“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.
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.