CYT veteran Jordan Clifton is proof that even after a theater experience wraps, the show can go on, and on — in his case, in an enduring and varied career in theater education. Like so many other people this year, he has been finding creative ways to “meet this moment,” as he described it — a moment that he has been building toward since appearing in a children’s choir Christmas pageant in the third grade. Now 28, Jordan is the theater arts teacher at Broughton Magnet High School in Raleigh.
Even though Jordan got hooked on theater early in life, he said that while growing up in Garner there weren’t many opportunities to partake in it until he was at West Johnston High School, where he appeared in “Les Miserables.” He was in high school when he started his CYT run with “Bye Bye Birdie” (Conrad Birdie) in 2008, continuing with “Once on This Island” (Tonton Julian) in 2009 and wrapping up with "Pippin" (Leading Player) and “Fiddler on the Roof” (Tevye) in 2010.
CYT Director Nikki Dyke was his first true theater teacher and director, he said, and his experiences with CYT were “instrumental in my love for theater and knowledge” that this was something he could do. Jordan went on to receive a BFA in theater performance in 2014 from Catawba College in Salisbury, N.C., and he credits his CYT tenure for setting him up “for a lot of success” in college and beyond. “I remember so vividly the atmosphere that was created for us at CYT, so welcoming and inviting but also demanding,” Jordan said. He learned “what a well-oiled rehearsal machine looks like, which is so important in the theater process.”
Jordan developed a taste for teaching in college, while serving as a teaching assistant at Raleigh Little Theatre during summers at home. Those stints helped to boost his confidence as a leader and led to roles as a teacher and director with the Community Theatre of Greensboro, where he also gained experience in arts administration. At one point he considered being a flight attendant for Delta Air Lines, calling that interview process the “most stressful audition I’ve ever been to in my life.” But through a CYT connection, fellow CYT veteran and theater teacher Morgan Shearon, he learned about a job teaching theater at North Graham Elementary School. He got the position, and in 2017 won a $20,000 grant from the Andrew Lloyd Webber Initiative to help upgrade the school’s theater resources.
Jordan is now in his third year at Broughton, where he has directed “Hairspray,” “Eurydice,” “A Chorus Line” and “Poof.” Over the years he has continued to appear in shows with several companies throughout the area, including Snow Camp Outdoor Theatre, Barn Dinner Theatre of Greensboro, Theatre Raleigh and North Carolina Opera. “It’s been really great to be able to practice what I love to do and spread that love and passion to kids,” he said. His experiences as a teacher have shown him “the power of theater to bring community together,” especially across racial, ethnic and economic lines, he said.
Theater has the power to give children a sense of belonging, Jordan noted. “My favorite thing is meeting that student that is — my favorite word — ‘loquacious’ and just loves to share and express themselves. They might not find a place for that in any of their other classes, but the theater classroom is where that flame can be ignited and they can, through that, find focus and determination, commitment.” In his role as an educator, he said, he has learned the importance of “never underestimating any kid or any person’s potential.”
Jordan draws on his CYT experiences often, whether while teaching or performing. In addition to CYT’s polished rehearsal process, he said, he was struck by the amount of collaboration that goes into theater and the importance of building solid structures to serve the final products — the shows themselves. “I always remember how meticulously organized Nikki was,” he said. Audiences don’t see the “400 cues in the stage manager’s production bible,” for example, he said, or the detailed cast schedules.
Jordan’s extensive theater background is helping him “meet the moment” that the world is in with the ongoing pandemic. Many arts organizations and venues continue to be “dark,” including New York City’s Broadway theaters. Broughton remains on a virtual schedule, so Jordan has been working on ways to take an art form that is inherently physical and basically a team sport into a remote realm for his classes in acting and technical theater. He and his students plan to start rehearsals soon for site-specific outdoor projects. They’ve also been doing table reads via Google Meet, playing with poetry and engaging in conceptual work, all of which will pay off when in-person learning resumes, he said. “I think everybody can agree that learning and being with each other in person will always be more powerful than virtual things,” Jordan said, but there’s great value in finding new avenues for creating and sharing stories.
