As the culmination of a six-week project in an advanced acting class, students at West Hartford’s Hall High School spent the entire day ‘in character’ as a living painting.
By Ronni Newton
The front lobby of West Hartford’s Hall High School was transformed from its usual appearance on Wednesday, with silent – and in many cases motionless – costumed students posed in a variety of odd scenes.
There was a girl with an umbrella standing in front of a rainbow-colored wall. Another girl sat on the ground in front of a ballet barre dressed in a leotard. One female student was potting plants. Another was in a red bodysuit.
Taped to the wall near each student was a photocopy of a painting, depicting a scene similar to the one they had created.
“They’re living inside the paintings for the day,” said Sean Harris, who teaches the costumed students in a two-year advanced acting course.
The students remained in character for the entire school day, which on Wednesday was from 7:30 a.m. until 12:48 p.m. All were excused from their regular classes for the day.
This is the second year that Harris has held the “Painting Project” at Hall, and he said he got the idea from a graduate school project that some of his colleagues were part of. “It’s really an ‘actor’s studio’ type of project, immersion into the world, using all of your senses,” Harris said.
The students involved in the project gain an appreciation for the art, while at the same time they work to create the backstory for characters as they make their chosen paintings come to life. “We’re having students see things from a different lens, it’s not just a one-sided look at learning,” said Harris.
Thirteen students, all juniors in the advanced acting class, spent six weeks preparing for Wednesday’s live performance. They chose paintings they were passionate about, and then created their own backstory which is the biography of their character in the painting. Each student also created an “actor’s diary” – a journal where they wrote about how they would become the chosen character.
Ethan Hixson spent the day in the courtyard outside the cafeteria. He was a character in British graffiti artist Banksy’s “Graffiti is a Crime,” a work which was painted on a wall on Allen Street in New York City in October 2013.
According to Harris, Hixson’s backstory involved travel with his brother in a time capsule where he became stuck in an urban environment. Hixson had to create all of the props used in the scene – including his “brother” who was crafted out of wood and a mannequin.
Temperatures were in the 30s in the morning, and stayed relatively chilly throughout the day, but Hixson, who was barefoot, remained in character as part of the assignment.
Harris said students were judged on their likeness to the painting as well as their commitment to staying “in that world” throughout the entire school day.
“We’re observing them through the window into their world,” Harris said. The students could not be interviewed while they were in the paintings. The students were able to have lunch if they made eating part of the experience of living in the scene, and if they had to use the restroom, they had to remain in character as well.
Seniors in the second year of the advanced acting class, who were living paintings last year, helped make sure the students remained on task and kept other students from bothering them. The seniors will have their chance to perform on Thursday – when they will spend the day as fictional characters from books they have chosen.
“There’s a general respect from other students. It’s like observing a living museum,” Harris said. “There’s respect for the art project and it also changes the dynamic of the school day.
Principal Dan Zittoun said it’s a great day for all of the Hall students. “One student said she loves seeing the other students walk by as if it’s just part of the environment,” Zittoun said. “It’s become part of our culture and is an awesome testament to the work they’ve done.”
Senior Alex Pesce and her friend, junior Sophia Arian, stopped in an upstairs hallway to observe a girl slumped in a chair. “I think it’s so cool. There is literally someone outside with no shoes on,” Pesce said of the overall experience.
“I could not do this. I can’t sit still for even five minutes,” Arian said.
Although a large number of students were in the lobby, and Hixon was in the courtyard, others were tucked into corners throughout the building.
Picasso’s “Old Guitarist” sat in the dirt (real dirt brought in for the day), strumming a guitar.
Another actor picked out the tune to Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” on the violin.
All stayed in character, ignoring the other students passing by as well as those who were taking photos.
Harris said he is not aware of any other schools in the area that undertake a similar experience. A student in Alberta, Canada, took on the project as an independent study this year after hearing about it from Harris and the Hall students who were performing at the Fringe Festival in Edinburgh last summer.
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