Oh boy. Kels? Okay. You know, (to class) frustration is good. I know frustration. We all do. I was frustrated trying to get my body back after the birth of my son, but I got it back and then got pregnant again. THAT was frustrating! I mean, not the pregnancy, I love my kids! Just the whole body thing. The whole body thing.
—The Last Class: A Jazzercize Play
About five years ago, I had an experience that changed my life. I wrote a play called Cut that was developed and produced by the Management Theater Company. My work as a playwright suddenly began to reach a whole new crowd, but this opportunity also brought into my life some incredible people: actress/writer Megan Hill, director Meg Sturiano, playwright Joshua Conkel, and now actress/writer Amy Staats.
So you can imagine my interest when I learned that this amazing group of theater collaborators is embarking on a whole new journey with their new theater collective, DODO. DODO’s first production is Megan Hill’s The Last Class: A Jazzercize Play.
“DODO was born last year, when we all felt an itch to make work together again,” Conkel tells me. “The Management had been dormant for three years, and when we all got back together we realized that each of us wanted to start over, try new things, not tie ourselves down to old ways of thinking. Our new work is more collaborative, more formally daring. The Last Class: A Jazzercize Play is a real class in real time—that’s pretty experimental, despite the fact that the play itself is incredibly accessible.”
Where are your smiles??? That’s right! MMMM-MMMM…And shoulders! (shoulders)…We’re going to warm it up before we work up that glow!…And get ready to reach up to heaven, ‘cause we all need a little help from up there! (reaches, finish set. Begin text at second set of lunges) As you guys have probably heard, this is our last class here. After seven years, our journey at Chikatawnee Valley Community Center has come to a close…Apparently, the higher ups don’t think Jazzercize has the “draw” it used to, and ZUMBA is “where it’s at.” (full body circle) And by higher ups, I mean, newly appointed Athletic Director Chelsea Riggles-Smith. Ha ha!!! And back to marching!! (marching) We could have had it all! How’s that for rolling in the deep???
When you pick up a copy of the script of The Last Class: A Jazzercize Play the first thing you notice, even before the opening stage direction, is the show’s playlist, which is the heartbeat of the play: “Rolling in the Deep,” “Unbreakable,” “Scream and Shout.” We know where we are—oh yeah, we are about to get into it: “The movement is attached to the music and the language is attached to the movement,” as Hill puts it.
The first thing we actually see in the production is two or more “students” who enter with their gear, just waiting in the space. They talk, they get out water bottles—these are actually audience members that have signed up in advance. The play we’re about to see is not only a play, but a real class.
“I think it’s a really unique piece of theater. I mean there are so many unknown factors every evening and that’s the thrill and terror of it,” shares Margot Bordelon, whose masterful direction keeps the production pumping.
Enter our instructors: Kelsea and MJ. And the warm up begins. But this isn’t just a warm up—it’s also the beginning of a descent into a breakdown that will be unleashed on the class (and audience) while revealing a penetrating glimpse into just what a bad place our Kelsea is in. While the soundtrack pulses, serious sweat is pouring down: not only from the cast, but from those of us watching, as we suddenly realize we are witnessing someone doing more than just struggling. We are witness to Kelsea’s last stand as she struggles for her job.
These are the kinds of stories I’m obsessed with, and I’ve been a bit obsessed with this play since I first saw a workshop of it last fall. It’s personal in many ways for me. As I’ve expanded my exercise life over the years to keep my writing mind jumping, I’ve been in these exercise classes. As a nerd, diving into these communities, I’ve had an outside eye to the weird and wonderful rituals we were doing. I’ve been in the boot camp where it turns dark, and the instructor is sharing a bit too much. I’ve been in the Pilates class where suddenly I have a new mantra because of a gentle, stern voice.
I ask Hill where the play came from. “I wanted to make a play that was a task that needed to be completed and there was no escaping from,” she shares with me. “I also wanted to make something where, for better or for worse, the possibility of failure is very much there— it’s do or die. So when you perform it you really are laying something on the line—which is terrifying and also exhilarating.”
I ask Hill and her co-star Amy Staats how tough it is to be simultaneously correcting the evening’s volunteer students and acting out the play itself, as these two elements actually become one unified experience for the viewer.
“Well I think it’s like anything you act in,” Staats tells me as we all sit down for a post show drink. “You have your super objective and [then] all the other things you’re doing. And basically we’re teaching a class. That’s what we’re doing. So there is that intention throughout the whole thing. You know, it’s very nice to have that very clear thing to do despite all these emotional things going on.”
Hills agrees. “Yeah, it’s actually really comforting to have [the students]. They’re a touchstone for us. We have to make eye contact with the students and insert instruction. With real aerobic classes the instruction is limited [. . .] so we try to give a little instruction but mainly encouragement. This is our interpretation of Jazzercize. It’s the vibe of it without copying it.”
