Lessons from a Mockingbird Three young Vermonters, including two with NEYT ties, learning on the job alongside theater and TV pros in Weston Playhouse production of ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’
WESTON -- One of many classic lines from Harper Lee’s seminal novel "To Kill a Mockingbird" has Atticus Finch saying, "You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view ... until you climb into his skin and walk around in it."
In a sense, that’s the experience three young Vermonters are having through their involvement in the Weston Playhouse production of "To Kill a Mockingbird," which opens tonight and runs through Sept. 7.
Alongside the professional actors with Broadway and television credits are three young people whose credits so far are highlighted by New England Youth Theatre and Rutland Youth Theatre.
And they’re handling their chance to walk around in the skin of professional actors just fine
"I’ve always wanted to do that," said Isaac Freitas-Eagan, a 13-year-old from Guilford, student at Brattleboro Area Middle School and veteran of NEYT, whose future plans include studying theater in college and pursuing a stage or screen career. "This is the closest I’ve been to that. I can work with professional, paid actors. It’s just really exciting for me."
NEYT Founder Stephen Stearns recommended he try out and told him he always thought of Freitas-Eagan as being perfect for the role of Dill. That’s who he plays in this production.
Fellow NEYT-er Andrew Foster, 14, of Putney, likewise followed Stearns’ advice to audition and landed the part of Jem.
Andrew joked that he was in it purely for the money, but in truth, this is an education -- and an opportunity few people have.
"It’s been really interesting to watch everybody develop every little thing they do and develop their characters," Andrew said. "Every day, there’s another thing to pick up on."
Isaac agreed, saying he’s enjoyed watching how even the most seasoned, accomplished actors take meticulous notes, work and re-work their lines with care, stay in character at all times and demonstrate a commitment to their craft.
"Now I’m going to do that," he said.
"It’s definitely nervewracking because they are all professionals, and I’m just a local kid," said Kelsey McCullough, a 12-year-old from Rutland Town and veteran of the Rutland Youth Theatre, who plays Atticus Finch’s tomboy daughter, Scout. "The pressure is on us. ... But they’re all so welcoming. They’re all so nice here."
More than just observing from a distance, the young actors have been taken in and treated fairly as peers by the professionals, who have stopped to lend advice.
"The actors are all super compassionate," agreed Isaac, recounting the time when veteran actor and Vernon resident Munson Hicks caught him whistling backstage and told him why actors never do that -- something about whistling being how stagehands used to signal each other to change scenes. If you whistle backstage, you may find yourself with a piece of scenery being lowered on you or someone else. Sound advice.
It’s a grand experience in other ways for these young actors. They all appreciate Weston’s relatively plush dressing room accommodations. Rutland Youth Theatre has two rooms -- one for boys and one for girls -- and NEYT just has one big room, with partitions and racks of clothes to hide behind. Isaac also likes the dressing room mirrors with the little lightbulbs all around them, just like you see in the movies.
Director Malcolm Ewen reminded the young actors that those dressing rooms and other backstage amenities were all new, replaced in the wake of flooding Tropical Storm Irene, which wiped out everything Weston had in the lower floor of its historic theater, dealing $750,000 worth of damage. The flooding came not long after Weston had completed a major overhaul of its downstairs, and that was a sad twist, but Weston regrouped, got funding help from many supporters, including alumni who are acting professionally and staged a benefit.
Talking two days before opening night, in the midst of a workday that began at 1 p.m. and ended at around 11 p.m., the young actors all admitted to being nervous.
Ewen told the young actors not to worry, that all the cast will have butterflies on opening night.
One thing Ewen doesn’t have to worry about is whether these young actors are up to the job. The Weston Playhouse is committed to using young local actors, if possible, although it will cast them out of New York City if they have to. They’ve cast local kids in other shows in the past, and earlier this summer, Leah Cunningham, 17, of Chester, appeared in "42nd Street."
"We have great respect for the theaters we contacted," said Ewen. "There’s a lot of good arguments for working with local kids. You don’t exist in a vacuum when you run a community organization ... and these kids are going to go forward out of here and they’re going to carry their experience with them. It’s just a win-win."
"It’s a big win for us," chimed in Kelsey.
Audiences too can expect to come out ahead as they take in Weston’s production of Christopher Sergel’s stage adaptation of Harper Lee’s important novel.
For many reasons, Ewen said, the Weston Playhouse Theatre Company decided the time was right to present "To Kill a Mockingbird."
"It seemed like it was a good time to do it. America’s pretty divided at least on racial lines. ... Hopefully something like this will remind us that we need to come together," said Ewen. "It’s a seminal American story. It deals with fear. It deals with justice. It deals with racial inequality. It deals with how you treat other people ... and all those things are really human, teachable things."
Those larger lessons are not lost on the young actors.
"I read this book when I was in sixth grade. It’s my favorite book. I love this book," said Isaac.
"Just everything about ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ is so powerful," said Kelsey.
Compassionate and moving, this American masterpiece portraying racial injustice in the deep South will grace the Weston Playhouse stage for the first time.
It is the story of the humble yet brave lawyer, Atticus Finch, who dares to defend a black man accused of raping a white girl in Maycomb, Ala., in 1935. Seen through the eyes of Atticus’ tomboy daughter Scout, the story is loved by millions not only for its focus on social injustice but for its warmth and humor.
The production will feature a small-town Southern neighborhood designed by Blair Mielnik with period costumes by Barbara Bell, lighting by Tony-nominee Ann G. Wrightson, and sound by the Broadway team of Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen. The stage manager is Martin Lechner.
The role of Atticus Finch is played by James Lloyd Reynolds whose credits include lead roles at the country’s top regional theaters and TV appearances on "The Good Wife" and "Law and Order." The supporting cast includes Weston and Broadway veterans Ron Crawford, Christopher Donahue, Thursday Farrar, Susan Haefner, Barbara Lloyd, Munson Hicks, Elizabeth Morton and Amy Van Nostrand.
Performances of "To Kill a Mockingbird" run Aug. 29 - Sept. 7, Tuesdays to Saturdays at 7:30 p.m.; with Wednesday and Saturday matinees at 2 p.m., and matinees on Sundays at 3 p.m.
Performances of the one-act, one-man show "This Blessed Plot" continue at the Rod & Gun Club through Sept. 1. Tickets for both shows can be purchased at the Playhouse Box Office, at 802-824-5288, or at www.westonplayhouse.org.
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