“Our Town” rehearsals are well underway, with the cast learning how to bring the story and their characters to life — in less than two months. Under the guidance of CYT Director Nikki Dyke, the young actors started in early January with costume measurements and a read-through of Thornton Wilder’s script, moving on to blocking and meticulously working through each of the three acts.
Blocking: The choreography of actions on stage that aid the storyline, convey the subtext of dialogue and help to focus the audience’s attention.
Carrying their scripts, the actors have been speaking their lines as they find their way around the Clayton Center stage and each other. Ms. Nikki frequently interrupts to give directions, telling the actors when, how and where to move, and asking them questions.
What can you read into that line? How might you feel about that?
It’s a funny line because — why?
Do you understand what I’m asking?
The cast is appreciating CYT’s professional atmosphere. “We get a lot done in a short amount of time,” said Sydney Jones (Sam Craig). She also noted that Ms. Nikki fosters a positive rehearsal experience, free of offstage drama.
The actors repeat scenes, and repeat them some more, and then repeat them again. They work to incorporate the nuances that Ms. Nikki gives them, as she demonstrates how to fill a line with inflection to convey the appropriate emotion or instructs when two characters should make eye contact for comedic effect.
Set the tone.
Ground your voice.
Find moments of pause.
All along, the actors make notes in their scripts, especially if Ms. Nikki changes a line or stage direction. Typically there is time after the first two hours of a three-hour rehearsal to run through most of or an entire act, but only after working through countless details.
The rehearsal schedule doesn’t necessarily flow in the order of the play, however. Depending on the students’ schedules, the cast may work out of sequence, running through Act 3 before circling back on Act 2. That’s okay, Sydney said, “because you end up putting it together. You learn to work with it.”
For now, the actors are wearing their everyday clothing during rehearsals, and the props are mostly imaginary, although the set for this play is typically quite spartan anyway. Much of the action in “Our Town” relies on pantomiming, so the actors are learning not only how to move in a nonexistent kitchen, for example, but also how to pretend to string green beans, throw a ball in the air and carry bottles of milk.
Pantomime: Using physical gestures and facial expressions, no words, to convey the truth or emotion of a scene.
Mac Mollins (Mr. Webb), who has appeared in three previous CYT shows, says that it’s been interesting to improvise and to try to make “imaginary objects seem real.” The benefit of working with a simple set helps draw viewers to the story and characters, he added. He’s excited to work on his character, a departure from some of his previous “grumpy old men” roles, and appreciates being able to be someone else for a while. “Every person has a story,” he said. Ms. Nikki is coaching the cast members on how to convey those stories and how to be “on” the whole time they’re on stage.
Slow down your speech so you don’t trip over your words.
I want you to know what you’re doing and where you’re going.
Sydney also said she enjoys portraying different people and exploring aspects of her personality to see other points of view. The themes of “Our Town” are augmenting that exploration, since the story “dives into the big questions of life,” she said. A real-life fringe benefit of her theater experience is that friends often seek her advice.
As a group, the cast members needed to come to a consensus on their respective viewpoints of the moon from the stage in various scenes. The audience will need to understand that it’s in the same place for each character. (Spoiler alert: It will be in the center of the back wall of the auditorium.)
Ms. Nikki has also coached the actors in how to “throw” their voices to create the sense of distance in the fixed space of the stage. All along, she gives clear and encouraging notes.
This is an exercise in patience. You’re calm and waiting — for what?
This is really hard, just so you know, but you can do it.
And, because it’s “Our Town,” actors may hear a director cheerfully say something like …
All my dead people, come on up!
“Our Town” tickets go on sale Feb. 3. Performances are Feb. 27, 28 and 29 at the Clayton Center. Go to our website, www.carolinayouththeatre.com, for more information.
For Andy Pleasant, CYT’s upcoming production of “Our Town” is like coming home again ~ although he has never really left.
