For a decade, CUTC has put on a yearly production with a cast of all kids under 18 in honor of Kathy Murphy. Even during times when budgets are small and participants are uncertain, like this past season when the company reduced its number of plays, CUTC has maintained its dedication to youth arts. Driven by the observation that student athletes had summer opportunities for interschool training, Murphy and co-founder John Stuff decided to create a similar situation for thespians. Having a summer student production that features young performers from all over central Illinois gives kids a chance to meet people they might not otherwise, and learn from each other, all while honing the craft that gives them a common interest. Another of Kathy’s goals was to eventually staff the production with students who participated until they outgrew it, and this year’s director, Jessica Elliott is just such a person. Having been Acting Producer at CUTC for two years, she is now directing the annual production that cultivated her theatre career.
This year’s production, Oliver!, finds the University of Illinois junior responsible for bringing 40 student actors together and focusing them on one goal: pulling off a quality musical that can be quite mature for having such a large cast of children. Most folks know the famous plea for more uttered by the hapless urchin, and could probably tell you the basic rags-to-riches plot, but both the novel and stage production have several subplots and characters who struggle with difficult moral and philosophical dilemmas. For the part of the population who consider Oliver just a Victorian-era Annie, I think they’ll find this musical contains unexpected depth. In fact, the empathy required to fully occupy the roles has led this production to create a benefit-aspect around the show, collecting donations and sending some proceeds to the local organization Courage Connection.
Although most of the action centers on the titular character, Oliver is a boy that things seem to happen to, instead of a boy who makes active choices. Not so for the young man chosen to play him — Gideon Johnson has been actively pursuing acting since he turned six. Now about to start seventh grade, he is no stranger to CUTC and acting in the twin cities in general. Unbeknownst to me, I’ve already seen this young performer in Beatrice and Benedict at the Lyric Theatre last season, as well as in one of my favorite Pens to Lens films from 2015: What’s the Password?, and many theatregoers will recognize him from Mary Poppins where he played Michael Banks. Although this play’s success can swing based on the performance of one boy, I would put good money that we’re in good hands, and the director agrees. Ms. Elliott told me, “Gideon has been so open to direction and diligent in shaping his portrayal to really embody the message that I’d like this show to send audiences. For a character who often asks, ‘Where Is Love?’ Gideon’s Oliver finds it in the most unlikely circumstances, and reminds us how empowering it can be.” Speaking of morally-ambiguous characters and life-lessons, the director goes on to say that she favors young Mr. Johnson because he brought cookies to rehearsal on his birthday, proving he’s already learned to grease the wheels.
The rest of my interview with Jessica Elliott was so erudite, I’ll just let her speak for herself:
Smile Politely: 40 kids is a lot; what are some of the benefits and challenges of having such a large cast?
Jessica Elliott: A cast this size keeps me on my toes, there’s no question! It can be exhausting trying to keep everyone engaged, interested, and on track at rehearsals. But when I put things into perspective, here I am, working with 40 students to make art during the few months of the year that we all have off, not because we have to, but because we want to. We want to be there creating together, learning from each other, sharing ideas and having fun all the while. That’s pretty great. It can get a little crazy, especially when I want to be concentrating my full attention on a million different things, but that’s where having a great team of collaborators comes into play. The students also help each other out immeasurably — I’ve never seen a summer where a cast doesn’t end up being like family. Theatre is funny that way.
SP: I see a lot of familiar names in the cast list, which is great! Does CUTC rely mostly on social media & word of mouth for auditions, or is there other outreach/partnership with schools?
Elliott: We try to get information out with the schools when possible, but we mostly rely on our social media and our website. One thing I’d really like to eventually establish with this program is a formal outreach or informational visit to drama club meetings. I want to start sharing CUTC’s excitement with area students. I want them to feel that we are so ready to help them and support them and create something with them. The more investment we can give them right from the beginning, the more responsive they are, and I’ve seen what that kind of support can do for a student.
SP: What methods did you use to get the cast to bond and gel?