Beyond academics, simply being able to be together — even if only through computer screens — has been tremendously beneficial for students, Jordan said. Hanging out online offers “space where we can socially and emotionally check in with each other and let the kids talk to each other,” he said, “because they’re just not getting a lot of that.” Students have been able to tell their own stories, too. One of Jordan’s students shared a lovely story about how she had been finding “beauty in her quarantine,” but another student said — well, not so much. This shows how theater and the arts in general remain essential, he said, because storytelling and entertainment help to “relieve people of all of the tension that’s happening in our world that we live in, whether it’s social, political, emotional. … We all need it right now, kids and adults alike.”
Despite the usual challenges in the arts world, combined with the stresses of 2020, Jordan remains passionate about the role that theater can play in childhood development. “Theater is an essential component of a well-rounded education,” he said, as it can help to cultivate some of the “21st-century skills that we need” — including communication, creative problem-solving, and the ability to work in groups but also independently and with personal initiative. He was pleased to recently see one of his current students, Laura Lillian Baggett, in Burning Coal Theatre’s “A Hundred Words for Snow” — where, because of the pandemic, he was one of only four audience members.
He’s also passionate about the role of theater in schools and making it more accessible. “No matter what city or town or community you live in, every child should have access to theater and all it has to offer,” he said. “The social, emotional and personal growth it provides for students” is so important, he said. “That’s why I’m so thankful for CYT. … I wish that more schools offered theater as an opportunity. That’s why CYT and other nonprofit arts-producing organizations are so vital, to not just the students performing and working backstage, but the community at large.”
“Dearest Almighty: I don’t want anyone I care about to die again ever. Including, but not limited to me. So, please! Would you send us a doctor?”
In “Anatomy of Gray,” young June Muldoon prays for a doctor to come to her small town of Gray, Indiana, after her father’s heart gives out and he dies. The town has just about everything it needs, including a pastor who’s a “soul-fixer,” but no healer — no one to “fix other people.” So June writes the above entreaty, which is soon answered in the form of Galen Gray, a good-hearted doctor who mysteriously arrives by way of a hot-air balloon.
What also soon arrives? A mysterious disease — and fear.
Offstage we are living in an unprecedented drama. The pandemic of COVID-19 has virtually shut down normal life for an extended, undetermined period. Many folks are turning to art for solace, so it’s an ideal time to revisit “Anatomy of Gray” by Jim Leonard, which was CYT’s 2015 winter play.
Although the play deals with illness, grief, fear and uncertainty, it also holds uplifting messages about community, family, love, hope and healing. In the fictional story, as in real life, loss and panic are often accompanied by anger and blame. But as both the play and modern times have shown, trying situations can also be met with altruism, creativity and humor — hallmarks of CYT, which is in its 13th year of presenting high-quality and diverse productions.
“Anatomy of Gray” is set in the 1800s, but Jim Leonard wrote it in 2006 in part as an homage to a friend who had died of AIDS years earlier. CYT Director Nikki Dyke thoughtfully chooses each production, and this was no exception. When she first read the script, she said, she appreciated the story and the demands on the imagination that it requires. Plus, it aligned with CYT’s mission to cultivate an appreciation for the arts in the community through presenting a buffet of material.
CYT recently talked with two of the cast members from its 2015 production of “Anatomy of Gray” to see how the story can be applied not just to theater and its unique role in society, but also to life in the time of COVID-19.
Lexi Yauch, 19, played June in CYT’s production five years ago. She’s a sophomore musical theater major at Western Carolina University. Like other students around the world, she is finishing her school year online, living at home with her family in Clayton. Doing theater work through a computer is weird, she said, but she is adapting and staying connected with friends online.
The concept of home has taken on new significance for many folks in the past several weeks. Stable foundations for students and others have shifted, as people all over the world have been told to limit public activity. Homes have become makeshift offices and schools. In the play, it’s not clear where the doctor comes from, but at one point he says, “Home’s always been people, not places for me.”
Lexi found a home in theater with “Anatomy of Gray.” She had been in middle school productions, but playing June cemented her course onstage. At first, she was full of fear, she said, but everyone in CYT was so kind, welcoming and professional that by opening night, she knew she was exactly where she was supposed to be.
