It’s Anna Van Vleet’s turn in front of her fellow actresses, and perhaps more nerve-jangling, before Auburn High School drama teacher David Cox, who’s scribbling notes on a big, intimidating pad.
Her family called her “Poo,” Van Vleet’s character begins, not for that lovable, silly old bear, but for well, you know.
“Poo” tells us she survived a loveless childhood, sexual abuse at her brother’s hands, a suicide attempt, a stay in a psych ward.
Then, from unexpected quarters came love, acceptance, affirmation. Now, it’s her 18th birthday, and she has just changed her name to Skysilkblue. Her present to herself, she explains, a taking back of power she had long ago given away.
“Happy birthday to me,” she sings.
Van Vleet’s powerfully sensitive performance in “Gift,” one of nine monologues in Maya Levy’s “Daughters,” moves another actress to tears. And not for the first time.
“Again?” a friend inquires.
“Every time,” comes the sniffled response.
Cox’s critique is pointed but affirmative, tooled to draw the best performance from Van Vleet.
“Don’t forget to play up, we talked about that today. … Today you laughed through the Poo stuff, did you notice that? I don’t know if that was a choice or not,” Cox says.
And so it goes with all the actresses in the drama, a work that reflects on the stresses and strains of being a young woman.
‘Daughters’ premiere is Friday
Cox, a 1995 AHS graduate who is wrapping up his first year as head of the school’s drama program, on this occasion was preparing his troupe for the season’s final performance, “Daughters,” which opens Friday, May 3 at the Auburn Performing Arts Center.
Cox, a longtime member of the Auburn Community Players, is clearly a man in his element, a man blessed to be in love with what he’s doing.
“Performing has always been a passion of mine,” he said. “I was really involved in theater here at Auburn High School in my high school days. I got involved in college, then I was a musician who drifted away. For a long time, I wanted to be a rock star.”
Cox, who went on to graduate from the University of Washington, spent the first 12 years of his teaching career at Auburn’s Rainier Middle School, first teaching language arts and math and ultimately teaching just about everything else, including drama. Then he was on to three years at Sumner High School, where he was the drama teacher.
“This job came available last year, and I just couldn’t resist,” Cox said of returning to Auburn. “I’ve loved coming back, and the kids have been super inviting. The best part of the transition is that the students were really eager to get started on a new adventure, have some success and learn some important life skills.
“The performance aspect is what I really like. I love to get up on stage and use a big voice and lights and costumes,” Cox said. “I take up a lot of space, naturally, and would like to take up even more space. Getting the kids in this group to do it hasn’t been hard at all. They want to do it. I think that’s the most important thing for me. They are eager to get out there and show what they can do and have fun with it.”
His philosophy is that every kid can be successful. He’s on the kids’ side, and they know it.
Anna Van Vleet first met Cox when he was teaching drama at Rainier Middle School.
“I love the transformative aspect of it,” Van Vleet said. “When I started acting, I was a totally different person. Raising my hand in class was a huge step. Now, I’m so confident in who I am, and theater has a lot to do with it. Mr. Cox is also a really skilled builder. I love how you can just take basically nothing and build an entire world, create a story.”
Her sister, Emily, who’s also in the AHS drama program, first met Cox in connection with Auburn Community Players during a show at the Auburn Avenue Theater.
” I thought, ‘OK, if Anna’s doing theater, I guess I should try it, too,’ ” Emily recalled. “It’s definitely an achievement. You always want to make the director laugh, especially in theater. They’re not laughing at you, they’re laughing at the different person you can be. Sometimes he’s just laughing at my height,” said the diminutive actress, laughing about the stark contrast between her and her sister and their tall, broad-shouldered, big-voiced teacher.
Ribbing his students and their ribbing of him in return shows the tight bond of affection between them.
“It’s a weird thing, acting,” Cox said. “It’s not a thing that comes up in the general education setting. It’s fun to see them be successful in something they’ve never been asked to do before, and it happens 98 percent of the time. Skills are important and necessary if they want to be actors, but more often than not, I just want them to feel success because so often they don’t get to feel successful.
“… Forget memorizing, forget characterization, getting up in front of class can be the hardest thing. I think I’m pretty good at honoring that as success, if that’s what a kid has. But I am also pretty persuasive, and I regularly get more than that out of a kid,” Cox said. “We’re doing a memory test in class, and every time someone hands me their script, they say, ‘I’m not ready, I don’t know how good this is going to be.’ And then they get up there, and they just kill it. All of them blow their own minds, every single one of them. They are shocked, but I am not. They think they can’t do it because it’s never been asked of them before.”
Cox has had his own mind-blowing experience working in the Auburn High School, and he’s still picking up his jaw.
“Moving into this building was just a mind bender,” Cox said. “The Performing Arts Center is in the same place it’s always been, but I still don’t get how the old school overlays on the new school. … It’s a beautiful new building. And when you walk in, even if it’s gray outside, it’s light inside.”
On stage: “Daughters,” one part of a double bill with Tim Kelly’s “The Empty Chair,” opens at 7 p.m., Friday, May 3 at the Auburn Performing Arts Center, 702 Fourth St. NE, Remaining performances are at 7 p.m. May 4, 10 and 11.
“Daughters” cast: Anna and Emily Van Vleet; Katelyn Scott; Rebecca Jourden; Amy McConnaughey; Whitlee Cunningham; Shirley Cordova; Emily Neibel; and Kayla Jones.
“The Empty Chair,” is a drama about teenage substance abuse. The play centers on a recovery meeting, where a group of teenagers come to talk about their recovery. One chair is empty, as one of the teenagers has died from a drug overdose.
“Empty Chair” cast: Joel Freeborn; Lucien Pei; Aurora Bearden; Randy Lewis; Al Rudolph; Julius Williams; Luke Brown; and Taylor Patrick.