Andy, a lifelong Clayton resident, grew up downtown on Barbour Street and attended Clayton High School, where he played George Gibbs in CHS’s 1969 staging of Thornton Wilder’s iconic play. Much has changed for the town and for Andy in the past five decades, but some of the most important themes of the play — including how we give meaning to our lives and how we treat others — remain timeless.
Andy had always enjoyed theater and had been in some plays, “but ‘Our Town’ was the biggest thing I’d ever done,” he said. He remembers that the stage in 1969 was plain and bare, with only a few props. This is a common way to present “Our Town,” which is set in a fictional New Hampshire hamlet in the early 1900s. The script recommends creating an atmosphere that conjures the classic New England sensibilities of dry humor and understatement and says that the spartan setting helps to stimulate the audience’s “cooperative imagination” — in other words, how we fill in the blanks and process the story is up to us.
No doubt Andy’s own good humor and his childhood experiences in team sports helped him animate his character. He and George “were a lot alike,” he said. In an early scene he had to pantomime throwing a ball in the air. “That was a piece of cake — I’d done that all my life,” he said, with a wry smile. Andy said he didn’t mind being directed, since he was used to having coaches “yell” at him. There was a learning curve, though, in being mindful of stage presence and how to be “in the right place at the right time to make it seem natural.”
Andy ended up carving out a long and distinguished career in athletics at Clayton High, serving as a health and PE teacher for three decades and coaching football, basketball and baseball. He was inducted into the Johnston County Athletic Hall of Fame in 2010. He also spent more than two decades managing the town pool in the summers and working part time at Pine Hollow Golf Club. “I’ve always played my whole life,” he said.
Looking back, he can see similarities between athletics and the theater. In both, he said, the goal is to get everyone involved working together as a team. And both endeavors are about making connections, some that last a lifetime and extend down through generations. He still sees former students all over town, and he ended up teaching and coaching many of his students’ children.
For Andy, the hardest part of playing George was conveying some of the more adult aspects of his character, including learning how to cry. He said he had to “think of some terrible things.” He didn’t seem to mind kissing his Emily Webb, though, played by Pat Forbes (Poe). He was dating someone at the time, but he and Pat “practiced a time or two,” he said, smiling. He also appreciated acting out how to show care for others and imagining what it would be like to have a wife.
He did marry a girl next door, of sorts, fellow Clayton native Gloria Pittman, in 1977. They have two children and four grandchildren. Andy, now 68, left his job at the golf course this past August to slow down a bit and travel more. And even though he didn’t do any acting after high school, he learned lifelong lessons in the theater that have served him well. “It gave me confidence to know I could go out and be another person and assimilate a kid my age, to play that role and be that person as he should be portrayed.”
He remembers that every show of the 1969 production of “Our Town” was sold out. Even after spending a lot of time rehearsing, he said, he had some opening-night jitters, “but I knew I’d done enough to be comfortable. It was fun to see people I knew in the first few rows. You want to make sure you do your best so they’ll enjoy it. We worked really hard to make it a good play.” His high standards for sportsmanship no doubt transferred to his dedication to that long-ago production of “Our Town.” He noted that he and his classmates believed that the “C” in Clayton also stood for “class, because you’re representing our town.”
He wasn’t too bothered about having to memorize a lot of lines for the play. “Once you get involved, it becomes second nature,” he said. Repetition and rehearsing helped him to speak and act as George in a way that felt natural. And now, as an avid audience member, he can especially appreciate the hard work that goes into acting and producing plays. His favorite stage show is “Phantom of the Opera,” which he has seen four times. He loves the music but also respects the complicated staging.
He has seen other productions of “Our Town,” including CYT’s 2011 show, and always enjoys its message. “It’s like Clayton was, back in the day,” he said. “Nothing like it is today.” The play is like a Lifetime or Hallmark movie, he said. “You just get involved and see the good, clean living during that time.”
