We all remember the stress of being in a production as a child. The fear of stumbling on stage as the Angel Gabriel in your school’s nativity or of stumbling over your words as Sandy in Grease at the local community centre. Hideously embarrassing as the tapes may be, these experiences provide many of us with fond memories, not to mention a good laugh every Christmas. It’s these times spent being pushed and pulled around by parents, spending days upon days with your friends at rehearsals which have formed the premise of London-based photographer Alexander Coggin’s latest project.
“Each summer, I go and spend vacation time with my husband’s family in upstate Michigan, and this year I decided to make a body of work around a subject very near to me: amateur theatre,” Alexander Coggin tells It’s Nice That of his latest work-in-progress series Untitled (Community Theatre). Finished with Alexander’s usual high-flash aesthetic and astute observations, the series documents the neighbourhood’s annual children’s Operetta on the opening night of Hooray for the Holidays.
Alexander grew up in the theatre and was a child actor, he explains: “this is visually a world I feel very nostalgic towards.” In the lead up to the event, the neighbourhood was strewn with flyers weeks in advance – a fact that alerted Alexander to the upcoming Operetta, and which piqued his attention.
“Every child has to audition, and a feat of mothers and volunteers choreograph, rehearse, build costumes, arrange, coach, and shush children between the ages 6-13 for one or two hours a day,” he explains. “It’s one of many wholesome seasonal activities in this community and rehearsals are deliberately slotted after swimming and tennis lessons but before soccer, arts and crafts and ecology to get the best focus and attention.”
The images in Untitled (Community Theatre) candidly portray the energy of a busy-body community in full swing. Children yawn while parents fuss in a somewhat hilariously stereotypical fashion for anyone who attended after school and weekend clubs as a child. It’s the process of transformation – of play in its simplest form – which most interests Alexander, however. “I relished in the idea that it would be such a chaotic environment, filled with adolescent nerves, that I could really be a fly on the wall,” he explains, “I tried to focus on the transformation aspects: how the kids saw themselves before and after putting on a character through makeup, what that transformational process did to their gaze or confidence or behaviour.”
It’s this notion which is at the heart of the series as it embodies and visualises so much of what many children cling to when it comes to dressing up and playing someone else. Alexander’s husband, who participated in the very same Operetta every summer of his childhood tells us:
“It was in the Operetta that I made my stage debut in a chorus of 6-year-old knights who sang of being ‘brave and fearless men.’ Leaving aside gender politics, as a child, the Operetta opened up the theatre’s potential to be a place where courage is rewarded.
“The night of the Operetta (there is only one official show) is scheduled to the minute. You arrive in costume, bring your mom’s makeup, and try to stay calm despite the inevitable moment in which you must stand in front of every person you’ve ever known, step forward from a line of other ‘brave and fearless men’ and say a line or two. The show is notoriously too long, a third of the time the microphones don’t work, and at least one child is reduced to tears onstage because they forgot their lines. But for me, when I showed up, put on a costume, stood on stage, sang songs, and made a crowd laugh, I was transformed. I still hold that feeling today.”
Currently looking for other amateur groups in the UK and US to expand the body of work, Alexander hopes to continue documenting theatre’s transformative qualities in a sincere way. “I think, for these kids,” he concludes, “it’s lovely to be part of a tribe, to see kids feel the social safety of, somehow losing individuality. It’s ‘play’ at its best – play of gender, play of character, play of demeanour – and that’s a spell that I remember being very potent as a child in theatre.”
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