As in the play, the sense of community in CYT is powerful, Lexi noted. She said she was struck by the beauty of the “Gray” script, which tells a “poignant and timeless story.” She was 15 when she played June, the same age as the character, and connected with her innocence and curiosity about the world. June was an “open slate,” Lexi said, while the adult characters unabashedly displayed their biases and opinions.
At the beginning of the play, June describes herself in a way that perhaps many of us can relate to these days, as we navigate new relationships with space and people — not unlike how actors bring forth emotions to tell stories: “You know how much weather there is? Well that’s how many feelings she had. It’s like there was one sky outside her, and a sky just as huge on the inside.”
Nikki places great faith in her young actors and, as a stage director, strives to bring out their best. In picking “Gray,” she said she knew the students could handle the challenging material. “Acting is really about finding an emotional connection,” she said. “Teenagers understand anger, grief and prejudice. They’ve experienced it, and it’s not a stretch to ask them to tap into a past experience.”
Lexi’s castmate Katie Distefano, 22, played Tiny Wingfield, the spunky sister of the town pastor, in “Gray.” She’s a senior at UNC-Chapel Hill, double-majoring in dramatic arts and linguistics. This fall, she will attend Duke Divinity School. Like Lexi, she is finishing her school year off campus. She is also staying in touch with friends, sharing the griefs they’re experiencing: the lost internships, study abroad semesters and a timely college graduation. Similar to the characters seeking information about the mysterious illness in "Gray," Katie has been trying to stay informed about the coronavirus but not get overwhelmed.
Early in the play, the newly arrived doctor tells townspeople about invisible germs that “carry diseases around like a puppy totes slippers.” But, sensing their rising fear, with his presumed expertise he encourages them not to panic. June, who had dreams of marrying the doctor, says in her adolescent frankness that “havin a bonafide healer in town was a new thing for people, and I don’t mind tellin you, we couldn’t wait to get sick.”
Gray takes up residence and begins to diagnose the characters — many of whom have never seen a doctor — with various common ailments: Insomnia. Migraines. Arthritis. June comically says, “People flocked to the healer like birds flock to crumbs! There was somethin wrong with you if you didn’t have somethin wrong with you.”
Humor itself is practically a character in “Gray,” and its role can’t be overstated. As Nikki said, “Humor is a gift and a coping mechanism.” For both actors and audiences, comedy can break up tension. “And frankly,” Nikki said, “it mimics our real-life stories. Most of us have experienced a time when we found ourselves laughing through our tears, or a tense moment that was shattered by something completely unexpected and ridiculous.” She noted the outpouring of humorous social media memes and song parodies that have been created during the coronavirus outbreak, which offer “a way to release some of the intensity of the moment, a way to cope, an excuse to laugh instead of cry.”
Humor involves not just linguistic comedy but also physical. In one scene in “Gray,” the pastor, who doubts the doctor’s authenticity because there is no mention of “germs” in the Bible, becomes a believer when the doctor helps him alleviate the agonizing pain of a kidney stone by helping him go upside-down into a headstand.
As the play progresses, the new, mysterious disease spreads. It is marked by skin sores, fever and a “terrible, deep, soul-wracking cough.” In the first serious case, the doctor orders the patient’s house to be placed under quarantine — a familiar word in the current pandemic. Until the end of the play, after several characters have died, the source of the illness remains a mystery, so they don’t know how to curtail it or protect themselves and each other.
Lexi and Katie both noted how the characters’ anxieties spread along with the disease. Rumors erupt, setting the town “boiling with fear,” the script says. The townspeople start to argue and even suggest that the doctor brought the illness with him.
At one point, Maggie, the tavern owner, says: “I can’t be marked — I haven’t done anything wrong.” The doctor assures her: “It’s a disease — it’s spread by germs, not by God!” Later, during choir practice, Maggie loses her focus. “I can’t do this. I just can’t go on like this as if nothin’s happened at all. I can’t concentrate, and I don’t know how any of you can.”
