Bruce McIntosh, a self-described “skinny white guy from Connecticut,” heads up Metta Theatre and Metta Young Artists, a theater company that’s more than a place to put on plays. He describes the cadre of actors young and old as a little …
Bruce McIntosh, a self-described “skinny white guy from Connecticut,” heads up Metta Theatre and Metta Young Artists, a theater company that’s more than a place to put on plays. He describes the cadre of actors young and old as a little family. And a family, like any production, play or poetry reading that graces the tiny stage in El Prado, is a collective effort. McIntosh knows, from the actors onstage to the volunteers taking tickets, “what has been accomplished is yours alone by no means. It is the coming together of many people.”
McIntosh came up professionally in the hardscrabble Los Angeles theater scene, making next to no money doing plays in a city with more than 200 little black-box theaters. “I was not a working, commercially successful artist by any means,” he said. Still, McIntosh admits his fortunes were luckier than most — he was in a play that put him on the road for several years after he and his wife, Michelle, had just moved to Taos. He sent home what money he could. A couple of plays he wrote were turned into films and he’s had plenty of professional acting gigs on films and TV, here and there.
It was a chance kind of remark from a volunteer drama teacher that got McIntosh into Taos High School in 2006. “They’d go to high school their whole classroom day, do after-school acting classes a couple days a weeks, go grab a bite to eat and be down at the theater to keep acting for a few more hours in the evening.” Teaching adults was fine. But deep down, he wanted to work with emerging artists in their teens and 20s.
That trajectory was never really the plan. But McIntosh quotes a 13th century poet who said, “events and plans seldom agree.”
“That’s when it solidified,” McIntosh said, and Metta Young Artists was born. “In two seconds I fell in love with all these high school guys.”
“Some of these guys — when I say guys, I mean the young women and the young men — don’t have an idyllic home scene,” he said. Taking a cue from a gang rehab program in L.A., Homeboy Industries, McIntosh discovered that acting isn’t necessarily the core of Metta. It’s kinship.
“Where is kinship? Where does a kid feel welcome no matter what kind of mistakes he’s made and no matter what kind of background he’s in?” he asked.
The answer has evolved over time as the little family of Metta has grown, morphed and helped emerging artists find their way to confidence, skills and the places of their dreams.
“We’ve had a Cinderella story,” he said. Not only have young Metta actors ended up in the big cities (admittedly a hardscrabble route like his), but others have also been on sets and gotten their union cards right here in New Mexico where the work is heating up because the industry madly craves talented, trained young people.
So in rehearsals and workshops, McIntosh brings his dedication to match the indomitable drive and passion of the multitalented artists around him.
“One of the benefits of theater is you can’t fake it,” he said. “It’s going to take you some hours to memorize this and it ain’t gonna get memorized ’til it’s memorized. I’m not beating them up, I’m just saying there’s no getting around it if you’re in the last part of your last scene and the lines start to wobble.”
It’s a fact of life that, “Yeah, it’s on you. You’re responsible. That’s valuable, that kind of discipline,” he said of his own life lesson, adding, “Theater saved my butt when I was a kid.”
But McIntosh thinks what he teaches the young folks pales next to what they end up teaching him — especially at the Taos County Juvenile Detention Center (JDC).
Since October, he’s co-led an acting and creative writing workshop for three days a week at the detention center with Jacquelyn Cordova, a 2009 graduate of Taos High School and board member of Metta Theatre.
“You’re trying to create the vibe of a theater in a detention center,” she said, “where naturally talented young people (singers, songwriters, screenwriters, and yes, actors) have to deal with a lot of isolation and unknowns.”
“I have this Zen teacher who says ‘give yourself unreservedly,’” McIntosh said. “The core activity is the same in the detention center. You’re up there trying to give it your all.”
When the young people at the JDC give it their all, another side of acting takes the stage.
“I like to see what’s real,” he said, recalling young people’s struggles with poverty and substance abuse, hardcore gangs, sexual violence and the beginnings of what could be a long haul in the criminal justice system. “This is Taos,” he added, where the tragedies are just as important as the shiniest of successes.
“They might be wondering if tomorrow they’re going home or going to an adult detention center. Maybe a family visit didn’t happen. They’ve got a lot of stuff they’ve seen and experienced. They’ve got a lot of stuff going on,” McIntosh said.
“How many emotions you got today?” he’ll ask them. One guy from Taos nailed it — “I don’t know man. Like a zillion.”
The thing about acting is it’s about the right now, McIntosh said. “When I went to New York for acting school, a teacher said something to me that was a foreign concept — you have the right to your feelings. You don’t have any emotions that are incorrect. This art form requires you to express truthfully your actual emotions, not what’s wanted at home or expected at school.”
“I want to know your truth,” he tells them. Because in acting just as much as in life, “it’s only when there’s genuine, true emotion that it touches somebody.”
To help young people get in touch with their truths, McIntosh shares a method, not for acting, but for cleaning out their heads. A Zen meditation practitioner for about 17 years, he’s seen that something as simple as counting your breaths can chill these kids out, help them sleep and feel a little better.
And hopefully, acting and a little mediation can help them accept the situation as it is, and accept themselves as they are. The situation? Not insurmountable. Themselves? Labeled as screw-ups, but talented humans with so much to contribute.
Navigating the criminal justice system, putting on shows and getting young people to where they want to be comes with plenty of challenges. But for every challenge, McIntosh meets it, greets it and makes art with the little Metta family around him.
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