Last weekend, "Body of Water" opened at the Southside Theater at Fort Mason in San Francisco. The opening string of performances were attended by critics and theater lovers curious to see the new "anti-musical" by Palo Alto company, A Theatre Near U. The original production, about a group of civil war refugees hiding in a cabin in the wilderness, was a year in the making. Director, Tony Kienitz and his wife, Tanna Herr, co-founders of A Theatre Near U, worked hard with their actors to develop the script, tailoring specific parts to fit each of the actors' idiosyncrasies and mannerisms, even taking notes from the cast.
None of this is unheard of. Launching a professional, original stage production isn't easy. It takes time to refine and get just right. What's unusual is the age of the actors in this particular production. The oldest is 18 and the youngest is barely a teenager. According to Kienitz, kids that age simply don't get to work on theater productions this intense very often, if at all.
"There are young actor workshops all over the place," Kienitz says. "But I think the depth that we did this is unique. And I'm proud of that."
According to Kienitz, A Theatre Near U is meant to "introduce kids to a higher level of acting." That meant the teenage actors, many of them from Palo Alto, often spent hours going over just a few lines of dialog, trying variations on the script and testing out different inflections. The actors were given some agency in the script as well -- giving Kienitz and Herr notes on how they felt comfortable saying their lines. And, like any director of a professional production, Kienitz pushed his actors hard.
He makes no effort to sugar coat it, saying he even encouraged them to compare themselves to adults, with years more experience on stage than they have. Kienitz isn't worried that it might be too much pressure to place on his young actors.
The way he sees it, his kids need to be pushing themselves, and they should be feeling pressure. The cast that he and his wife recruited for the company's first play, "Body of Water," are all highly skilled, very bright, and many of them have aspirations to be professional actors when they grow up. Kienitz says that if he were to only compare them to their peers in other local youth theater groups, "then the issue is they never have to stretch. It's kind of like the award-for-participating joke. 'I got a medal because I was on the soccer team, not because I did anything.'" If they want to reach the upper echelons of their field one day, "they should try to be at that level," Kienitz says.
Especially considering how hard it can be to get into a top acting program or earn a spot in a professional production. According to Kienitz, just a few B grades in high school -- even in an Advanced Placement course can rule someone out of the running for some of the most prestigious theater schools, such as Yale.
A Theater Near U is about giving serious young actors options, Kienitz says. "It's harder and harder every year to have your options be real."
It's something the teens in "A Body of Water" seem to appreciate.
"I would love to be a professional actor," says Elizabeth McCole, a 17-year-old from Palo Alto, who plays the character of Cole in "A Body of Water."
McCole has been acting since a sports injury pushed her out of sports and into drama in the fourth grade. McCole has worked with Palo Alto Children's Theatre and starred in Palo Alto High School productions. But, she says, she's never experienced anything like what she encountered at A Theatre Near U. "I think this has helped me so much to see how much work it really does take and how rewarding it can be."
Aaron Slipper, a recent Paly graduate, plays the character of Bosh in "Body of Water." Though he doesn't plan to pursue acting professionally, he says he will stick with it as a hobby and believes that those like McCole who aim to make a career on stage will have a leg up with A Theatre Near U on their resumes.
And that's not only because the show is getting favorable reviews from critics. According to Slipper, working with Kienitz and Herr, he and the rest of the actors were exposed to plenty of pro tips from the Theatre Near U founders -- both of whom have worked professionally on stage and in film.
One that sticks out for Slipper is to "never underestimate the importance of the voice."
"There are plenty of good looking people out there," he recalls being told by Kienitz at one point. Having an interesting and powerful voice helps set actors apart. Receiving tips like these and others, Slipper says he felt like he was being let in on industry secrets. "It's an inside scoop that you really wouldn't get" in high school, he says.
Theatre Near U's youngest star, Shayan Hooshmand, a 13-year-old who lives in Los Altos Hills and attends Terman Middle School in Palo Alto, says that he has learned a great deal from Kienitz and Herr. But that's not all. Being in a play with a hand picked cast of great actors was just as important, he explains.
"Here at Theatre Near U, everyone is so dedicated and passionate," Hooshmand says. All that dedication and passion is contagious, which is good, because the idea of performing in a professional theater in San Francisco was quite an intimidating prospect at first, he adds.
"It was scary at first to go to San Francisco and perform for critics and the public," Hooshmand says. Fortunately, he and his fellow actors helped lift each other up when they were down or having doubts. "We're all really close. We all help each other. ... I think it makes a huge difference in the quality of our performances."
Another secret to this production, according to Kienitz, is that all the characters are teens.
The play opens as the group of young men and women rendezvous at a cabin in the woods. They've come there at the instruction of their parents, who have gone missing. The plan is to sit tight and wait for the adults to arrive, but they never do. "Body of Water" is about what the teens do as they slowly come to realize that they may have to make it on their own, without the help of their mothers and fathers.
Kienitz says he believes that making his characters all the same age as the actors playing them makes for a more authentic performance. Though plenty of the teens have played adults in other productions, Kienitz insists that a child could never truly play an adult the way an adult could. "How do you explain to them a 40-year-old's perspective?" he asks. "You have nothing to draw on."
But in "Body of Water," the actors have plenty to draw on. At least, Kienitz says, they can try to imagine what it would be like if their parents were to disappear one day and they had to figure out a way to survive on their own.
Much of the play is set to music, all of it created by Portland-based singer and songwriter Jim Walker.
Slipper describes the songs chosen for "Body of Water" as all having a jarring effect, as Walker frequently juxtaposes bright and shining musical phrases against dark lyrics, such as in "Love Shining Through," which Slipper explains sounds "sentimental and romantic," but is really about "torture and intolerance and persecution."
Slipper and the rest of the cast are all excited for the remainder of the production, which shows Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays for two more weekends.
"It has been extremely exhilarating and extremely new and an experience I very much cherish," Slipper says, noting he's gotten to meet people he never would have met, explore a character at a depth he never would have been able to otherwise and experience things, such as some "amazing" choreography, that he likely wouldn't have engaged in if he hadn't been asked to join the cast of "Body of Water." "It's an honor to be a part of A Theatre Near U, it really is."