The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, January 9, 2009


Seventh graders sing, dance and act in auditions for Into the Woods, Jr.

In the theater world, the “triple threat” is the performer who can act, sing and dance with fairly equal skill. Broadway is replete with these talented people, and some have achieved the status of Hollywood celebrities.

The road to triple-threat talent is long and arduous. For some, however, it just may begin with a lighthearted annual children’s musical production known as the Carlisle Public School seventh-grade play.

Preparing for auditions

Just before Christmas, in the midst of our first major snowstorm of the school year, students in Grade 7 attended pre-audition workshops to help them understand the requirements of performing before a team of judges who would help to cast this year’s musical production, Into the Woods, Jr. They were given a general idea of the show’s story line and they familiarized themselves with some dance steps, excerpts from the vocal score, and four scenes from the script. They also learned some general principles of auditioning and requirements that apply specifically to Carlisle’s annual play. They would be divided into groups of about six and would travel between the drama team, the choreographic team and the music director. Each of the judging teams would evaluate their performances of the material they had been given in the workshops. Every student would sing, dance, and read. Students were not to worry if their names did not appear on the “callback” list. Callbacks are used to gain more information from students and to compare student talent that may not have been fully evident during auditions, not to indicate which students are being considered for major roles.

Students were also asked to consider carefully how much time they can apportion to rehearsals and preparation, to let the directors know what roles they might like to play and to understand that all of this information is used to establish the most effective cast for the show.

The three-ring circus

I judged the dramatic readings with Drama Director Elizabeth Gutterman. Gutterman is a first-grade teacher with experience in repertory theater as an actress and director. I have logged a quarter century of training actors and directing educational theater programs, and we found that our viewpoints dovetailed beautifully.

Theater offers students a variety of new ways to learn to think, analyze, behave and view their own world, and both of us were excited by the process of introducing students to these principles. My part in this production was limited to assisting the directors’ casting choices with close observation and analysis of student abilities and potential, but Gutterman relishes the opportunity to help develop emerging student talent as the musical takes shape.

And the talent is there to be mined. Parent producers Joan Konuk and Janet Hentschel organized the kids into groups of six and conducted them to the three audition stations around Corey Auditorium. The auditorium looked more than a little like a three-ring circus. An audience would have been treated to dancers stepping lively to music from the score played on a CD, actors earnestly trying to flesh a character out of a few lines of dialogue and singers moving outside the doors to vocalize around a piano. Like a three-ring circus, the scene was full of sound and action, but it was also contained and structured.

It’s all about attitude

and concentration

The situation required and received an extraordinary amount of concentration from the students. There were standouts, of course, in all three disciplines, but more importantly, there were a great number of seventh-graders who could hold their own in more than one area, and even some nascent triple threats. Gutterman and I tried to give students ideas about each character to suggest with their voices and heads as they read, so that they would not be too hampered by holding the scripts. What was immediately evident was that the workshops had prepared the students well emotionally: they were calm, focused, attentive, responsive and supportive of their peers, and that is half the battle right there.

Every role is vital

Because the parents moved the kids efficiently from one station to the next, I could only glimpse the singing and dancing auditions. However, at the end of each of the two days, all the judges sat in conference to compare notes and try to find good “fits” for each student and each role.

Leading roles in this particular play depend heavily on singing ability: the complex and challenging music is by Stephen Sondheim. Some also require equal skill in acting. Dancing is sprinkled throughout: even the trees of the woods will move, as they will be interpreted by student dancers.

The directors, of course, are charged with using a deep pool of student talent in creative ways (as in a forest of dancing trees) in order to feature individual students and to build teamwork skills, concentration and self-reliance. Some students will have leading roles. Others will perform specific “business” tasks built into the show to manage onstage props and scene changes, and others will provide background pictures as villager-chorus members.

The students learn that these roles are as vital as the leading ones: chorus and business parts direct the audience’s attention and move and pace the show. They are difficult and subtle, because the audience unconsciously depends upon them to interpret the action and emotion of the characters; in effect, they bring the audience into the action.

The famous theatrical dictum, “there are no small actors, only small parts,” certainly applies to the seventh-grade play. It takes a big actor to make a small part count, so there will be plenty of challenge for every performer and much to be learned about working with others, thinking resourcefully on your feet, mastering the music and dances and taking direction.

Along with the potential for some triple threats, the combinations of talent in the auditions showed me that all of these seventh-graders are well on their way to learning these skills and more, and that Into the Woods, Jr. is going to be one of this winter’s “be there” events.

Performances are Tuesday, February 10 at 3:30 p.m., and Wednesday and Thursday, February 11 and 12 at 7:30 p.m. in Corey Auditorium. ∆

© 2009 The Carlisle Mosquito