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This is Charles Isherwood’s article in the NY Times:
THE room hummed with excitement. Table hopping was rampant. Warm congratulations and lavish compliments spritzed the air with fizzy good cheer. That secret ingredient that transforms a festive gathering into an electric one — the presence of celebrity — was easily detected.
The opening-night party for a Broadway show after the socko reviews have come in? Bar Centrale, around midnight at the height of the season?
No, it was an Applebee’s here, just after noon on a Wednesday in June.
This particular branch of the restaurant chain, you see, sits on the edge of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. For a week every year the tides of Husker fever that roil the university are stilled, as this sports-crazed campus becomes the world capital of high school drama geekdom. More than 2,000 students from across the country, joined by a sprinkling of foreign visitors and a couple of hundred teachers and chaperones, descend on Lincoln for the International Thespian Festival, an annual extravaganza organized by the Educational Theater Association.
Part summer camp, part summer school, part arts festival and part recruitment fair, the gathering fills the campus with packs of eager young drama freaks, flip-flopping from workshops to auditions to performances to nightly dances, poring over callback lists, gossiping over iced coffee, scurrying off to rehearsals with worn binders of sheet music in hand.
I use the phrase geekdom advisedly if not officially. On sale in the lobby of the Lied Center, the 2,000-seat auditorium where the festival’s biggest productions are staged, are T-shirts with the words “Theatre Geek” emblazoned upon them above masks of tragedy and comedy; these young drama enthusiasts are clearly happy and proud to declare themselves Thespians. (The Thespians are an honor society founded in 1929; the first festival took place in 1941.) And while there were a few students who assertively embrace the geek aesthetic, I saw a plenty of poised, elegant young women in skinny jeans toting designer purses, iPhones clapped to their ears, mascaraed eyes just visible behind big smoky sunglasses. And lots of guys in long shorts and Abercrombie & Fitch T-shirts, hair spiked in gentle fauxhawks.
Throughout the week the boyish Richard LaFleur, the chairman of the International Thespian Officers, even managed to wear the bright yellow sash announcing his office as if it were an Obama button, the coolest accessory in the world.
Attending the festival for a few days as an observer, I was quickly swept up in its strange atmosphere. Just before heading to Applebee’s for a burger, I sat on a bench outside the Lied Center organizing some notes. Nearby a pack of students broke into a spontaneous chorus from a song I recognized.
What was it? Sondheim? Don’t think so. Certainly not Rodgers and Hart or Rodgers and Hammerstein. Could it possibly be Andrew Lloyd Webber? Then it hit me — it was Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody,” the first time in a while I’d heard anyone of any age sing pop or rock, and it was weirdly disorienting. A few minutes later the kids segued into a chorus of “Mr. Cellophane” from “Chicago,” and the world righted itself.
The center of attention at lunch at Applebee’s was a big table of performers from “Hairspray,” the festival’s gala opening-day presentation. They laughed and chattered over Cokes, celebrating a birthday, their energetic interplay infused with the extra exuberance of people who have noticed that they are being noticed.
(A production staged exclusively for the festival, “Hairspray” featured students from all over the country, selected through regional auditions. The rehearsals and a sort of out-of-town tryout took place a week before the festival began at the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley, where the show’s director, Vance Fulkerson, runs the musical theater program.)
At one point Jeff Zicker, the unofficial heartthrob of this year’s festival, who appeared as both Link Larkin in “Hairspray” and Anthony Hope in “Sweeney Todd,” walked past a table of girls, inciting a burst of pandemonium of adoring praise and autograph gathering. “That was insane,” he burbled to the table of kids next to me when he returned, sheepish but also delighted by the attention.
“Hairspray,” with its sweetness and jubilance, not to mention its cast of juvenile characters, seems a natural enough choice for teenagers, although its racially mixed cast could present problems for a lot of schools. But I’m sure some of you are smirking, if not chortling, at the idea of 15- to 18-year-olds tackling the musical mountains of “Sweeney Todd,” not to mention the various British accents, the complex staging, the rampaging gore and ghoulishness.
It is all too easy to take an eye-rolling attitude to the notion of high schoolers playing at being big bad adults in dramatically complex material. Other productions at the festival included the musicals “Rent” and “Little Shop of Horrors” and the plays “Proof,” “The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds,” “Noises Off” and “ ‘Master Harold’ … and the Boys.” But I’d wager that even the editors of The Onion, who recently made wicked sport of preening student actors in a parody of the Tony Awards, would find themselves teary-eyed at some point during the festival.
Heck, I even managed to get choked up during “Sweeney Todd.” (With the exception of “Hairspray” the shows presented at the festival were chosen from actual high school productions vetted throughout the year by representatives from the Educational Theater Association. “Sweeney Todd” came from the Las Vegas Academy, a public performing arts magnet school that regularly sends shows to the festival.)
Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, who wrote the score for “Hairspray,” attended the festival before heading off to China to witness their hit musical’s latest international incarnation. Mr. Shaiman bopped in his seat all through the show’s opening-night performance; Mr. Wittman, himself a former Thespian, was wiping away copious tears at its conclusion. And they’d already seen the matinee.
“This is what the movie and the show are all about,” Mr. Wittman said later. “John Waters would love the idea that the high school kid who always used to play Bud Frump gets to be the star, and the girl who was always stuck in the best friend role is the heroine.”
The next day they sprinkled some stardust the students’ way by sharing stories of real-life showbiz at a Q.&A. Then midway through the session Mr. Shaiman happened to notice that a voice-mail message had come in from their friend Patti LuPone. Giving the students an extra thrill to take home, he returned the call and had the class shout out a big hello to Ms. LuPone. Giddy whispers ran round the room.
