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Eugene Weekly : Feature : 3.4.2010

 

Herding Cats

Making 87 kids, and a dog or two, into one big Annie family

by Suzi Steffen

Little cheeks, little cheeks, everything around me is little. … I’d have cracked years ago if it weren’t for  my sense of humor. — ‘Little Girls’

Annie (Asa Clevenger, with locket) and four principal orphans. Photo by Todd Cooper
‘It’s the Hard Knock Life,’ with Eularee Smith directing from the floor. Photo by Trask Bedortha
Above: Taylor Doble, Cast B Ms. Hannigan, with some of the principal orphans. Below: Jaya Rowelle, Cast B Annie; Asa Clevenger, Cast A Annie, with the new Sandy; Aidan Ziegler, Sadie Waddell and Diamond Huynh, (Cast A Rooster, Ms. Hannigan and Lily); Cooper Criswell (Bert Healy) and Hazel Herring (Ickes); ‘It’s the Hard-Knock Life.’ Photos by Todd Cooper

The lights blink up in rhythm with the music. “Keep your head DOWN!” one of the directors says to the girls on stage. “You’re not supposed to be awake yet!” One of the littlest orphans keeps looking out into the dress rehearsal audience for her mom.

 “We’re having trouble with the sound!” yells Sarah Beth Byrum, Upstart Crow Studios’ artistic director and the co-director (and choreographer) for Annie. She’s upstairs in the light and sound board room, and she has to yell to be heard over the 20-piece orchestra, playing from the walkway overhang. The musicians and instruments, including two keyboards and a drum set, packed themselves up there earlier today, and music director Timothy Wilcox stands at a slit in the black acoustic curtain covering the space, his eyes on the stage.

Backstage, one girl bounces between older groups of kids. This is the kid whom executive director and Annie co-director Eularee Smith calls “the loose cannon of this production, the kid the word ADD was invented for.” 

Cast B Annie (Jaya Rowelle) has pneumonia, and so does her brother Devon, who was in both casts. Cast A Annie (Asa Clevenger) steps into Jaya’s spot, and Smith’s grandson Coleman is filling in for Devon — starting with tonight’s dress/tech rehearsal. Cast A Ms. Hannigan (Sadie Waddell) also has some kind of creeping crud, so Cast B Ms. Hannigan (Taylor Doble) is filling in. Oh, and the original Sandy dog has been replaced too.

The little kids who sing during scene changes crowd the hallway behind the auditorium, their parents and their choreographer Jackie Stollar, attempting to keep them quiet and focused on what’s happening way up there on the stage.

This is the first dress and tech rehearsal for Upstart Crow’s Annie, which opens Friday, March 5 and runs through Saturday, March 13. The chaotic scene, more than one parent assures the embedded journalist, will resolve, and everything will come together. “It will be great!”



I love ya, tomorrow; you’re always a day away. — ‘Tomorrow’

The process began back in December, when Smith auditioned more than 80 kids for this production. “I don’t bite, most days,” she says to the first five on stage.

After the first five, the intercom buzzes. “There are more than 49 kids signed up to audition, and it’s not even 6:30 yet,” says office staffer Chris Masterson. “OK, send back eight at a time instead of five!” Smith yells. Then she adds, “Is there wine in the fridge?”

Because Upstart Crow casts everyone who auditions, there are few theater parents with ultra-groomed kids. Still, some little girls have perfect velvet dresses on; some, with red hair, have bows, and some have clearly taken acting, dancing or singing classes. But not all of them.

“I need a little more volume from you,” Smith says. “You gotta talk as if you’re talking to the deaf guy in the back row.” 

One little girl holding a script says, “I can’t wead!”

Smith says, “You know what? That’s just not a problem around here!” She says the lines, and the girl repeats them. Quietly.

A tiny 5-year-old girl isn’t sure she wants to audition, and the process, with all of the other kids on stage, makes her cry. Suddenly, there’s Byrum to take her to the side of the stage and ask her questions about her favorite animal.

