"OK everyone, let's do this thing!"
Liz Jahren, program director of the Alchemia Theater for Life in Santa Rosa, gently guides an actor to her correct mark, then heads back to her seat, stopping to shove a black wooden box a few feet nearer to the center of the rehearsal room. All around her, 22 slightly nervous performers are finding their places. "Erica has to leave in half-an-hour," Jahren reminds the cast, "so we have to stay really focused, right? We're starting from where we left off at break-time, the first bully scene, right after Possibility."
Erika Smallen, choreographer and dance instructor, sits among the actors as Jahren takes a seat near the piano. Musical director Brett Fenex plays a snippet of the song Possibility, one of several he has written for The Adventures of Pin Pin, the original show being rehearsed today.
As Fenex plays the melody, several performers begin to sing along:
For me to see you, and you to see me, we gotta be who we are!
Nobody knows how good it can be, until we reach for the stars!
Life's an opportunity, rife with possibility!
"OK, here we go!" Jahren gives a huge thumbs-up. "Ahleli, hit it!"
"Can I have lunch with you?"
"A little louder, Ahleli!" encourages Jahren.
"Can I have lunch with you?"
Ahleli, 30, is playing the title part of Pin Pin, alternating performances with actor Danny, 22. She perches on the black wooden box, tentatively addressing the actors, all clustered here and there. As scripted, they pointedly turn their backs on poor Pin Pin, acting out a typical day on a typical schoolyard.
"Freeze!" shouts Michael, 30, one of two narrators, stepping in from the taped-off wings. When none of the actors stop what they are doing, Michael repeats the command. "Freeze!"
"Come on, people!" calls out Jahren, with comically wide eyes. "You heard the man! Freeze!" This time, everyone stops cold and hold their position.
"This is bullying!" Michael says, his memorized line now tumbling out in a rapid rat-a-tat-tat of words. "This is bullying before we even begin our story!"
"This is 'social exclusion,' a form of bullying," adds Laura, 30, the other narrator, moving in beside Michael. "Unfreeze!"
Fenex slides into a bouncy and menacing piano riff, as another performer, Julie, 24, leads a quartet of rough and scary characters out onto the stage, punching the palm of her hand with one balled-up fist. These, clearly, are the primary bullies of the show.
"Look who's sittin' over there!" Julie snarls, pointing menacingly at Ahleli. "Let me to introduce you to my crew—Fear, Terror, Shame and Pain!"
"Good, Julie, good!" Jahren says, clapping her hands. "But I think you forgot to say 'Oh ho ho!' when you make your entrance."
Julie grins, her make-believe tough-girl attitude melting from her face.
"I didn't forget it," she explains, matter-of-factly. "I just didn't want to say it."
Something in the way Julie says this strikes the entire room, including Julie, as hilarious. The resulting explosion of laughter is as much a release of nervous energy as anything else. Everyone knows that the show they are rehearsing—an original touring musical based loosely on the story of Pinocchio—will open in just three and a half weeks. There is still much to be done. Many of the actors don't yet know their lines, their grasp of the choreography is still tentative, and everyone's emotions—on and off the stage—are running high.
"It's a little bit overwhelming," Julie admits, during afternoon break. "But we're real close to being ready. We all work real hard. And audiences like us. They really take us in, because they know this is how we show our talent. We're artists, and audiences know that. We make art when we walk into a room. We make art when we make our own entrance. To me, that's what Alchemia is all about."