Mona Shield Payne
Thursday, Dec. 26, 2013 | 2 a.m.
A casino chef, a retiree and an Internal Revenue Service employee enter this high-ceiling room, which boasts light oak floors and a wall of mirrors, with three missions in mind.
One dreams of becoming an executive. Another wants to tone down his kitchen scowl. And the third hopes to unleash her inner ham.
“Everyone comfortable? Ready to move?” instructor Telia Williams asks the trio as she scans their wardrobe choices. “You might want to take off your sweater.”
During the next hour, these adults will bend, twist, jump and squeal — all part of becoming less self-critical and more able to connect with their emotions.
They are students in Williams’ class, “Art as Life: Autobiographical Acting,” which had its debut in August at the Charleston Heights Arts Center and is open to adults.
On this November day, it’s the first class in a six-week session. Williams welcomes her students with a warning: “I’m going to ask you to do things today that might make you uncomfortable.”
And a rule: “I don’t want you to judge yourselves.”
Williams, 43, is a Harvard-trained lawyer who caught the acting bug as a toddler when she stole the show as Chicken Little’s younger sister in a community production. The itch never left her.
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., Williams grew up performing, guided by instructors connected to Broadway. Pulled by her intellectual side, Williams majored in English literature as an undergraduate at Yale University, where she performed in dozens of productions and founded a theater company.
“College was like utopia for me,” she said wistfully.
After college, Williams bounced around trying different jobs — first as a paralegal, then as a theater director at a private high school in Massachusetts. Her success at the private school resulted in an offer to enroll in Brown University’s theater studies program. Afterward, Williams landed back in another classroom, teaching English and theater at the City University of New York, a gig that involved frequent travel abroad.
Despite the perks, a question nagged at her: “What am I doing for others?”
In 2000, Williams entered Harvard Law School. Law, she discovered, blends two passions. Her new stage is the courtroom.
“I’m still acting; I’m still directing,” said Williams, who recently formed her own law practice in Las Vegas. “Doing a case from beginning to end is directing in a sense.”
Earlier this year, Williams stumbled upon an advertisement while researching for a case. Las Vegas was looking to hire a part-time theater instructor.
She applied without so much as a second thought.
There’s an imaginary ball of light bouncing and rolling among Williams and her three students. Their facial expressions and gestures are doing the talking, and the rest of the room is silent.
The no-talking order seems to be most difficult for 65-year-old Maureen Vocke, whose lips constantly curl into a wide grin. The former pharmaceutical sales rep started ballroom dancing after she retired, but acting always intrigued her.
“There’s a big part of me that’s a ham,” she says.
Her classmates don’t necessarily share her flair for the dramatic. Lydia Noyola, 53, hopes to parlay newfound communication and body language skills into a higher-level position at the IRS.
And Emerson Williams, 43, wants to adopt a less-intimidating persona in his kitchen domain at work.
A series of group exercises breaks the ice among these strangers, just in time for Williams to introduce the heart of today’s lesson — being in the moment as opposed to acting. Overthinking is the enemy.
“Just let it come,” Telia Williams says. “Think of a moment when you were the hero of your own story.”
The trio jots their thoughts down on note cards and, less than two minutes later, begins reading them aloud. One by one, Williams shreds the paper, ending the circular story time.
The real task is for them to become those small children again and perform the same tale of personal heroism. Noyola stiffens in her metal chair, petrified at the thought of reliving the time she lied to spare her brother from a beating.
Williams asks Noyola to close her eyes and relax.
“We’re here to support you. All right?” Williams says. “You have already done amazing things as a child.”
Noyola reluctantly heads to the back of the room. When she steps forward seconds later, gone is the stage-shy adult. In a flurry of words laced with sobs, Noyola transforms herself into that little girl protecting her brother.
She falls to her knees and places her hands on the wood floor, positioning herself for the belt-whipping that this time won’t come. And there she lingers, tears streaming down her face.
“Scene!” Williams calls out, signaling the onset of applause.
Williams admits the class is just as much for her as it is for her students. During the 90-minute class, she can take off her lawyerly hat and replace it with her teaching one.
Plus, theater provides that rare environment where there is no such thing as right or wrong. Anything goes.
Williams hopes to watch the class grow over time, filled with adults needing a creative outlet outside of the daily grind.
“I think it would be good for them to connect who they are with where they’ve been,” she said. “I think we tend to go along without connecting the dots.”