Free speech is a perennial political hot topic. But what does speaking freely mean in one's personal life? Actor and Champlain College professor Eric Ronis delves into both the personal and political in his one-man show Things I'm Not Supposed to Say, debuting this weekend at Burlington's Waterfront Theatre.
Ronis teaches both speech and acting at Champlain. In developing his latest project, he searched for threads binding together his "peripatetic" academic and professional background, such as study of Kabbalah, improv training with Chicago's famous Second City comedy troupe and teaching public speaking to undergrads. "The question I keep coming back to is 'Why don't people speak up?'" he reflects.
For a PhD at Montréal's Concordia University, Ronis is researching "protest groups around the world, and what enables them to take on huge dictatorships or autocrats," he explains. But looking at the activists' boldness also triggered introspection. "It made me consider, what is it that I don't say, and why? And so I started building a piece around that."
"The theme is trying to get people to open up, and examining why people don't," he continues. The professor uses a pseudo-academic lecture format as a point of departure; audience members get a "class syllabus" instead of a program. Ronis mixes character monologues and stand-up comedy numbers with pieces that invite audience participation.
Ronis knows that asking theatergoers to get involved may send some scurrying for the back row. "I think one of the reasons . . . why I want to help people open up is because I'm so closed," he admits. Joining in remains optional throughout, and the participatory segments escalate gradually in intimacy. When the audience enters, for example, Ronis creates a relaxed party atmosphere by serving cookies, reading from his own diary and then encouraging attendees to share personal stories.
In the final audience participation exercise, however, Ronis takes a real risk. The gay single father tries to get someone to go out on a date with him. Not a pretend onstage encounter. A real date.
Why? For Ronis, the "Date Me, Please" piece stems from an examination of his own motivation for pursuing the ego-driven profession of acting. He confesses: "We want attention, we want love, we want the audience to be like, 'Ooh, you're so attractive. Ooh, you're so interesting.' What's the natural extension of that, if not 'Love me; date me?'"
"I'll probably be scared shitless when I'm actually doing it in front of an audience," he acknowledges. "Do I have the balls to pull that off and actually hit on people in the audience, in front of other people? I don't know."