Elliott: This is one thing that I wanted to focus on from the very beginning of the process. One advantage to being an alumnus is that I’ve seen what it looks like for a student to feel uninvested and disconnected from the whole experience. To start off, we played several games based on trust and communication as we were all getting to know each other. They seem like silly little theatre games, but they always get a cast thinking in that general direction. I also wanted to make sure we emphasized real understanding of the story we were telling. If you want students to care and invest in the subject matter, they have to have a good understanding of it. That includes the context, the lives that these characters would have led, how the world was different from their own… Once they started investing in the story itself, I saw all kinds of character development, cast members offering up ideas and getting creative with their choices… It was one big domino effect. Theatre just naturally brings people together in that way. When you’re in a space where you’re sharing your thoughts and reactions, creating and offering up your ideas while also relying on the creativity of others, trust is a natural byproduct.
SP: Speaking of understanding the story, there are several moments in the script where the things being dealt with seem very mature, even “adult”; Bill and Nancy’s relationship immediately comes to mind. How did you help the teens prepare for these roles, or were they already inside their characters?
Elliott: [Since] the entire cast is actually 18 years or younger, this obviously means we sometimes end up having younger people play very mature roles with some complex storylines. But these are opportunities for learning and for discussing what it’s like to be in someone else’s shoes. I’ve had some really great talks with the young man who plays Bill, as well as the young ladies who are double-cast as Nancy. Empathy is so important to being involved in theatre, and roles such as these constantly encourage the students to challenge their worldview and their understanding of the human experience.
One of the avenues I ended up taking to help the students connect with the story and look outside of our rehearsal space for understanding was by partnering with our local Courage Connection, an organization that provides services to families and individuals who have been affected by domestic violence and homelessness. These issues are not only dramatic elements of a storyline, they are experienced by real people, today. We are donating proceeds of our production t-shirt, collecting funds before and after shows, and selling bake sale items to help raise awareness and support the organization.
(That is freaking amazing. I love it. Ok, even if you hate musicals, swing by and buy a t-shirt, since all of our social services are collapsing due to Springfield’s stalemate – ed.)
SP: How are rehearsals going? Any favorite stories so far?
Elliott: We’re just getting in to running the show, really locking down the flow of it and the pacing. Rehearsals are going really well! You know, six weeks always seems impossible at the start — You just think, “How in the world is this show just going to materialize out of a room full of strangers and a hundred-page script?” That’s where trusting the process comes in. I’ve had so many great moments with this company already, but most recently, I’d have to say my favorite was the first night we ran the second act. I was feeling a little nervous, I have to say, simply because it’s getting down to crunch time and second acts can have a tendency to feel nebulous and vague until much later than a director is comfortable with. But we had such a good run. Everyone was focused, asking all the right questions, exuding such energy and really starting to turn a choppy handful of scenes into a show. I’m getting excited for them. For all of us, really. I can’t wait for the community to see what we’ve been working on.
SP: Anything else you’d like our readers to know about the production?
Elliott: I’ve just been so excited for this production for so long. It was so fitting that I found out I’d be directing on New Year’s Day this year, because it’s just felt like such a new chance. A chance to share all of the excitement and passion I have for theatre with students who feel the same. A chance to work with some of my favorite artists and people, minds that I have the utmost respect and admiration for. A chance to utilize all of the experiences in theatre, education, and communication that I’ve had, both good and bad, and try to apply what I’ve learned to making this experience meaningful and worthwhile for all involved.
CUTC’s Kathy Murphy Student Production of Oliver! plays this weekend and next, Thursday through Sunday, at the Harold and Jean Miner Theatre in Parkland College. Performances are at 7:30 p.m. but Sundays are matinees at 2:30 p.m. Tickets are $14 for adults, $12 for seniors, $8 for children under 12, and can be purchased online or by calling 217-352-4085.
About Rebecca Knaur…
As Arts Editor for Smile Politely, rebecca thinks it’s awesome when her interviewees give her great material to work with, and even better when it’s about kids doing art things that also help the less fortunate. If you think arts and local things are cool, email her about writing for the section.
Image of Gideon Johnson by Darrell Hoemann.