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November 29, 2005

They can’t fake tears in Reeves Theatre

In October, psychologically challenged and timid, Jonathan Stewart relied on his hand-puppet Hinky Binky to express his suppressed emotions. For several weeks in November, he took on the persona of a mythical ratcatcher, or fantasized he was a British postman. Sometimes, he assumed a German accent and donned a Nazi uniform.

Schizophrenic? Not at all! Stewart was doing what he loves best ─ performing. "All my life I wanted to be an actor,” said Stewart, a junior in the Seton Hill University (SHU) Theatre Program.

A native of Thompson, Pa., Stewart started performing in middle school and hasn’t stopped. This season he played the puppet-loving Millet in Fuddy Meers and multiple roles in Kindertransport. And in the February production of Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, he will play Mark Antony.

In Reeves Theatre, where Stewart and his peers perform, the actors have to be real. “They can’t fake tears,” said Assistant Professor of Theatre Karen Glass. “The audience is too close.”

“We are in an exciting place,” said Theatre Program Director Terry Brino-Dean. “We’re looking forward.” According to Brino-Dean, construction is slated to begin this spring on the University Center for the Arts.

Seton Hill University President JoAnne Boyle displays a model in her office of the proposed complex which will house a flexible, 200-seat theatre.

Glass hopes the new theatre will retain Reeves’ intimacy.

“I am disappointed that I won’t be here to see the new theatre,” said junior Miquel Doby, “but I like the intimacy of Reeves. The audience can see the actors’ expressions.”

Every production starts with the script. In the spring of the previous year, the Play Selection Committee selects four plays.

“First and foremost,” said Brino-Dean, “we consider what the theatre majors need to round out their education.” They then consider the Seton Hill student body and the broader, Greensburg area. “We relate to things that are going on,” said Brino-Dean. “We want the audience to be engaged.”

“The script is the bones of the production,” said Glass. “We study it; evaluate the mood, and decide our production take.” Glass, who oversees lighting design, scours it for mechanics. “What time of day is it? Will people be turning lights on and off?”

Students audition for every show in which they appear. Senior Adrienne Fischer said there’s tension around auditions. “Everything’s up for grabs,” said Fischer. “And everyone wants to do their best.”

“What enables us to overcome the competitiveness is our mutual passion for the theatre,” said sophomore Laura Stracko.

Assistant Professor of Theatre Denise Pullen, surrounded by stacks of scripts and text books, explained that students aren’t required to audition. Sometimes they take a semester off to maintain their grades. Non-theatre majors, she added, can also try out.

Once cast, students spend 30 hours a week rehearsing, which doesn’t include such things as costume fitting or working with a dialect coach.

“The rehearsal is the classroom,” said Pullen. As she directs, she has a good idea of where she wants the actors to stand and gets them started. “It’s collaborative,” said Pullen. “They teach me so much about the character. I learn from them.”

Brino-Dean, who had performed with an improv troupe, said learning lines is just the beginning. “You have to tell the truth on stage. If you don’t, the audience will know it," said Brino-Dean. "Acting is reacting. Acting is improvisation.”

To get into character, Fischer, who played the amnesiac Claire in Fuddy Meers and is cast as Cleopatra opposite Stewart, reads the script as many times as she can. A lot of character development comes from rehearsal. “You rehearse it over and over again,” said Fischer.

“Depending on how sensitive the character is, acting can be stressful at times,” said Jeremy Burkett, a non-theatre major who enjoys performing.

Twenty minutes prior to performing, the actors undergo emotional prep. Fischer listens to music. For the insecure but warm-hearted Claire, she chose Carole King’s “Safe Again” and “Up On the Roof” plus Natalie Merchant’s “Carnival” and “Kind and Generous.”

Doby, Heidi in Fuddy Meers, relates what’s happening in her character’s life to something in her own. “I’m shy,” said Doby. “But when it’s time to go on stage, I let go. I become that person.”

During productions, senior Jamie Williams, who has performed in six productions and assisted in four others, rises early, attends classes, eats, rehearses, and returns to her room. “It’s a real commitment,” said Williams. “It’s like being an athlete. We have that same dedication.”