As the night goes on, Staats hits a powerful point: “There’s something about community exercise. It’s so beautiful if you’re in a roomful of women of all different ages and body types. You’re all in it together.”
I remark on the power of this statement, and Hills hits the nail on the head: “’Cause everybody has a body thing. These classes come from a place of joy and wanting to make everyone’s lives better, and helping people. The baseline of Jazzercize, the baseline of becoming an instructor, is to help. There’s something very selfless about it.”
Staats agrees. “I had this experience once in a water aerobics class in the YMCA in Greenpoint, where it was just me—I was in my twenties—and there were all these women, Polish women who ranged in age from forty to eighty, you know? And we were all in this water aerobics class together,” she recalls. “At one point we were all holding hands and in a circle in the pool. And I wanted to cry, because these beautiful women, we were all in this pool. And we were working on ourselves. And there was a sense of self and relief in it. And with Jazzercize it’s a beautiful thing; people in a room working together on their bodies is incredible.”
I ask more about process. “Last February, Megan and I began meeting at Sarita Lou, our choreographer’s, apartment to learn the choreography. We would start the morning with pretzel croissants, coffee, and excellent conversation. Then we would lace up our sneakers and begin,” Amy tells me. “Once Megan learned the class structure, she wrote the play.”
This is so clear to me. I remark how the play almost works like a musical, as it’s structured to the workouts and the energy of each of the songs on the playlist. The style of the show is reflective of what interests DODO. It’s also the kind of theater that I believe in, what I write and crave to see more of: plays that an audience relates to no matter what their literary background, plays that challenge the notion that impactful theater is the living room set, four person family drama. Life is dynamic—and the way we currently live our lives is dynamic. Theater must reflect this.
“I love shake-ups,” Hill says to me. “I think the theatrical landscape is in need of a shake-up, and I think we are in the beginnings of one—and that’s exciting.”
Conkel dives in to talk a bit more about what they’re looking to share this time around as a theater collective. “We all still have that highbrow/lowbrow, happy/sad perspective, but we’re older and more experienced,” he says. “On the flip side, we want our way of working together to grow organically over time, without putting dumb mission statements or aesthetic mantras on it too early. We wanted DODO to be agile, intimate—allow us to change.”
I remark how sincere the show is, and Hill brings up tone and intention. “The show is a comedy, and we use the idea of what Jazzercize is to bring them in. Everyone has this pop culture idea of it from the ’70s and ’80s, but you come in and we’re playing Top Forty, it’s current moves,” she explains. “We would never want someone to think we’re making fun of it [. . .] it’s such a valid form of exercise. We’re very aware that this is people’s livelihood. And it’s the same challenges of being an artist or anyone pursuing a career in something they love.”
And this is precisely what makes the play so special for me. Kelsea’s struggle is “being in the middle.” It’s something we all relate to. We can never quite get where we want to, but we’re not satisfied with where we are. Why isn’t the class itself enough? The class we view, and the play unfolding in it, explores that question. As we leave the world of the play, we have so many questions about what happens with these characters next, but—after sweating with them, and following their instructions—we have hope for them, that somehow they’ll continue to find a way to engage with the outside world, in a way that can bring them some kind of happiness.
In chatting about DODO, and about creating this play, the words that come up over and over again with this crew are about embracing being hybrids, being a hyphenate, being collaborative—about community, about loving yourself, being able to do so many things, and about creating theater out of that.
Sturiano sums it up perfectly in terms of how to find inspiration in all this for our own work: “Surround yourself with people whose work you like, admire, or are challenged by. Make work with friends, but never be afraid to expand your circle or collaborators. You are only as strong as your community—so build a strong one.”
Okay, you got demoted…But you can bounce back, Kelsea…you have to bounce back…you will bounce back…you will bounce back…Change.
The Last Class: A Jazzercize Play, Written by Megan Hill, Performed by Megan Hill and Amy Staats, Directed by Margot Bordelon, Choreographed by Sarita Lou, rune February 17 – March 5 (Wednesdays to Saturdays) at 8pm at Theaterlab (357 West 36th Street, 3rd Floor). For tickets and further info, visit www.dodotheater.com. Two tickets will be made available each night to those interested in taking the class. If you are interested in participating, please make your reservation by contacting the theater collective directly at [email protected].
Crystal Skillman’s plays include GEEK, CUT, WILD, KING KIRBY, PULP VÉRITÉ and RAIN AND ZOE SAVE THE WORLD; she is the bookwriter of MARY AND MAX the musical, which has just announced its European premiere this fall.Her new play OPEN will feature Drama Desk Nominated Megan Hill in its premiere with All for One Theater Company this June 7th-22nd at the Tank in a productiondirected by Jessi D. Hill. https://www.crystalskillman.com/