Taking it to the stage
by Jane Turpin Moore
WORTHINGTON -- While watching Ben Stiller take a pratfall or Meryl Streep disappear into yet another persona, one may forget that acting is a skill that the best in the business have worked years to perfect.
Recently, four Worthington High School (WHS) seniors had the chance to dip into the bag of tricks used by professional actors. At the Aug. 7-10 Guthrie Summer Conference in Minneapolis, nearly 200 students from across the state participated in day-long workshops with fine arts professionals. In the evenings, they attended current Guthrie productions to observe in action the lessons they had been absorbing all day.
"It's a terrific educational opportunity for the students," said Kris Besel, the WHS communications teacher who accompanied the students to the program. "I believe this helps them acquire a lifelong appreciation for the arts, and they gain a lot in realizing how great theater can be and what you can do with it."
Andy Hoffman, Lizzy Wetering, Adam Vosburgh and Heather Johnson had all previously acted in various Worthington area productions, but for at least one of the students, the Guthrie itself was a new experience.
"It was my first time at the Guthrie," admitted Vosburgh, who most recently was seen as Officer Branigan in the February 2008 WHS show "Guys & Dolls." "It's an amazing building, and the architecture is spectacular," he said of the acclaimed nine-story facility overlooking the Mississippi River that the Guthrie moved into in 2006.
A behind-the-scenes tour of the Guthrie's work areas was included, and attendees relished the chance to explore the building's unique features, such as its 178-foot cantilevered bridge.
One workshop was dubbed "Adaptation Station," while another addressed sonnets and yet another focused on theatrical movement. The latter appeared to be a hit with students and teachers alike.
"That was my favorite," expressed Johnson. "The theatrical movement instructor divided us into groups of six and we all had to do the same thing at the same time. He was teaching us that we have to be conscious of what all the other actors on stage are doing and how we affect each other."
All of the participants --including Besel -- did advance preparation for Adaptation Station, in which the goal was to consider how a story is adapted for stage presentation. Interestingly, the Guthrie's production of the all-new "Little House on the Prairie," based on the works of pioneer author Laura Ingalls Wilder, was still in final rehearsal stages, so the adaptation workshop was timely and appropriate as the participants mimicked the professional process.
"We each had to research a character from our hometown and then develop the character, thinking about how we would put them in a musical," explained Besel.
Most members of the Worthington group borrowed characters from the historic Dayton House; Hoffman chose banker and real estate developer George Draper Dayton while Besel chose Emma Dayton, George Dayton's wife. Wetering decided to portray daughter Josephine Dayton and Johnson selected Anna, the Dayton's Scandinavian immigrant maid.
"I figured that since Anna was a maid at the Dayton House, even though she loved the Daytons' hospitality and working there, she wanted to get out of the house and have a life of her own," imagined Johnson. "I decided Anna would have been shy but had a secret love interest that she wrote about in the garden when she had time to herself."
During the conference, the Worthington contingent saw the "Little House on the Prairie" show even before it was in public previews, and also the well-seasoned adaptation of Nikolai Gogol's "The Government Inspector," which had already been running at the Guthrie for a month.
"That was the funniest play I've seen in awhile," allowed Vosburgh, who found veteran actor Peter Michael Goetz "pretty cool."
Bringing students to the Guthrie Summer Conference enables Besel to introduce professional theater to even more students later on in the year, as each participating school is granted 50 tickets to a Guthrie show.
"We'll see Shakespeare's 'Two Gentlemen in Verona' in March," related Besel, "and the option is open to interested juniors and seniors. Their tickets are free; they just have to pay bus fare."
Attendance at the Guthrie Summer Conference is made possible by funds from District 518's gifted and talented program, and costs of the conference are underwritten by businesses from around the state, according to Besel.
So what did these young Worthington thespians take away from three days of exposure to some of the finest theater professionals in the country?
"Now when I'm in plays, I'll do more to try and discover for myself who I think the character is," said Johnson. "Considering the character's dreams, fears and motivations will help me portray the person --that's definitely a technique I'll use as an actor."
Concluded Besel, "The kids learn a lot about becoming better actors. I always notice a difference in their acting after they've been there."