By the end of the auditions, Smith and Byrum will have seen something nearing 90 kids. Though some adults originally want to play Daddy Warbucks and FDR, they get replaced by high school students as time goes on. The teenage Daddy Warbucks recruit, Nick Knight Meigs, is cast in Romeo and Juliet at the same time and has to miss some Annie rehearsal. In addition, he seriously doesn’t want to let go of his long hair, but Daddy Warbucks is bald. Eventually, there’s a rumor of an auction in which the winner gets to shave Nick’s head.



You don’t get there by playing from the rule book. — ‘Easy Street’

At the first rehearsal in January, Smith stands at the front of the stage, with nearly 150 people packed into the room in front of her — kids, their parents and many siblings. 

“Every child that comes to us is important, and every child is celebrated. Their role may be small, but their voice is mighty,” she says. “We have what we call the vision of respect. No one is bullying; everyone is supportive.”

But woe betide the kid who thinks she can tell other kids on stage what to do. “When Eularee says something, you have to do it. I don’t want to hear argument. Typically what I do is I hold up a poster and I say, ‘Oh, wait, I’m the director, not you.’”

Smith lays down other laws: No texting, no food, no drinks, no computers, no talking; nothing but homework or scripts; no talking; pay attention to what’s happening on stage.

Later, the stage erupts with kids learning upstage, downstage, stage left and stage right. For the little ones who don’t know left from right, Smith, Byrum and Stollar have a long, uphill climb.



The world was my oyster, but where was my pearl? — ‘Something Was Missing’

Eight weeks later, at dress rehearsal, smiling parents whip out expensive camera equipment and start shooting. 

Smith used to teach in various Talented and Gifted, or TAG, programs. But she got frustrated. “I believe all children are talented and gifted, and unless we give them the opportunity and the resources, how are they going to know?” she says. The point of Upstart Crow is to take any kid and help him or her find talents, find focus, find a way to feel like part of a group. 

Byrum says that the camaraderie among the cast is “just as important to us as a final product. It’s more important to us that the kids love and support each other than that the scenes be perfect.”

Of course some of the kids haven’t integrated completely with each other, but even the ones who hung back early on have started to come forward, into the light. The girl who cried hangs out with the other kids and looks comfortable on stage. Asa takes a bit of a leadership role, as any Annie should. Nick, the late addition as Daddy Warbucks, appears to be mostly off-book, and his singing makes up for some shaky memorization. After the rehearsal, Smith decides he did such a great job that he doesn’t have to go completely bald; he’ll have more like a military cut.

Smith carries the publicity poster to the stage a couple of times to remind the cast who’s directing the show. Every few minutes, Byrum or Smith reminds the actors to be louder.

Upstart Crow is in the running for a Pepsi Refresh grant this month (see the voting at http://tinyurl.com/yzoo3ad), which would add mics and let them hang a curtain. In the meantime, the best the directors can do is remind the cast to be loud and hope it sinks in.

“We coach them, and then we let it fly,” Smith says. “We say, ‘We know you’re not going to Broadway. Here is your home. Here is where your voice can be heard.’”

Annie

Upstart Crow Studios, 855 W.1st Ave., Eugene

7 pm Friday, March 5: Cast B

7 pm Saturday, March 6: Cast A

2 pm Sunday, March 7: Cast B

Wildish Theater, 630 Main St., Springfield

7 pm Friday, March 12: Cast A

2 pm Saturday, March 13: Cast B

7 pm Saturday, March 13: Cast A

$10 tix at upstartcrowstudios.com or 541-688-8260

 

At EW! A Blog, more specifically at http://wkly.ws/e4, find posts with videos, photos and live blog replays from the entire process, including a new essay about watching Annie as an adult and more on the adults involved with the play. Parents, kids and friends can submit photos or video for the blog by emailing them to suzi at eugeneweekly.com. After this weekend, there will also be a longer video with snippets from the entire process. Look for Twitter postings at http://wkly.ws/e5 (add your own tweets using the hashtag #theroadtoAnnie).