires audience members to create their own narratives, and each of those is going to be a little different because they’ll reflect their experiences: “Oh, I recognize that experience of loss” or “I remember that from my own experience of cancer.” And the other thing is it asks audience members to sit with themselves. Like in yoga. You kind of become part of this class the characters are in.

Q: Does that create challenges as a director?

A: With any play, the first couple scenes are teaching the audience how to watch it, what the rules are. And this play has a lot of rules that aren’t the rules audiences already know.

Q: Maybe like Sarah DeLappe’s “The Wolves” at the Jungle last season, with its de-emphasizing of plot?

A: I think it is similar, in that in “The Wolves,” we’re with the characters as they do a [soccer] passing drill but what we’re really watching is them as characters. In “Small Mouth Sounds,” we’re watching them listen to a lecture but really we’re learning about what they connect to or pull away from. Or maybe we’re not watching them because we’re thinking about our own connections to what their teacher is talking about.

Q: Another thing common in yoga and theater is paying attention to breathing, right?

A: There are so many shared breaths in this play! In fact, there’s data that show that when people go to a play, their heartbeats sync up, their breathing syncs up. Especially in this play, I would be very surprised if the kinetic response isn’t that the audience will breathe along with [the actors].

Q: Are there similarities between forming the yoga positions, called asana, and performing a play?

A: Yes. When you show up on the yoga mat, it’s going to be different every day. It becomes a microcosm of how we approach the world, which is always changing. And theater should be different every night, evolving and changing. It’s why I’m excited about this phase of my career as a theater director, because of how you set the things that need to be set but then allow other things to breathe and change over the course of a run.

Q: Sounds like the “Small Mouth Sounds” audience needs to be open to an unusual experience?

A: Maybe I’ll be wrong about how different this is from traditional theater but a sense of adventure will be helpful. And compassion for yourself is always helpful. It’s like RuPaul: “If you don’t have compassion for yourself, how are you going to have compassion for anyone else?”

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