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.
Welcome to our new blog feature, In the Spotlight. We will use this space to showcase members of the CYT community. By sharing the stories of folks you may or may not know, we want to welcome you to the CYT family and show you why we are Central and Eastern North Carolina’s shining star for young people in the theater arts. Join us!
“Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it — every, every minute?” — Emily in “Our Town”
Meet Jordan Biggers, a CYT alumna and drama teacher. She got her CYT start in our 2011 production of “Our Town,” which is going to be staged again in February as our annual winter play. We just had auditions and are excited to be bringing this Pulitzer Prize-winning work back to life, especially in conjunction with the town of Clayton’s 150th anniversary.
Ms. Biggers, who is originally from Clayton, was drawn to CYT by way of her sister, who had been in “Godspell” and other CYT productions. When “Our Town” came around, Ms. Biggers decided to audition. She was 14 and a freshman at Clayton High School, and had no previous theater experience. She said she was shocked to get a callback, especially as the female lead, Emily. “I didn’t even know I was up for Emily!” she said.
Ms. Biggers said she found the early rehearsal process “nerve-wracking.” She said she visibly vibrated onstage at the first rehearsal and worried that director Nikki Dyke might have been having second thoughts about casting her. Clearly that wasn’t the case, and the initial jitters didn’t deter Ms. Biggers from sticking with her new adventure, which quickly became a passion.
Thornton Wilder’s play, about the residents of a small fictional New Hampshire town in the early 1900s, sealed the deal for Ms. Biggers’s destiny. “If any play is going to convince you to do theater, it’s ‘Our Town,’ ” she said. “It just has this magic about it. It’s so simple and truthful, and yet you can put your own touch on it” as an actor. "It’s just a story about people."
It also helped that she felt a kinship “right off the bat” with the character of Emily, who falls in love with George, the boy next door. And, Ms. Biggers said, “the dialogue is so well written.” She was challenged to relate to the scenes in which her character goes through adult episodes in life, such as marriage, and recalled being given direction for an onstage kiss during the wedding scene. Director Nikki Dyke told her and her scene partner to “hold the kiss a little longer, you look like you’re brother and sister!”
Ms. Biggers went on to appear in several other CYT shows, including “West Side Story” and “Hairspray,” and productions at Clayton High School. One of the things she loves about theater is that it allows an actor to go to so many places through characters with different ideas and beliefs. "It’s like time-traveling,” she said. This aspect of performing also helps to cultivate empathy. “You have to take on a character’s beliefs and be true to them, not necessarily yours.” And in a lesson that anyone can take to heart, she said: "Different beliefs aren’t necessarily wrong.”
Ms. Biggers’s love for acting led her to become a teacher, which she said is “super fulfilling.” She enjoys helping young people develop their creativity and imagination and cultivate storytelling, social and literacy skills. She especially appreciates being able to zero in on individual students' unique talents and guide them into appropriate roles, whether onstage or off.
Ms. Biggers said her experience with CYT not only incubated her love for live performance but also prepared her for a career in theater. “CYT is really unique in that they allow for a really open environment but with a professional standard,” she said. She felt very well trained upon becoming a collegiate performer, having learned “the proper etiquette and expectations that are held in a professional rehearsal room. … As a CYT performer, I was expected to work hard, have respect for my directors and fellow actors, and work as an ensemble to create a polished production that all involved would be proud of. These high expectations helped me meet my full potential as an actor and helped me build a strong work ethic as well.” Eight years after making her theater debut with CYT, Ms. Biggers said that teaching is an “awesome way to be able to give back," to give students an introduction to a world that has meant so much to her. Plus, she said, "it’s just so fun."
“Our Town” will be staged at The Clayton Center Feb. 27-28-29, 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.