Clockwise from top, Maureen McKenna, Kent Kirkpatrick, Todd Anderson, Lynn Goodwin, and Marika Sayers

Secrets, secrets are no fun.

Secrets, secrets hurt someone.

So goes the old childhood rhyme that, with its taunting tone, has always presented a bit of a puzzle. Does keeping a secret hurt those who aren’t privy to inside information, or is keeping a secret most harmful to the secret-keeper? “What keeps us prisoner is our secrets,” said Wendy Chapin, director of Circle Mirror Transformation, a play by Annie Baker opening at the Adobe Rose Theatre on Thursday, March 17. “Once you’ve admitted your secrets, there’s nothing to hide anymore.” 

Baker’s play follows four students, and their teacher, through a six-week acting class. The six scenes of the play, which runs two hours without an intermission, conform to the schedule of class sessions. The students are not community-theater regulars or professionals with actors’ egos. Teresa, Schultz, and Lauren don’t have any acting experience. James, the other student, is married to Marty, the teacher. They each have their own reasons for being there, but there are no divas in the group. It’s not that kind of play. “What’s cool about this play is there’s no problem figure, so to speak. There’s no villain; there’s no hero,” Chapin said. “There are people interacting, which is where Baker gets her juice.”

In an interview with Pasatiempo, Chapin, along with Maureen McKenna and Kent Kirkpatrick, the actors playing Teresa and James, heaped praise upon Baker’s writing, a distinctive feature of which is silence. (McKenna is also the founder of the Adobe Rose; Chapin is the artistic director.) From Baker’s point of view, they explained, American culture fears silence, so she builds numerous dialogue-free moments into the action of the play, forcing the audience to consider what is going on in the lives and minds of the characters. This often includes pieces of story that happen offstage, between class meetings. As the characters’ relationships with one another deepen, the silences get more meaningful. “To me, the silence is the tightrope,” McKenna said. “It’s improvisational because you have to be very present, and it will be constantly different.”

“I think Baker loves actors, or she wouldn’t give them as much space to create between the lines. Her rhythms are pure brilliance,” Chapin said. Another play of pauses, The Flick, earned the thirty-four-year-old Baker the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Circle Mirror Transformation, which opened off-Broadway in 2009 and won the Obie Award for Best New American Play, is the second in a trio of plays she wrote that take place in the fictional small town of Shirley, Vermont.

Marty’s acting class, held in a dance studio, isn’t the kind of class in which students put on a play or even rehearse scenes. Theater exercises are its focus, including the game that serves as the play’s title, in which participants create movement and sounds that are passed from person to person. That the class seems to lack direction aggravates Lauren (Marika Sayers), a high-school student and the youngest member of the group, because she expected to learn acting in what she believes is a more typical manner. They also play a somewhat maddening counting game, which never seems to go as planned and is tightly tied to the idea of silence. The actors lie on the floor and try to get from one to 10 in no predetermined order, without accidentally speaking at the same time. When they fail, as they do repeatedly, Marty simply makes them start again. “It’s a traditional ensemble-building exercise,” said Kirkpatrick, who has been in numerous theatrical productions in Santa Fe. “You have to feel the group and not step on someone else. I’ve done all the exercises the students do in the play, but Baker makes these things metaphorical, in the shape of the play.”

Chapin added that whenever she teaches younger actors, it invariably takes them some time to understand that the exercises are just as crucial to the learning process as acting out scenes. “They need to learn to make eye contact. A lot of these exercises are designed to introduce people to intimacy.”

Lest the play come across, on paper, as an overstylized production about the acting process, it’s important to understand that Circle Mirror Transformation is not a satire about theater or a mannered meta-study of itself. It’s a story about change and self-actualization, using precise language exquisitely crafted to sound natural. The silences Baker insists upon are about fullness rather than emptiness, Chapin said. “I tell the cast that every pause is there because you have too much to say or you don’t have enough to say, so you have to figure out all the things you might say — in that pause.”

“The play pulls back the veil on the actor in a way that’s not self-referential. It’s not snarky,” McKenna said. She and Kirkpatrick agreed that they usually hate plays about actors but love this one.

The characters’ back stories are conveyed by way of a personal interview exercise, which puts the biography of one character in the mouth of another. We find out that Lauren might want to be an actress and feels distanced from her father. James, a university professor, is getting shut out by his daughter, though she is still talking to Marty (Lynn Goodwin), her stepmother. Marty and James have been married a long time, and it’s hard to tell if they are still in love. Teresa has been through a breakup, a move from New York City, and a career change. Schultz (Todd Anderson) is so newly divorced that he still wears his wedding ring. But the seemingly critical moments they are moving between are only the latest points on a line. During the play they begin to recognize and reckon with the past and present and see forward to a possible future, a time in which their acting class is far in the past, having served its purpose.

In the penultimate class meeting, they play a game — more Truth or Dare than acting exercise — in which they reach a new level of self-knowledge and connection. The scene lifts the play out of the conceit of an acting class and into the light of day, where truth is the most effective cleanser for the grime that keeping it all inside can create. “It’s a play about the ever-changing nature of existence. You could call it Buddhist,” Chapin said. “You could call it a lot of things. The themes are not new. The characters don’t go through major changes, but they understand something about themselves that they didn’t at the beginning of the play, and that is unexpected and surprising for them.” ◀

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