With the makeup needed to age her plus the physical warm-ups, Williams spent an hour and a half preparing for stroke-victim Gertie in Fuddy Meers. Mastering "stroke talk" was challenging, but Williams fell in love with her character.

Fight director, Shaun Rolly, choreographed the Fuddy Meers’ fight scenes. Adrian Concha, Kenny, said they rehearsed the step-by-step moves in slow motion. Two nights before opening, they sped it up.

During one fight rehearsal, one of the actors suggested it would be funny if Steven Clemens’ character Richard ended up “wearing” a chair. Clemens tried it. Judging by the audience response, it worked.

For Kindertransport, the actors toured the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. “It was very emotional,” said Stewart. “We saw all of the different stories and videos.”

Visiting the Holocaust Museum helped Stracko develop her character Helga. Playing the Jewish mother was a stretch for the young actress. “The good thing about relationships is that they are universal,” said Stracko.

The actors also viewed two documentaries, My Knees Were Jumping; Remembering the Kindertransports and Into the Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport.

The Kindertransport cast worked with a dialect coach. Stracko’s exposure to Pennsylvania Dutch made acquiring her character’s German-Jewish accent fairly simple.

For her portrayal of Evelyn in Kindertransport, sophomore Danielle Nortum “feels” the audience’s emotion. “During a performance things are pretty heightened. Sometimes I can hear them [the audience] crying,” said Nortum.

For his role as Caesar in Antony and Cleopatra, Burkett will research his character, the time period, and the environment. “I identify with the personality of my character by absorbing and becoming it according to the direction of the director,” said Burkett.

The entire production requires team work. “If someone mucks their lines, or if a technician misses a light cue at a crucial point, it affects the entire cast,” said Burkett.

Seton Hill’s appreciation for the arts attracted Stracko, but “the people clinched it. We are like family,” said Stracko.

Doby gets along with the entire cast. “The departments are small,” said Doby. “We get thrown together so much.”

“For me, it’s just being here together each day with my peers and doing this kind of thing,” said Concha.

“We help one another on stage,” said Stewart. “If someone drops a line, you pick it up and go with it.”

“We [actors] are very, very close,” said Fischer.

That camaraderie, said sophomore Darcy Wood, motivated her to return to Seton Hill. After her freshman year, she had transferred to a Chicago university renown for its theatre program. Two weeks into the term, crying and miserable, she came back. “I love this place so much,” said Wood. “Everyone is so welcoming.”

Students, not cast in productions, help in other areas. “We encourage all of the students to have multiple skills,” said Glass.

Doby enjoys behind-the-scenes work such as public relations. She finds directing interesting but challenging. “When you are directing, you have to become every role,” said Doby.

When Fischer’s not rehearsing, she’s painting. The actress, who heads the paint crew, said she takes her painting as seriously as her acting. In the 2004 production "Lysistrata," Fischer, who played Lysistrata, painted during the day and rehearsed in the evening. On one occasion, consumed with painting a huge war mural, she was forced against her will to take a break.

Upon graduation, most of the actors have aspirations to continue in some aspect of theatre.

Clemens, a junior, in addition to his role as Richard in Fuddy Meers, assisted with sound effects for Kindertransport, and will play Domitius Enobarbus in Antony and Cleopatra. Ultimately, Clemens would like to perform on Broadway. “If you don’t shoot for the stars, you will never miss.” If not Broadway, he would like to teach. “I wouldn’t mind coming back and passing on what I know,” said Clemens.

Eventually, Wood would like to be on Broadway, too. “If that doesn’t work out,” said Wood, “I would like to start my own theatre company.”

Fischer, who graduates in May, will stay in Pittsburgh to continue painting and performing. “We have a good cultural district right here in Pittsburgh,” said Fischer.

Stewart intends to spend the summer in Los Angeles where he will move next year after graduation. “My parents are very supportive,” said Stewart.

When Doby graduates, she wants to move to California. If she can’t find work as an actor, she would like to be involved in some aspect of television or films. “I never wanted to be anything else. My mother thought maybe I’d grow out of it. In acting, you can be anything you want,” said Doby.

Posted by NancyGregg at November 29, 2005 9:36 PM