Close your eyes. Take a deep breath. Hold it and picture a field of poppies glistening in the sunlight among the rolling green hills. You are peaceful. You are floating among the clouds. Now exhale slowly and feel the love.
Joshua Searle-White has dropped plenty of coin to hear gurus share visions like this in workshop settings through the years. In the process he developed a love-hate relationship with the self-help and new-age movements — some of the philosophies and practices might seem strange and nonsensical, he says, but by the end of each weekend, he’s glad he stuck it out.
Searle-White, professor emeritus of psychology at Allegheny College, explores that relationship in a one-person stage production that he will preview in Meadville on October 26 before taking it to the bright lights of New York City in an off-Broadway show on November 3.
The play is called “The Weekend Workshop,” and it’s the story of a man who is pressured into going to a workshop because he is told he needs to “find himself.” Searle-White describes the show as “simultaneously a scathing critique of and a love letter to the self-help and new-age movements.”
“The new-age movement is low-hanging fruit,” says Searle-White, who retired in 2018 after 22 years of teaching at Allegheny. “It’s easy to make fun of it, but at the same time I love it.”
In “The Weekend Workshop,” the hero confronts the question: “What is the difference between something that is just goofy and something that is utterly profound?” The 90-minute production includes energetic staging, clever wordplay and lots of physical comedy.
Searle-White has behind-the-scenes assistance in the production from Dan Winston, a 2010 Allegheny graduate, who is the director; LeeAnn Yeckley, the technical director of Allegheny’s Playshop Theatre, who is the stage manager, and Noah Stape, a junior at Allegheny, who is the lighting operator.
“When Josh came to me with his idea for an original show and asked me to direct, I had no hesitations,” says Winston. “It’s unlike any other show I’ve ever worked on or seen. Josh performs it entirely on his own, splitting himself between seven unique and fully-realized characters. You’d think having only one actor on stage would make the show monotonous or that it would be difficult to have interactions between characters, but we worked really hard on fleshing out each character and blocking the show so that you feel like the characters are really alive in front of you, even when Josh is playing someone else.”
The show grew out of one of the courses Searle-White taught called “The Human Potential Movement,” and it takes on all sorts of new-age practices from eye-gazing to trust falls and cuddle puddles. Searle-White plays all the characters, which include the unnamed hero, Steve, Kip, Candy, Max, Star Thunder Hawk Flower (yes, that’s really what she calls herself!), and, of course, the Guru. “Everything that I make fun of in this play, I have done myself,” he says. “I love all of it. But I also resist it with my entire being. I sign up for workshops, but then when the time comes actually to go, I start making up excuses for why I shouldn’t or imagine all the other things I could be doing instead. But despite my resistance, and despite the many difficulties with these workshops, I keep going.”
The production in New York City is part of the three-month United Solo Theatre Festival, which features one-person shows and is the largest of its kind in the world. Searle-White and his crew will have 15 minutes to prepare the stage, 45 minutes for a technical rehearsal, 90 minutes for the play, and then 15 minutes to clear the stage. “It’s a real challenge,” he says.
Searle-White is not new to the stage, having appeared in some Meadville Community Theatre productions. He has also taught storytelling at Allegheny. “I’ve always loved the creative process. I’ve written stories and performed them for years, but I’ve never tried a full-length show until now,” he says. He currently is working on another play aimed at college students that will explore the issues of sexuality, relationships and consent, which will debut in Meadville in the spring of 2020.
“The Weekend Workshop” will be staged at 7 p.m. on Saturday, October 26, in the Montgomery Performance Space on Allegheny’s campus. The show is free and open to the public; the show is recommended for adults only (not suitable for children). The one-time staging off-Broadway will be held in Theatre Row at 410 West 42nd St. in New York City at 2 p.m. on Sunday, November 3. The theater holds about 60 patrons, and admission will be $54.
In the meantime, take another deep breath. Feel the love. Namaste.