Flying high again

Publication Date: Friday Aug 14, 1998

Flying high again

The Palo Alto Children's Theatre Wingspread company provides 10 rigorous weeks of training and experience for young actors

by Betsy Hunton

The schedule is horrendous, the hours beyond belief, the pressure keeps building, and now they've added a heat wave.

Welcome to the Palo Alto Theatre's Wingspread company, one of the hardest working crews of young actors on the local scene.

The company, for example, produced a version of "Romeo and Juliet" in less than two weeks, often running rehearsals from 10 p.m. to after 1 a.m. because more than half the cast had spent the earlier part of the evening performing in the musical "Evita." The opening performance of the Shakespearean work boasted an outdoor stage so hot from the afternoon sun that the actors had to put cardboard in their shoes to be able to walk on it at all.

For people dressed in floor-length Renaissance costumes made of corduroy, velvet and brocade, it seems a bit much. But, apparently, not too much. Most of the same actors were back Monday night, 7:30 p.m. sharp, to start rehearsing the group's final production of the summer, "West Side Story."

"Romeo and Juliet," mind you, won't be over until today's performance finishes. We're talking about working their third different show in three day's time. Seventeen-year-old Sean MaHoney, back for his second season with the troupe, says: "It's like being on stage and thinking 'What the heck show are we doing now?'" Rehearsals for the next show in line overlap with the troupe's current production all through the 10-week summer season--there isn't any other way to fit them in.

Besides, that's what the 15-year-old group is all about. It's summer stock, possibly the most murderous of all the ways for actors to polish their craft. Common on the the East Coast and the Midwest, there are few other such groups on the Pacific Coast. And possibly none at all quite like Wingspread.

Wingspread is part of the city's justly famed Children's Theatre. Aptly named, it's a group for actors 15 through 24 years of age, the ones who are moving out into the world on their own. (Students as young as 14 who have completed all four levels of the Theatre's Conservatory program are also eligible to audition).

No one, not even a veteran from previous summer seasons, gains entrance to the company except by audition. Once in, they audition again for each separate production. The nature, as well as the size of roles, bounce back and forth.

Laura Smolowe, who will enter Yale in the fall, has won a number of awards for both acting and singing. In "Evita," Smolowe was an anonymous member of the background ensemble, while in "West Side Story," she will sing the demanding lead female role. Conrad Frank, who will start his senior year in a San Francisco high school this fall, is a veteran of seven operas with the San Francisco Opera Company. Frank plays a tottering ancient in "Romeo and Juliet." Hours later, he's a desperate young street tough and lover; "West Side Story's" version of Romeo himself.

"Very few people get the opportunity to play two leads in a row," said Michael Litfin, PACT's assistant director. "We try to balance between what an audience needs and what the performer needs. We are concerned with the development of the person. We don't have stars."

The pressure cooker scheduling is deliberate--a technique of actor training. The members of the troupe, though young, are experienced actors who are expected to take significant responsibility for their own performances. There just isn't time for hand-holding. It's "put-up or shut-up" time.

Litfin, who is co-directing "Romeo and Juliet," seems startled by the comment that it might be a little tough for someone to learn a major role in a Shakespearean tragedy in two week's time. "It never occurred to me," he said. "Nobody would ever whine about it. It's an opportunity." Wingspread, Litfin says, "is deliberately set up to be challenging."

Second-year college student Kieran Chavez, who is committed to a career in theater, is drawn to Wingspread by the challenge.

"To do this at such an early stage definitely gives you a hand up," said Chavez, a four-year veteran of Wingspread. "For example, if somebody pulls out (of a play) with only two weeks' notice, they know that you can step in and handle it.

"Part of the reason I keep doing this is because it is summer stock. You get a lot out of the 10-week rehearsal period. You have to make immediate choices, valid and strong. You have to think on your feet and bring it in."

Although it is not a closed system, many, perhaps most, of the actors come from years of experience in the Children's Theatre system. Jeremy and Jonathan Erman, 21-one-year-old fraternal twins, have been regulars since they were nine. Both are already in the early stages of professional theater careers. Jeremy points out that Wingspread serves as a goal to the younger groups who "aspire" to be in the more sophisticated productions.

The Erman brothers are not alone. Perhaps not surprisingly, a significant number of the company members want to spend their lives in theater. Seventeen-year-old Sophia Dunkin-Hubby, who sang the title role in "Evita," will complete her last performance in "West Side Story" on Aug. 23 and leave for Boston University on Aug. 26, drawn by that school's directing program.

"It was a shock to me when I made that decision; I always thought I'd be a chemist or an engineer," Dunkin-Hubby said.

Arguably the number of embryo theater professionals in Wingspread might suggest that it has veered from the Children's Theatre's basic commitment. Most explicitly, the 61-year-old, city-supported group has maintained that it exists to use the theater experience to develop the participants' growth in personal characteristics like responsibility and self-confidence.

Patricia Briggs, the theater's director for the past 37 years is clear that she's not in the business of creating "child stars." Indeed, a well substantiated rumor has it that she has been known to suggest to over-eager stage mother-types: "Perhaps your child is too talented for us and you should consider taking (him or her) to San Francisco ..."

Not to fear. There are are more than enough members of Wingspread who are like 15-year-old Emily Fry. Active in the Children's Theatre since she was eight, Fry echoes the point made by almost everyone interviewed: "You get to be family." She says she comes to Wingspread "primarily because of the friendships." A career? She couldn't be more certain: "I want to be a vet."

What: Palo Alto Children's Theatre's Wingspread company performs "West Side Story"

When: Aug. 15 and 21-23 at 7:30 p.m.; Aug. 16 at 2:30 p.m.

Where: Palo Alto Children's Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto

How much: Tickets are $4 adults; $2 children.

Information: Call 329-2651 

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