Beyond all that, [Roland Tec] and his colleagues observed that new adult readers and adult basic education students expressed a need to communicate their value as well-rounded human beings. And improvised opera provided a medium to do just that. Tec first encountered the form while working at the Minnesota Opera, where it was used as an exercise to help singers develop acting skills. "The minute a performer sings, time gets stretched out," Tec says. "Decent opera-level acting isn't real, and improvisation is a tool for freeing up performers. When a performer has to produce in the moment, the music line and the text become interdependent. That makes for a natural quality and an immediacy that works well with these issues."
Using this format, the team developed a story about an adult who works at a restaurant and as an aerobics instructor. He cannot read and finally meets a tutor who is a new adult reader herself. They are both guided by another teacher who learns that he, too, has limitations, if not in literacy. As the piece opens, the performers form a kind of human machine, a contrived exercise frequently used in Acting 101. "We kept hearing again and again about the intense boredom people experience because they have to work jobs that make them into a machine. The machine image was a point of departure," Tec explains, admitting that the image didn't quite work dramatically. "Between the Lines" is still a fluid work; the collaborators will make changes after the two Boston performances.
Undoubtedly, the piece speaks to the adult basic education community, as was evidenced by audience response at a preview last Saturday. But Tec says he wants to involve the members of the general public -- without resorting to the preaching that is so often involved in issue-oriented performance. One solution was to have the tutors use cards marked with words written in a kind of perplexing phonetic system. For instance, "the end" became "Dhi Ehnd." "We wanted to put the audience in the same position as the characters, where it was difficult to read the words. That helps them empathize with the characters," Tec says. One audience member said she wished there had been a scene where a word was spelled in English and the student read it successfully. Tec says such a scene didn't make the final cut, but may be added after the performances at the library.