Saturday, August 14, 2010

Why Pea See

I’ve been reading a book about Stagedoor Manor, the famous performing arts camp in upstate New York that was attended by Natalie Portman, Robert Downey, Jr., and a whole bunch of neurotic Manhattanites. In the early pages, I was sold on what a swell spot it is. One camper quote that caught me was, “The camp is like Oz. Your real life is in black and white, but the minute you step off the bus, everything is in color.”

Wow, I thought, I wonder if I could set up a crack lab in the downstairs bathroom so I could raise the $15,000 to send Mary Katherine to this camp next summer.

Then, as I was about halfway through the book, she got a part in a Minneasota Fringe Festival play that was being produced by Youth Performance Company’s Young Artists’ Council. I finished the book while I waited for her at rehearsals, and I began to wonder if Stagedoor Manor was more like Oz than perhaps I’d realized at first – replete with a pill-addled teen who would soon become a boozy train wreck, and perhaps with a scary flying monkey or two thrown in for good measure.

Biding my time and sitting on YPC’s comfy red couch, I read about the highly sophisticated campers who clawed and fought for those juicy Sondheim show roles. One visiting instructor said she had middle schoolers describe themselves as “Kristen Chenowith types” or “Sutton Foster types.” There were many stories about the camp’s lofty industry connections, but after a while, it really began to seem like an industry – grinding out row after row of determined, ambitious stars, and very few whole, good people who just happened to be actors.

I began to compare the descriptions I was reading with what was going on in rehearsals across the hall. The play in which Mary Katherine had been cast, “Semidarkness,” was a parody of “Twilight” that was far from Sondheim and much closer to Looney Tunes. Written by a group of funny and energetic under-21-year-olds, the show was bursting with silliness, satire and plenty of physical comedy.

But more than the material, there was the production process, which was collaborative, inclusive and – have I mentioned this yet? – fun. Mary would bounce out of rehearsals with a glowing face, full of stories of how hard they had worked and how much they had laughed.

This was her first show, and the other cast members were much older than she is, with many heading off to college the week after the show closed. They were not veteran performers by Stagedoor Manor standards – no agents, managers or imdb listings. They’d started hanging around the supremely welcoming environment of Youth Performance Company, then they’d stayed and learned some stuff. Some of them were heart-breakingly talented actors, I thought. As I began to put the names with the faces later, I realized that some of the most talented ones were the very people who had gone out of their way to be kind to Mary Katherine. They were about to leave YPC for college at the end of the summer, but they still took the time to show my middle schooler how it was done. You worked hard. You created something good with your friends. You put on a show.

The results have been on display this week. The show has gotten good reviews (one public radio guy called it “the best of the Fringe,” but then he got the name wrong and called it “Sunny Darkness.” Critics.). The houses have been fairly full, even at odd festival times like 10 p.m. or 4:30 p.m. But more importantly, the cast has worked together to pull off something wonderful and entertaining, no matter what a bunch of old people say. To use an “industry” term, not only is their end product high-quality, but they had a terrific process all along the way. They cherished each other’s company and tried to learn from one another. They enjoyed the ride.

Mary Katherine is determined, for the moment, to pursue a life in theater, so it won’t be long before she understands what a rare thing her experience with this show has been. Perhaps I’ve seen “All About Eve” one too many times, but I have a pretty good idea that she will be shouted at, disrespected, manipulated and double-crossed, probably all before she graduates from high school. She knows now that it won’t be easy, but she’s the only one who can ever decide if it’s worth it. I’m just happy that her start in the “industry” was such a kind and glorious way to begin a career.

1 comment:

  1. My friend Margaret forwarded me the link to your blog. It was fun to read about your daughter's experience in "Semi-Darkness" this summer. My daughter, Madelyne helped to write and direct the show and also came home each night with many good stories to tell about the process. It was her first attempt at writing and her second at directing. YPC is a wonderful launching ground for the many talented actors in the Twin Cities and has been a valuable source for our family. My other daughter spent most of her summer at workshops or at Bay Lake with the YPC folks. We are lucky to have such a nurturing community for what appears to be a fairly cut throat industry.
    Good luck to your daughter!