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.”
“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.”
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.