Workout: A Brief History

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By J. Randall Petersen ('78)

Not everyone liked it at first. When Jim Young began teaching theater at Wheaton in 1973, he set up a new system. There would still be school plays, but the casts would be selected from a group of about thirty students who would work together year-round. Tuesday and Thursday afternoons, 4:15-5:30, this group would get together for an actors' "workout," consisting of warm-ups, games, and improvisational exercises. Whether or not a student actor was currently rehearsing a play, he or she was expected to participate in this Workout Group.

Some of the multi-talented Wheaton students resented the time commitment. They were already busy with a zillion other school activities; why couldn't they just swoop in and do a play? But Jim often compared the process to that of a sports team. Players don't just show up for the game. They need to work together, train together, and commit themselves to their teammates. The Workout Group was Wheaton's theater team.

The discipline of the Workout session built strong actors. The intense interaction of the Workout group also built strong bonds. Breathing, speaking, moving, listening, responding, risk-taking—all these valuable stage skills matured in this incubator. It might be said that any team, any club, any cast will grow close as they work together. But the people of the Workout Group were connecting at various levels all at once, sinews and synapses, trauma and trust.

It was a novel approach to theater training then, and it remains unique today. Of course Jim gathered exercises and improvisational games from his own background at the Universities of Michigan, Wisconsin, and Massachusetts, and he developed new ones. He borrowed heavily from techniques of the "organic theater" of that era, but he also brought, from his own evangelical background, a rich sense of Christian meaning. Actors, like all artists, are re-creators, celebrating God's creation by continuing to reshape it in creative ways. Actors also honor the incarnation of Christ by embodying truth. In a community like the Workout Group, actors learn to love one another. By stepping into the shoes of a character—in fact by assuming the body of a character—the actor is almost literally fulfilling Christ's challenge to "love your neighbor as yourself."

In the 1970's, Wheaton College was pioneering the "integration and faith and learning," and Jim Young was doing these as well as anybody. Workout students were learning cutting edge acting techniques imbued with Christian meaning. Year by year, Workout graduates were set loose on the world. A few went on to graduate training and into theater careers, But many others brought their integrative Workout philosophy with them as they worked with community theaters, directed school plays, or started church drama groups. Still others used their Workout-inspired sense of community –building, risk-taking, and personal authenticity in business or ministry.

"The Workout model is a process of theater training, personal development, and spiritual formation, a way to develop an intimate collaborative community that commits to grow, learn, and create together." So says Mark Hallen, a 1982 Wheaton grad who now teaches theater at Eastern University. Using the Workout model, he has established an "Actor's Lab" at Eastern. Hallen is also writing a book about Workout.

Jim Young continued running the Workout Group at Wheaton until his retirement in 1994. With his departure, Mark Lewis took charge of the Workout Group. Mark had been part of the Workout Group years earlier, going on to grad school and a professional acting career. Now he was back at Wheaton to teach others.

Mark put his own stamp on the Workout program, emphasizing community and spiritual development even more than Jim had. Theater training took place mostly in the classes; Workout was a place to work out the basic issues that actors brought with them to the stage—and to their lives. Three decades of the Workout Group at Wheaton College have created a continuity which is evident. Students and graduates from different periods can come together like old friends, even if they've never met. The fact is, they are part of the same community.

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