For more than a century, Upper School Drama has put on one mesmerizing production after the next. This year is certainly no exception.
Staying true to the famous adage “the show must go on,” Drama teacher Robert Thaxton-Stevenson saw these unusual days as an opportunity to reimagine the play development process.
“One of the greatest rewards has been fostering the creative space where we can experiment and devise original work,” explained Mr. Thaxton-Stevenson, who is directing the fall play. “We’ve grown closer as an ensemble by exploring fundamental questions of performance in the time of COVID.”
To galvanize the cast, Mr. Thaxton-Stevenson brought in Tanya Everett*, a celebrated writer and actor whose plays have been performed in many Off and Off-off Broadway venues, including the Public, Cherry Lane and HERE Arts Center.
A warm, accessible artist, Ms. Everett brainstormed and collaborated with the students and Mr. Thaxton-Stevenson to write and revise “Speechies,” a unique work-in-progress that will be performed live on Zoom later this week.
The relatable play centers around a competitive high school speech team. Because of a pandemic, team members must practice on Zoom for their first-ever virtual competition. “Speechies” is also about navigating the complexities of growing up.
In real life, the cast auditioned and began rehearsals virtually. Then, when 100 East End Avenue re-opened, they pivoted to a hybrid plan, with some students, in physically distant groupings, working in the Black Box Theater and others joining remotely.
The students also had the chance to rehearse in-person when they gathered in Central Park on a recent and especially mild Saturday afternoon. Spread out on the lawn, the actors warmed up and ran through their scenes, while practicing appropriate safety protocols. It was the first time the cast and crew had been together as a full ensemble, and their excitement was palpable. The encounter also helped Ms. Everett solidify the show’s themes.
“When I was able to meet the students in Central Park, I saw them play theater games with such enthusiasm,” Ms. Everett noted. “And it really just hit home – so much of their lives has been changed, and yet, this production is something that managed to survive the pandemic, albeit virtually.”
During another rehearsal, the students logged in from their homes, where they will be during the actual performances. From their spots on the Zoom screen, they took turns fine-tuning lines and making various adjustments, guided by Mr. Thaxton-Stevenson. They supported each other throughout. “That was really nice,” one student praised a fellow actor. “Keep it up!”
Mr. Thaxton-Stevenson also talked about unexpected obstacles a virtual production might present, like maintaining volume control, producing special effects, and illuminating the actors, which in this case will be accomplished by portable lamps secured to the top of each person’s laptop.
After a quick break, Ms. Everett joined the rehearsal. Connecting easily with the students, she responded thoughtfully to their questions and suggestions, making it clear that this remarkable play is very much a shared undertaking. Ms. Everett, who is continuing to make last-minute tweaks to the piece, has been impressed with the students’ dedication and courage.
“The ensemble has such a strong spirit and such beauty both as individuals and also as a collective,” she said. “It’s been a true honor to work with them.”
Added Mr. Thaxton-Stevenson, “Despite the challenges, the cast has come together with incredible energy and resilience to give life to this exciting and timely new play.”
Without question, the actors are also embracing this extraordinary process in myriad ways. “Carrying it out virtually has been a unique experience that has allowed for serious bonding, especially in breakout rooms,” commented one cast member. “It’s been so amazing to get to work with the playwright and see the work we’ve done as a cast translated into the final product.”
The ensemble of “Speechies” is eager to bring their imaginative work-in-progress to the Chapin community. We wish the cast and crew the best of luck!
Performances are free and registration is required. The dates are:
Manha Awais (Class 9) - “Santa Fe”
Khushi Bhutra (Class 9) - “Newark”
Annabelle Borsanyi (Class 8) - “Boston”
Lilah Gorfain (Class 10) - “Paris”
Kiera Hackett (Class 10) - “Bayou”
Mathilda Hirschhorn (Class 9) - “Berlin”
Summer Love (Class 8) - “Rochelle”
Leia Mitwalli (Class 8) - “Austin”
Alex Nuñez (Class 12) - “Texas”
Jamie Vera (Class 10) - “DC”
Tallulah León (Class 12) - Tech Crew
Jamie Vera (Class 10) - Logo Designer
Robert Thaxton-Stevenson, Director
Tanya Everett, Playwright & Co-Facilitator
*About the Playwright
Tanya Everett moved from Massachusetts to Brooklyn to pursue her career as a writer and an actor. Her plays have been performed in Off and Off-off Broadway venues including the Public, Cherry Lane, HERE Arts Center, TheaterLab, Kraine, Cherry Pit and the Tank. Her play “And The Gods Walk Among Us” was named semi-finalist for the Princess Grace Award and finalist for the Lark Development Week. Her play, “A Dead Black Man,” was a finalist for the Dramatist Guild Fellowship in 2019.
A recent graduate of Brooklyn College’s playwrighting master’s program, Ms. Everett won the AAUW Career Development Grant, the Truman Capote Scholarship and the 2018 MFA in Playwriting Awards. She was named an alternate for the Djerassi Resident Artist Program in California. Some of her teachers and mentors include Stephen Adley Guirgis, Ellen McLaughlin, Maggie Flanigan and Julia Jordan.
As an actor, Ms. Everett starred in the short “One Sweet Night,” opposite J.D. Williams. She received a rave in “The New York Times” for her performance of Antonia, opposite Ron Cephas Jones in Classical Theater of Harlem’s “The Tempest.” When she is neither acting nor writing, Ms. Everett enjoys homemade food, live performances, working with youth and communing with artistic spirits.