Scenes From the Return of PlayMakers’ Summer Youth Conservatory

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PlayMakers’ Summer Youth Conservatory took center stage after a two-year hiatus

Jordan-Matthews High School 12th grader Buck Thornton, Durham School of the Arts 12th grader Kaelie Goss, Northwood High School ninth grader Amari Bullett, Guilford College freshman Bjorn Parins, University of Southern California freshman Anton Peter, East Chapel Hill High School ninth grader Liv McIntyre, Jordan High School 12th grader Webb Cummings, East Chapel Hill High School ninth grader Cat Copland and East Chapel Hill High School 12th grader Mitra Samei run through “Magic Foot.”

By Valeria Cloës |Photography by John Michael Simpson

As the cast of “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” rehearsed one afternoon in July, Anton Peter, who plays bee participant William Barfee, asks the director a question, slipping the word “tintinnabulation” into the conversation. Some members of the 11-person cast burst out laughing in their seats in the David G. Frey Rehearsal Hall in the Joan H. Gillings Center for Dramatic Art while some took a second to catch on to what happened.

Anton, a 2022 Carrboro High School graduate and current freshman at University of Southern California, had just used the “word of the day,” earning himself a point and a chance to win the weekly prize. Tracy Bersley, the director of PlayMakers Repertory Company’s Summer Youth Conservatory program, implemented the game, which embodies the energy of the musical the kids had been rehearsing since June 27. With the program canceled the last two summers because of the pandemic, the rising ninth graders through recent high school grads were finally getting their chance to participate in the Theatre Intensive program for the student actors or the TheatreTech program for the student tech crew.

“I think that that isolation combined with social media really has the potential to do a lot of damage in terms of how that affects the craft of theater itself or the craft of acting,” Tracy says. “Because so much of acting is about not just human communication, but the ability to read somebody else’s intentions through their eyes, their facial expression, where they’re holding their body, and those cues are missing.”

For these reasons, the producers Jeri Lynn Schulke and Jeffrey Meanza, along with Tracy, chose the musical about eccentric middle schoolers competing in a spelling bee, which ran for five shows from July 27-31.

“I think it’s such an important show to be done right now because it is so funny and it’ll make you laugh,” Anton says. “But essentially what it comes down to is … what parents do to children and the pressure that is put on them.” He participated in the middle school PlayMakers program Theatre Quest in 2018 and was supposed to act in “Spring Awakening,” PlayMakers’ Summer Youth Conservatory’s 2020 show, before it got canceled.

After taking singing lessons during the pandemic, Mitra Samei, a senior at East Chapel Hill High School who played bee moderator Rona Lisa Peretti, was thrilled to take part. “It was a big deal for me to get cast,” she says. “Because [PlayMakers and Summer Youth Conservatory performances are] something I’d grown up going to and dreamed about and never imagined myself being in, which is really exciting.”

Mitra started acting at 8 years old and participated in ECHHS’s productions of “Hairspray” and “High School Musical” before the pandemic. She added that the program is rigorous – the directors expect a lot from the students, which pushed her to dedicate time rehearsing at home. “I’ve been running my lines every day with my identical twin sister,” Mitra says. “And it’s really helped a lot.”

Maryam Samei, Mitra’s sister, was on the tech scenic crew for the show. She says she found it remarkable how professional the program is. “The level of design work and the amount of coordination and the fact that everybody’s done their job is so apparent,” she says. Maryam and the rest of the 11-person crew helped build the set, which was meant to look like a middle school gym, and made the costumes. “I’ve just learned so much about the building process,” she says.

The week of opening night on July 27, the work from the tech crew, actors and professionals started to come together on the finished stage as the cast rehearsed the song “Magic Foot.” The coordination from the production crew and cast members came to life as the lights changed and the cast danced and harmonized with one another. “I’ve really felt that sense of collaboration and community which is so important in theater,” Anton says. “Everyone is equally a part of the show and a part of telling the story.”

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