We’ve seen a similar understandable loss of focus and panicked behavior with the coronavirus, Lexi noted, as in the hoarding of necessities. Like in the play, Lexi said, “you don’t know what to be afraid of.” And some questions are the same in “Gray” as now, she said: Am I going to get it? Am I going to live? We think we know where it came from, Lexi continued, but there are so many unknowns — and you can’t see the virus, so you don’t know if it’s there. “You can’t just say, ‘Oh, there it is, stay away from that.’ ”
Katie agreed, saying it was “kind of spooky” to reread “Gray” in the midst of the pandemic. Like Lexi, she voiced questions that many of us share: Where did the virus come from? Who has it? How is it spread? What about asymptomatic carriers? How close will it get before we know someone who is affected or has it? How do we make sense of it all?
Reading the play now, Lexi observed that just as June was experiencing her childhood through grief and tragedy and a mysterious disease, now “for a lot of kids, this is their childhood, what’s happening right now.” In this way, theater can be a mirror to help people look at themselves and society with a sense of intimacy but from a safe distance. Unlike watching a movie or TV show or reading a book, Lexi said, seeing live theater is charged and immediate: It happens right “before your eyes, feet away from you,” so viewers can connect with the story and empathize with the characters in a more visceral way. We can put ourselves in “another person’s shoes,” she said.
Nikki elaborated on theater’s “unique ability to reflect the now.” A play can make a story seem “urgent, relevant, familiar, and those feelings come from the fact that there is a living, breathing human being onstage telling a story, while a living, breathing human audience listens in the same space. They are sharing the same moment, the same air — and that’s a powerful connection, one that might even become more poignant after this current period of separation ends.”
As with Lexi, “Gray” also holds a special place in Katie’s heart. It is her favorite script “by far,” because of its lessons on life and grief. When she was in it, she said, she was struck by the characters’ reactions to fear — how they turn on each other and themselves. Now, though, Katie said, it’s important to be looking out for others, especially the most vulnerable among us.
Katie has been especially inspired by people who have had the “courage and audacity” to face the dangers, especially health-care professionals. The “sacrifices that so many people are making” are the “most beautiful part of all,” she noted. “We need to be embracing each other, looking out and caring for each other.”
Lexi echoed the need for concerted responses. It’s critical to love one another and communicate “as a global community,” she said. “No one wants this pandemic,” and the resolution will take a united effort. Noting the positive effects in nature from the lack of human footprints during isolation, she said, “The earth isn’t just us, it’s everything and everywhere.”
As it turns out, theater — especially for young people — is a great training ground for creating the kinds of solutions that Katie and Lexi describe. Lexi, a veteran of seven CYT shows including “Gray,” noted that through her CYT experience, she was exposed to a level of professionalism that prepared her well for theater at WCU. She knows it’s important to “come in memorized, hit the dates, show up on time” — a level of preparation and attention to detail that can be valuable in any endeavor.
Lexi said she learned other behaviors during her time with CYT from those who modeled them: how to speak with people, and how to be kind, welcoming and open-minded. She said she also gained a great deal of self-assurance and awareness of group dynamics, with more understanding of how she — and how we all — can affect situations.
Katie has loved theater all her life and was in elementary school productions before joining CYT, where she appeared in five productions. There’s something “so electric and exhilarating about being onstage,” she said. She echoed Lexi’s observation that CYT established a high bar that helped her cultivate a respect for the art of theater as both a hobby and a job, and it prepared her for a smooth transition into college stage work.
Katie noted several skills that she has learned from theater: teamwork, accountability, the ability to take feedback and constructive criticism, and the courage to take risks that don’t always pan out. Above all, she said, theater “just makes you a better person.”
Theater also highlights the power of storytelling, an often underestimated art form, Katie said. As she has worked to balance her intake of coronavirus-related information, she said she has been moved less by official government reports and more by personal stories of how the pandemic has affected people’s lives. “Stories are how we relate to each other,” she said. As in the world of a play, sharing a difficult story can make it more relatable and less scary.
Nikki echoed the importance of the healing power of theater. “We tell stories to share our experiences, to remember the past, to connect with others, to explore our fears, to try and make sense of the world. The stories we tell are a reflection of who we are, and in this moment “Anatomy of Gray” holds up a mirror and reveals a face that is familiar and recognizable.”
Carolina Youth Theatre is a nonprofit, and, like most arts organizations, is feeling the strain of the pandemic. Please help us continue to bring stories to life so that we can fulfill our mission to educate young people, showcase their talents and cultivate an appreciation for the arts.
“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.