The list of more than 120 workshops offered indicates the breadth and depth of the students’ interests and the festival’s scope. A small sampling includes Fun With Dialects, Creating Believable Stage Villains, Power Auditioning, Understanding Belting Techniques, Basic Unarmed Stage Combat and Period Hatmaking. They are taught by a mixture of high school teachers, college professors and theater professionals.
I suspected that the more career-oriented choices might be more popular than those devoted to developing technique, but there was nary a seat to spare in the classroom hosting Acting Shakespeare for Real. About 30 students — including an ethnically mixed table of kids who’d traveled 35 hours by bus from Los Angeles — worked their way through samples of verse from “Measure for Measure” and “The Taming of the Shrew.” The instructor led them through the process of finding the meaning in the language through the emotion underneath it.
The students were not the only ones advancing their educations this year. The songs chosen by the musical theater students were a revelation to me, both inspiring and a little humbling. Watching some auditions for the individual showcases at the end of the festival and attending a couple of vocal workshops, I expected to hear a lot of classic repertoire — Sondheim, Kander and Ebb, Rodgers and Hammerstein.
Instead I heard three songs from Jason Robert Brown’s “Last Five Years,” one more from his “Parade.” I heard a song from “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” and another from “Spring Awakening.” O.K., those two are popular hits. But I also heard a selection from Andrew Lippa’s “Wild Party,” a complex soliloquy from “Caroline, or Change,” a comic romp from “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels,” a ballad from Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens’s “Dessa Rose” and a number from “The Wedding Singer.” (How does a girl from Missouri even obtain sheet music for “The Wedding Singer”?)
The assumption that the American musical theater canon is unofficially protected for posterity by critics in New York thus crumbled into dust. Many of these shows received mixed or negative reviews and had limited runs on or off Broadway. Show-tune-crazed students across the country, it is clear, have their own opinions. For them the American musical theater is not a carefully edited collection of golden oldies but a living organism, and the newest shows are a primary source of their excited devotion to performing.
At the end of the week the festival also presents staged readings of short plays written by students. Chosen through a competition before the festival begins, the four plays are cast and rehearsed at the festival. I sat in on a couple of rehearsals, watching the young playwrights seeing their words leaping to life before their eyes. At one point I thought I might be witnessing a writer’s first disillusioning encounter with a domineering director. Luke Slattery, of the Colorado Academy in Denver, looked on with an ambiguous expression as the director of his play, a Holocaust-theme drama called “Icarus,” had the actors run through a “sensory exercise” involving two actresses making small talk while one cowered under a table and the other peered at her through a wall of paper. But when the exercise concluded — and at last the attention turned to Mr. Slattery’s words — he expressed satisfaction at the result: “That was amazing!”
Mr. Slattery’s amazement was nothing compared to my stupefaction at the emotional depth and professional polish of the production of Athol Fugard’s “ ‘Master Harold’ … and the Boys,” which came from the private Westminster School in Atlanta. I practically crawled from the Lied Center after the 10 a.m. staging ended, so moved was I by the performances of James Franch, Omar Ingram and Hampton Fluker in Mr. Fugard’s drama about the complex relationship between a white South African adolescent and the black workers in his parents’ cafe. It took me a full hour to recover, with the assistance of an Applebee’s margarita. (Not recommended, by the way; an olive bobbed in mine.)
Eric Brannen, the drama teacher who directed “Master Harold” and runs the drama program at the Westminster School, has sent 11 productions to the festival over the last 20 years, including such rarefied fare as “Tartuffe” and Tom Stoppard’s “Arcadia.” (Block that smirk, please.) He is also a former president of the Educational Theater Association.
The cast members had been working on the production for a year, and their research included a trip to California to interview Mr. Fugard, video excerpts of which were screened before the show. I sat down with Mr. Brannen and his actors a couple hours after the performance, curious to hear about their future plans and how they came by their interest in theater.
The taciturn Mr. Ingram, who has a special interest in dance, has already choreographed several shows for his school. He heads to Howard University in the fall as a musical-theater major. Mr. Franch, 13, comes from a family of amateur actors and can already speak with an intuitive intelligence about the particular appeal of live theater. “It’s more personal,” he said. “You’re there with everyone, and you feed off the energy of the audience.”
Although he is just 17, Mr. Fluker has had to make significant sacrifices to pursue what he has come to see as his “calling.” He was a star of the football team, scoring 17 points in one memorable game, but abandoned the sport last year when he came to realize that he couldn’t achieve what he wanted to as an actor if his focus was divided. (His other recent roles have included Coalhouse Walker in “Ragtime” and Othello; it’s a testament to the power of his performance in Mr. Fugard’s play that I can honestly say I wish I could have seen this 17-year-old’s Othello.)
The football coach was not pleased. He instigated a frantic campaign to get Mr. Fluker to change his mind. “Eventually I had to get the headmaster to call him off,” Mr. Brannen recalled.
How did Mr. Fluker make the decision?
He seems to have considered the question in some depth. Evincing the wisdom of someone who has not just taken to the particular thrill of performing but is also beginning to understand the profound influence of art, Mr. Fluker answered, “You’re never going to change someone’s perception of the world by running a football.”
Amen to that. Spoken like a true Thespian. Theater geeks rock!
source: this is Charles Isherwood’s article in the NY Times on Sunday July 13, 2008. www.nytimes.com
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