Andy has seen plenty of changes in Clayton, which was going through integration back in the late 1960s. Now 150 years old, the town is in many ways still a “great place to live,” he said. But it’s not as quiet as it used to be, and traffic is a big issue. And it’s no wonder: The town’s population has grown from about 3,000 when Andy played George Gibbs to nearly 23,000, according to recent Census Bureau estimates. It was a town “where you knew everybody. Now, at the grocery store, you see people you don’t know,” he said.
Despite the changes, though, Andy is as dedicated to Clayton as ever. “My life’s been good,” he said. “I couldn’t ask for anything more. Just like in ‘Our Town’ itself.”
“I’m celebrating because I’ve got a friend who tells me all the things that ought to be told me.” ~ George Gibbs, “Our Town”
Charlie Putnam played George Gibbs in CYT’s 2011 production of “Our Town” opposite Jordan Biggers, the subject of our inaugural In the Spotlight blog feature. She played the straight-talking Emily referenced in the quote above, the girl next door who becomes George’s bride. “We had a lot of joy getting to perform an iconic love story together every night,” Charlie said.
But CYT’s “Our Town” was by no means Charlie’s first show. He developed an interest in theater while growing up in the Cleveland School area and started taking summer camp classes at Raleigh Little Theatre while in elementary school. From the beginning, he said, he loved the performance and community aspects of theater. He appeared in RLT shows, including “Cinderella.”
Charlie started his tenure with CYT as soon as he was eligible to participate. During the summer before entering seventh grade, he played the fiddler in “Fiddler on the Roof.” From there, he went on to do 12 shows with CYT, “which is still the record,” he said, wrapping up with “The Little Mermaid” in 2016.
Charlie, now 21, is a student at Elon University, double-majoring in political science and business administration. He has spent this semester studying at the Dublin Business School in Dublin, Ireland. Although he doesn’t plan to pursue theater professionally, he carries indelible memories of his time onstage and plans to participate in community theater in the future. There is “a really special feeling” about performing, he said, that’s hard to pinpoint. “Having a live audience in front of you is the most exhilarating time that I can imagine. Especially with theater, where mistakes are so common, the rush of adrenaline is incomparable.”
He and the “Our Town” 2011 ensemble got a taste of that unpredictability on opening night. “The fire alarm went off five minutes into the production,” he said. “Everyone in the theater was evacuated onto the town square. Audience and cast. It was about an hour before everything was cleared for us to come back in, but unfortunately the flashing lights of the alarms continued to blink in The Clayton Center throughout the show.”
Charlie has fond memories of the communities that formed during his CYT shows and noted the bittersweetness of the “ephemeral and fleeting” aspects of theater. “Moments spent with the cast and crew are that much more special knowing that it has to come to an end,” he said.
“Our Town” holds a singular place in Charlie’s heart. It is his favorite play, and he sees it whenever he can. “The stories about life and death presented in a neat, three-act package transcend the stage,” he said. He has also studied Thornton Wilder’s masterpiece from an academic perspective, writing a critical analysis of it for an American literature class at Elon. “It opened my eyes to even more layers to the show,” he said.
As a seasoned CYT veteran, Charlie has some words of advice for the cast of our “Our Town” 2020: Pay attention to pacing. “Plays need to have some speed to them to keep the audience engaged,” he said. “Say your lines with clarity, but make sure each line follows the next pretty closely.” To that end, he said, “think about the script. Really read it. Quite a bit of the show is about the relationship between the large things we can’t explain and the small realities that define our lives. Particularly in Act Three, I think Wilder says some fascinating things about life.”
Carolina Youth Theatre’s production of “Our Town” will be staged at The Clayton Center Feb. 27-28-29, 2020. Tickets go on sale Feb. 3.
Carolina Youth Theatre (CYT)
Carolina Youth Theatre is a community theater focused on providing theater arts education and performance opportunities to students across the Triangle.