“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.
Did you know that when Carolina Youth Theatre isn’t staging plays and musicals that a flurry of activity is happening offstage? In the fall and spring we host classes and workshops to offer young actors and those just dipping their toes into theater the chance to build skills in acting, singing and dancing. Some students may pursue a career in entertainment later on, but more importantly, experience with CYT in middle and high school fosters leadership, commitment and teamwork, in addition to building confidence and self-esteem.
This fall we’ve hosted workshops on dance, drama and music, and we’ve just wrapped up a series of classes on foundational acting skills. In the Acting Basics and Scene Study class for seventh- and eighth-graders, students learned warm-up and vocal techniques, along with character development, improvisation and storytelling skills. On finale night, Oct. 29, they performed their scenes for an audience of family and friends. Some students even wrote their own scenes!
Before showtime, teacher Stephanie Benner led the class through a game called “Did you hear about?” The actors stand in a circle, and the game works like so: One actor says “Did you hear about …” and points to another actor, who makes up something to say to finish the sentence. The other actors are allowed to respond in only two ways: with either laughter or gasps. There was much, much laughter. In giving directions during final rehearsals a bit later, Ms. Benner said something important about improv, which is also a good lesson for life:
“Play off what you’ve been given. Try not to control the scene too much.”
In addition to having fun while learning about stagecraft, CYT students find that their work in classes translates to benefits in real life.
Kira Earnest, a seventh-grader in Ms. Benner’s scene study class, has been in some of CYT’s summer camps, which she said were “super-duper fun.” She said she was sad when she didn’t get a role after her first audition, but she’s keen to continue learning and performing and perhaps become a game-show host or actress (she helped to emcee the scene performances in the last class). She said she loves being onstage and in the spotlight, showing off her personality while also being “someone I’m not” for a little while. Acting is a way to explore creativity and “show whatever emotions I want,” she said. Kira said she enjoyed learning acting and stage terms in this class and even noticed that the experience has paid off in school. Just that day she had participated in a debate in front of her classmates. She said it was well received by her peers, as she had successfully conveyed the emotions behind her point of view on the topic.
Mimi Mollins, an eighth-grader in Ms. Benner’s class, was inspired to participate in CYT by her mother, a voice teacher with a background in musical theater. She landed a role in CYT’s Bye Bye Birdie on her first audition, and also appeared in last summer’s The Wizard of Oz. She said she enjoys all aspects of theater, especially using the body to convey emotions, and she takes several hours of dance classes each week. In acting, “you can be different people and get in other people’s shoes,” she said, which helps build empathy and sympathy. She has noticed the ripple effects of her theater experience in her own relationships, she said. “It makes you a softer person.”
Keep your eyes and ears open for news on our spring classes and workshops. Registration will open in January 2020.
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.