“You want a hot body? You want a Bugatti? You want a Maserati? You better work, bitch.”
When I hear Britney Spears’ comeback album, I don’t really think Jazzercise. Honestly, I don’t think of the much-maligned exercise fad of the ‘70s and ‘80s often at all, but now, parked in a chair inside ACT Theatre’s Bullitt Cabaret as colored lights flash on an empty stage, it’s all I can think about.
“It’s really beautiful,” says actor and playwright Megan Hill, who’s sitting in the house with director Margot Bordelon and co-star Amy Staats, as the tight-knit, New York-based creative team grabs dinner before getting back to tech. When Hill first began work on her play The Last Class: A Jazzercize Play years ago in New York, she took classes for research. “You see every age group and every body type,” Hill says. “Some people pick up the choreography really fast and some people don’t, and the instructors are so great and stay so current, so we wanted to bring that to the show. We also realized that a fitness class is dramatic structure: There’s the warmup, the cardio and then the cooldown, so it lent itself to the play.”
Last Class takes place during a real-time, dramatized version of a Jazzercise class, created by choreographer Sarita Lou and borrowing physically from the Jane Fonda workout book. It would have been easy to set the show in the ‘70s or ‘80s, but for Hill, that would have been a cheap joke—and besides, the show isn’t really just about Jazzercise. In a modern setting, the creative team could focus more on the lives of four characters taking the last-ever Jazzercise class at the Chikatawnee Valley Community Center, which is replacing it with the more popular Zumba. There’s longtime instructor Kelsea Wiggan (Hill) clinging to her too-big instructor smile even as she stares down her impending irrelevance. She’s joined by assistant instructor MJ (Staats), and two dedicated students, played by pre-self-selected audience members who will sweat it out onstage.
Hill began creating the show by choosing the class’s playlist, onto which Lou layered the class’s choreography. Then it was about creating a script that fit precisely within that framework. “I don’t think we anticipated how hard it would be,” Hill says. “Not only was it hard to do, but it was like, we need to add four syllables to this line or we have to shave this down so it actually fits into this chorus.”
“It was quite a feat to learn it and it continues to evolve,” Staats says. “It’s like a dance piece where you’re also talking at the same time.”
Generally speaking, you’re never supposed to see an actor sweat—not literally and certainly not metaphorically. Everything should look effortless, no matter how difficult the physical requirements. Last Class is all about the effort. “It was important to us to make this a real task that we have to complete,” Hill says. “There’s an element of failure involved.”
Which brings us to the peppy, sweaty, good-time metaphor that is the real heart of Last Class. “It’s about art and failure in your art form,” Bordelon says. “Yeah, it’s about failure within the thing that you love,” Hill adds. When do you give up and when do you keep going? The idea for Last Class had been floating in Hill’s head for several years before she actually started writing it, spurred on by a professional trauma. She originated a role in a play that got noticed; producers replaced half the casts with bigger name actors, and the show eventually made it to Broadway.
“As an actor, you always feel dispensable,” Hill says. “And with a project like that, knowing that there are parts of the show you helped create that are in the script now, I was like I’m finally indispensable. And then I was still dispensable.”
After productions in New York and DC, this ACT run is a big homecoming for these artists: Hill and Bordelon are both Seattle natives and have been making work together since they met at Cornish. Hill and Staats met seven years ago in New York working on a play by Joshua Conkel, a writer with whom they’re in a theatre collective and another Cornish grad.
“In a way, the pressure feels weirdly higher to me than even doing it in New York, because there are people who haven’t seen my work for 15 years,” Bordelon says, laughing. “It feels like yesterday that we were students, and it sure wasn’t. I feel such an affinity for and gratitude toward that program, and to Richard ET White who ran it.”
“We grew up here, so it feels so gratifying to come and do it in our homeland and in a theatre that we so admired when we were undergrads going to school here,” Hill says. “I actually pictured the Bullitt when I was first writing this show, so this feels totally dreamy.”
The Last Class: A Jazzercize Play runs through April 29 at ACT Theatre.