Tapping Into Local Talent: Southern VT youths light up Weston stage

By David Lampe-Wilson

The theater is often referred to as “the fabulous invalid.” But it hangs on through an ongoing infusion of  new audiences and new artists. What keeps theater alive and kicking – at least in Weston, VT – is its closeness to the community, says Steve Stettler, a producing director with Weston Playhouse.  “Historically, Weston Playhouse has deep connections with the community… and we are really dedicated to working with and training local youth.”

Leah Cunningham of Chester, left, and Devin Johnson of Manchester, in a scene from '42nd Street.'//Photo by Tim Fort.

Leah Cunningham of Chester, left, and Devin Johnson of Manchester, in a scene from ’42nd Street.’//Photo by Tim Fort.

For the next few weeks, five local youths can be seen on stage at the Weston Playhouse. Two young adults – from Chester and Manchester – are dancing and singing across the stage in the musical 42nd Street. And later this month, three kids – from Putney, Rutland Town and Guilford – are taking on the major children’s roles in Harper Lee’s classic story To Kill a Mockingbird.

Stettler cites his own early connections with Weston Playhouse, and Weston’s Young Company, which is made up of recruited college students who perform musical adaptations of popular children’s books, help fill out the casts of each main stage show and perform in the after-show cabarets.

He also supports programs like Weston’s Young Playwrights Project, which helps high school students write one-act plays under the guidance of a guest artist, and the Student Ambassador Program, which gives high schoolers the opportunity to attend the playhouse shows free as well as offering them an insider’s look at the evolution of a professional production, from script read-throughs, backstage tours, technical rehearsals, actor/director talk backs and more.

To fill the roles of young cast members, Weston Playhouse throws out a wide net, checking in with other theater professionals and state youth theaters to discover the most suitable performers available.

“We look for kids with unique skills for their age,” says Stettler. “We are aware that there are a number of local youths who are engaged in the theater and are very responsible. Leah Cunningham (one of the dancers in 42nd Street) is (also) part of our Student Ambassador Program.”

We look for kids with unique skills for their age. We are aware that there are a number of local youths who are engaged in the theater and are very responsible.
Steve Stettler
producing director
The Weston Playhouse

In fact, Cunningham*, a Chester resident and Green Mountain Union High School senior, made her debut on the Weston stage in 2007 as one of the King’s children and the Buddha in The King and I. She’s been dancing since she was 3 — taking lessons in Rutland — as well as performing with the Opera Theatre of Weston.

Cunningham, now 17, says that, as in years past, she hopes to perform in her high school drama and musical this coming year. “I’m very dedicated to the theater [in high school] and the kids really inspire me. Theater has been my main focus ever since I was in The King and I when I was 10,” she says.  Along with school and dance classes, she holds down a part-time job at Lisai’s grocery in Chester.

After she graduates from high school, Cunningham says she wants to attend college to study business for the arts and eventually join the Peace Corps, where she hopes she can influence people around the world through theater.

Devin Johnson, a Burr and Burton graduate from Manchester, is also in the 42nd Street chorus and, at age 22, has already performed at the Merry-Go-Round Playhouse in Auburn, N.Y., and the Surflight Theatre in New Jersey. “Devin is known as a talented actor and dancer,” says Stettler, who keeps his eye open for upcoming local talent.

Johnson is a recent graduate from Montclair State University and holds a BFA in Musical Theater. Once “42nd Street” closes, he plans to move to New York City.

“I hope to continue in [musical theater] and make a career of it,” he says. “I’m going to try to make theater my life.” But he knows it won’t be easy: “I plan to do a lot of auditioning.”

Weighty roles for kids in ‘Mockingbird’

While Johnson and Cunningham have longer experience to draw on, the three youngsters featured in To Kill a Mockingbird may be young, but they are eager and talented, according to Stettler. “We’ve often had kids that had to play pivotal roles in our shows and they’ve always stepped up to the challenge.”

Kelsey McCullough of Rutland Town will play Scout.//Photos provided.

Kelsey McCullough of Rutland Town will play Scout.//Photos provided.

One of those pivotal roles falls to Kelsey McCullough, the 12 year old Rutland Town resident who will portray Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird. With several Rutland Youth Theatre productions under her belt, Kelsey is eager for the challenging role. “It’s very exciting. I think it will be a very good experience,” she says. And being on stage is something that’s not totally new to he — or the other youths. “I’m active in Rutland Youth Theatre,” she said, “and was just in Much Ado About Nothing.

Asked what she thought of To Kill A Mockingbird, Kelsey says, “I was really familiar with the story. It‘s one of my favorite books.” And although she had yet to begin actual rehearsal, she said she has most of dialogue memorized. “I’m looking forward to this, to the experience. It will be great to work with some new, different kids.”

Playing Scout’s brother Jem is Andrew Foster, 14, of Putney, who has been acting since 2007.

Andrew Foster will play Jem.

Andrew Foster of Putney will play Jem.

He came to the playhouse’s attention through a recommendation by the New England Youth Theatre in Brattleboro.

“I really got into acting through NEYT’s summer camp. I did a couple of melodramas there and enjoyed it,” Andrew says. He has gone on to performing at the Putney Community Center and at the Saxtons River Playhouse. Several weeks before rehearsal, he was already working on his lines in anticipation of working at Weston Playhouse.

Guilford resident Isaac Freitas-Eagan will play

Guilford resident Isaac Freitas-Eagan will play Dill.

Guilford resident Isaac Freitas-Eagan, 13, plays Charles Baker “Dill” Harris, Jem and Scout’s best friend, who visits their hometown in Maycomb, Tenn., every summer. Like Andrew, he’s studied acting at NEYT and has played Tybalt in Romeo and Juliet  and Malvolio in Twelfth Night, along with his favorite role – the ghost of Polydorus in Euripedes’ Hecuba. About the character of Dill in To Kill a Mockingbird, Isaac says, “I really like his innocence, He’s such a small person, but [in the play] he grows a lot inside.” Isaac is also looking forward to working with a dialogue coach, saying, “I think it will be a challenge” to learn a Tennessee dialect.

Isaac wants to keep performing. “I love making an audience happy and making them laugh,” he says. In the future, he hopes to be working in television and films.

It is a huge sacrifice for the families. The parents have to be fully committed.
Steve Stettler
producing director
Weston Playhouse

Once the theater season is over at Weston Playhouse, To Kill a Mockingbird will continue on stage with matinees for school children. And the kids in the play will remain on stage (and not in school) through the play’s run. “We’ve had to work with the Department of Education and the Department of Labor to get the OK. And the families have played a pivotal role to make it happen,” says Stettler. “It is a huge sacrifice for the families,” he adds. “The parents have to be fully committed,” and make sure the kids get to and from rehearsals and performances and learn their lines, all, Stettler adds, while keeping it fun for them.

Stettler sees a bright future ahead for Weston Playhouse and the theater in general, as long as area youth continues to be drawn to local stages and have the opportunity to discover the rewards it holds.

42nd Street continues through Saturday, Aug. 24; To Kill a Mockingbird runs from Thursday, Aug. 29 through Saturday, Sept. 7.  For more information, go to www.westonplayhouse.org.

*In full disclosure, Leah Cunningham is the daughter of the publisher of this newspaper.

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About the Author: After 30 years as a theater critic and arts editor for a Connecticut daily newspaper, David Lampe-Wilson transplanted to Vermont with his wife and two cats.

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