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Youth dive into stage experience

Something magical happens when the actors and the audience connect.
tnw-charles
Bradley Charles.

My first experience of seeing live theatre on a professional scale was a school field trip. I remember watching the actors lay on their backs as their characters spoke about their dreams and who they wanted to be. I was very young, and I only remember a few moments and images, but I can very clearly recall how I felt. The show was something about Jerry Lee Lewis and I remember the sign on the door warning that they would smoke real fake cigarettes on stage. It was a completely new experience; I was engaged and excited and it smelled almost like a campfire. This was a new kind of storytelling, and it was way better than Saturday morning cartoons! The story was really happening right there, right in front of me and my classmates.

Well, now that I'm somebody resembling a grown-up, I work in the theatre full-time; I'm an artistic associate and technician at Theatre Northwest. Clearly my first trip to the theatre made a big impact on me. As such, I have an appreciation for students who come to our shows on a field trip. Now, I'll let you in on a little secret: for those of us who work in this crazy theatre world, student matinees are high stakes gambling. For the artists on stage, it can be nerve-wracking, and you never know what's going to happen. Will they understand it? Will they enjoy it? It’s almost always fine, kids are smarter than we assume but they're terribly honest. Sometimes, however, it’s the show that reminds you why you got into this business in the first place. In mid-December a group of students came to see The Marvelous Wonderettes and we weren’t prepared for what happened next.

If you didn’t catch the show, The Marvelous Wonderettes by Roger Bean, is a jukebox musical with a live band and four incredibly talented actors playing a girl group performing at their high school prom in 1958. In the second act, it’s their 10-year reunion in 1968. It's a hit parade with incredibly real, hilarious, and heartwarming moments of storytelling throughout.

Now imagine you're in high school or junior high; the last couple of years have been turbulent and uncertain. You go on a field trip to see this high energy, full package show with music, dancing, and even some audience participation. This group of students understood the assignment. Not only did they cheer and clap for the songs, they understood the characters. First, Missy (Becca Thackray) sings about her secret crush, and surprise, it’s their teacher, Mr. Lee! Normally we’d choose a random audience member to play Mr. Lee, and hopefully he would play along. It’s silly fun, and it invites the rest of the audience to join in. For the students, we obviously chose their teacher, and when it was revealed, they howled with laughter. In the first act, Betty Jean (Maggie Trepanier) and Cindy Lou (Shelby Meaney) are best friends having a messy conflict throughout the songs. When it came time to vote for which character would be the prom queen, Cindy Lou (the mean one) did her bit, expecting the usual polite pattering of applause and got complete silence. Betty Jean went next and they absolutely roared with applause. It turned out, this was not a simple falling out, we had a hero and a villain! Discoveries like this continued and the show found new depths.

Something magical happens when the actors and the audience connect like that. In the process of creating the show we inevitably get so intimate with the story that we see it differently from the audience and rarely get the chance to learn about those differences. Live performance is an exchange of energy. During every moment, the audience’s response informs the energy of what comes next. Those students were so present and engaged that the actors discovered the story from the audience's perspective, and it made for a richer experience for every audience afterward. So, next time you find yourself sitting in our theatre, I invite you to enjoy yourself with the enthusiasm of those kids. Afterall, theatre is supposed to be fun – that’s why it’s called a play.

Bradley Charles is a Prince George based actor, director, writer, and producer of theatre and film.