CYT’s performances of “Our Town” are fast approaching. As with all of our shows, we’ll have spent far less time presenting it than preparing for it — such is the bittersweetness of theater, and of much of life. But the story of putting on a play — with a beginning (auditions), middle (rehearsals) and end (performances) — also holds the potential for magic. An “old” play can be new every time it comes to life.
As a play has its own life cycle, so too does “Our Town” trace the spectrum of human life. Closer to home, Carolina Youth Theatre's upcoming production of Thornton Wilder’s story also reflects the progression of time in Clayton. As we’ve previously noted, CYT staged this iconic play in 2011, and Clayton High School did so in 1969.
CYT director Nikki Dyke brought it back for many reasons. It’s one of her favorite plays, and she wanted students to experience it as actors and not just from a textual or classroom perspective. Also, she said, it coincides with Clayton’s year-long celebration of its 150th anniversary, and as a community group she wanted to offer a meaningful contribution.
Back in 1969, Bill Johnson was co-director of the show presented by the junior and senior classes at Clayton High School, during the town’s centennial celebrations. He came to CHS as an English teacher in 1969, when he was in graduate school at N.C. State University. He taught at CHS until 1971. Bill, who is from Smithfield, said that “Clayton was the greatest place in the world. Those were two of the most incredible years of my life.”
He said that he and his co-director, Alice (Alite) Ferrell, who passed away in 2009, had a vision of using the CHS auditorium for its intended purpose. Until then it had been used mostly for meetings. He had seen “Our Town,” and he and Alite thought it would be a good tie-in with the town’s 100th anniversary.
The show was more successful than anyone predicted. “We were overwhelmed by the number of people who wanted to participate, and the community was so helpful in volunteering time and skills, like carpentry,” he said. “We didn’t have to beg for anything. We’d say we needed something, and the response was “ ‘When?’ ” So many people auditioned, he said, that “the hardest thing in my life was to choose roles. We had more townspeople than we probably should have."
Pat Forbes Poe, who played the role of Emily Webb, also remembers Clayton’s deep sense of community spirit. She and her family moved to the area from Asheville when she was in sixth grade. “Growing up in that small community was so profound,” she said, with opportunities to form deep relationships, some of which endure to this day.
Those themes are echoed in “Our Town.” CYT director Nikki Dyke has directed the show three times in 16 years, each time with teenagers. Over time, she said, it has come to resonate with her even more deeply. She had a vague notion of its depths when she acted in it at age 17, “but there is no doubt that in revisiting it as an adult the play takes on deeper significance. As I get older and experience more of life, the play packs a bigger punch.” It seems even more important now to share the story, she said, “to remind folks of a simpler time and encourage them to prioritize the things that matter most.”
Bill and Pat wholeheartedly embraced the challenges of their production five decades ago. Because “Our Town” essentially marked the birth of the theater program at CHS, the school had scant if any props and no stage lighting. Bill said the crew borrowed a spotlight from Raleigh Little Theatre and used the proceeds from the three sold-out shows to buy one for CHS. The only complaint he heard was that three shows had not been enough.
Bill also said that he and Alite took great pains to avoid letting the play have “too much sugar for a nickel,” meaning not allowing it to be overly sentimental. From a more technical point of view, the directors helped the actors learn how to pantomime. “I don’t know how many times I bought string beans,” Bill said, so that the students could practice on the real things to be able to convincingly fake snipping them and putting them into bowls.
Interactions with imaginary chickens were also a challenge, even though many of the students were from farms. Bill said he encouraged the actors to practice hanging around live ones to notice how they behave — “it’s like herding cats,” he said.
Bill is especially proud of figuring out how to simulate rain on umbrellas. He’d heard that applying glycerin on a black umbrella would do the trick, so he bought some glycerin from Beddingfield drugstore. The effect was particularly brilliant under the stage lighting, he said. “People talked for years about how realistic it was, asking, ‘How’d you do that?’ ”
Because the staging for “Our Town” is so spartan, Nikki said, it relies on the concept that “less is more.” With limited props and set pieces, good acting and storytelling really have to carry the show. “If these elements are weak, there isn’t anything else to distract the audience,” she said. “You are very exposed, so the pressure is high to deliver a strong performance.”
Pat, who lives in Raleigh, said she did her best to illuminate Emily. She doesn’t remember auditioning but was “on top of the world to get the part.” She didn’t have a background in theater and had never seen “Our Town,” or any play. Her cultural touchstones at the time were the TV programs “The Andy Griffith Show” and “Peyton Place,” and she had seen only a few movies, “The Ten Commandments” and “Parent Trap.”
“ ‘Our Town’ ” introduced me to another world,” she said. “It was all new, all of it.” She got personal lessons from Alite on how to become Emily, going over lines and getting tips on delivery. It was challenging to portray a woman in stages of life that Pat had not experienced, but “I threw myself into that role,” she said.
Indeed, as Nikki said, coaching young people to play adult roles involves getting them to connect with something familiar. For example, they may not know what it’s like to be married, but they’ve probably dated or observed their parents’ and grandparents’ relationships, or watched how partnerships are portrayed in books, film or on TV.
“It’s been my experience that students will surprise you,” she said. “Their capacity for depth and understanding is greater than most adults realize. Generally speaking, my theater students are in tune, sensitive and self-aware. They work hard to get it right.”
Like many fans of the play, Bill appreciates its themes and said his student actors did, too. By the final show, the cast “finally realized that Wilder was trying to tell us that we don’t know and never will” know how our lives will play out. During the production, he said, the students began to realize that they were not alone in the world, and that there were people around them with similar interests. This built a sense of “commonality that tied us all together.”
Pat agreed about the show’s resonance. “That play just lives,” she said.
It’s that sense of shared humanity that helps “Our Town” endure. In some ways, it’s a very American play, set in a fictional New Hampshire town in the early 1900s. But although life is different in 2020, Nikki said, as in the “daily life” sketch of Act I, “people are people, and there are some things that will always remain the same. People wake up, eat breakfast, take care of the kids, go to work, go to school and have certain routines. The difference is that now those routines may involve checking email and hitting a Starbucks.” Many of us will fall in love and marry, as Act 2 outlines, and we’ll all have to deal with losing someone we love, as shown in the concluding Act 3.
Neither Bill nor Pat spent much time on a stage after their “Our Town” experience, but both still have a fondness for theater. Bill put his graduate degree in English to work, spending a decade at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., and teaching linguistics in Florence, Italy, and English for nearly 20 years at Johnston Community College. Even though he didn’t pursue a career in theater, Bill appreciates that it can give young people “a lot of independence, self-esteem, a sense of accomplishment and a feeling that they can do anything they want to.”
Pat thought she was going to major in drama in college but ended up having a career in computer programming at a time when women were scarce in that field. She later returned to graduate school at Meredith College and started her own interior design business.
Bill’s and Pat’s experiences from half a century ago dovetail with CYT’s 2020 “Our Town” in many ways, but the upcoming production will be a fresh telling, with its own innovations. The stage manager, typically a male role, is being played by a young woman, for example.
But in the end, Nikki said, the play “reminds us that the simple, mundane parts of life are important, that little things bring joy and that we should make the most of the time we are given by spending it with the people we love. It is in the everyday moments that we encounter people, build relationships and truly live. No one wants to look back on life and find out that they missed it, and that message, regardless of whether it’s 1900, 1969, or 2020, will always ring true.”
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.