RALEIGH — Holding forth from stage-left, the singer had everyones attention as he declaimed his warning with high drama.
Listen to that howling mob of blockheads in the street
A trick or two with lepers and the whole towns on its feet!
A half-dozen other members of the cast listened and answered back, chorus-style and ominously He is dangerooooooous before the cut signal came. Director Tito Hernandez approached to give some technical pointers about tone of voice and body posture.
Its a fine line between stoic and desperate, Hernandez said, running through subtle details including the angle of the actors hip. O.K., are we good for that? Are we all right?
There were nods and murmurs from the actors onstage at NC Theatre. Whether its a bunch of wizened veteran pros or enthusiastic young amateurs, the rhythms of rehearsal are pretty much the same. This group members of NC Theatre Conservatorys Summer Master Theatre Arts School, ranging in age from 12 to 18 and rehearsing to perform Andrew Lloyd Webbers Woodstock-era rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar falls somewhere in between.
NC Theatre has had youth programs throughout its 30-year history, going back to the days when Broadway actress Lauren Kennedy and American Idol star (as well as current congressional candidate) Clay Aiken cut their performing teeth while growing up in Raleigh. For the last decade, those programs have been focused on a summer conservatory run by artistic director Ray Walker, whose own career includes acting in four Broadway shows.
Other summer offerings at NC Theatre include a theater art school for younger kids and a Boot Camp to prepare aspiring young actors to prepare to audition for NC Theatres 2015 staging of Billy Elliot. But its most attention-getting program of the summer is this production of Jesus Christ Superstar.
The conservatory has classes for everyone but really excels at pre-professional training, Walker said. Weve been doing it 10 years, which is not a long time to really see the fruits of our labor. But were already producing people who are viable working talents, getting into the top BFA programs and working on Broadway. We have an alumnus (John Arthur Green) with Matilda on Broadway, and Reed Shannon is on the national Motown The Musical tour.
Into the crucible
NC Theatre, which has 33 participants enrolled, is one of the most established such programs in the area. Theres also the similarly styled PlayMakers Summer Youth Conservatorys Theatre Intensive and Theatre Tech programs in Chapel Hill, where 43 kids are putting on Hairspray.
Aspiring participants have to audition to get in, and theyre held to a high standard. Depending on the place and program, costs to attend these and other similar programs generally fall in the range of most summer camps, several hundred dollars and up.
The core of the program is the idea of putting young people into the crucible of a professional rehearsal process, said Jeffrey Meanza, PlayMakers associate artistic director. They work with a stage manager, are kept on an Equity schedule and are held to the same standard as any of our other productions.
Its demanding work, because theyre putting on plays that are well-known as well as challenging. In NC Theatres Jesus Christ Superstar, the part of Judas played by Ahmad Ratliff, a junior at Ravenscroft in his third summer at the conservatory is one of the toughest male sings in theater because it involves improvisation in a high key. Then theres Jesus.
Jesus is very hard to characterize, said Collin Yates, a Millbrook senior who is playing that part. You have to remember not ever to be really angry. When youre acting, its easy to go straight into anger, but Jesus was never like that. So youve got to put aside those thoughts, go into more of a teaching kind of thing.
As valuable as the experience of acting in professional-caliber productions is and many summer-conservatory veterans do make the jump to NC Theatres main-stage shows, where they work alongside professional actors grooming the next generation of Broadway stars is not necessarily the primary goal.
Its more about focus, concentration, team-building, developing the creative side of yourself, said PlayMakers Meanza. The benefits are greater than training the next Broadway star. We do have a lot of people who have gone on to programs at Harvard, Michigan, places like that. Its valuable experience.
Its also a way for area theater companies to develop future audiences.
NC Theatre was sort of built upon the backs of the parents of students in summer theater programs, Walker said. They were the first subscribers and ticket-buyers, and that has continued. A lot of kids do just come in, take a class and dont stay. They still get the life skills that will help them get up in class, speak in front of people. But yeah, we like to utilize students as much as we can on our main-stage shows, and the summer conservatory is where a lot of them come from.
All of this summers Jesus Christ Superstar lead actors have also appeared in NC Theatre main-stage productions.
Yates, whom Walker calls a mega-talented superstar, appeared in A Christmas Story a few years back and Les Mis earlier this year. Ratliff was also in Les Mis and will soon begin rehearsals for NC Theatres main-stage show The Little Mermaid, opening July 28. And Kendall McCarthy (Mary Magdalene), an Apex High School senior in her fourth conservatory summer, appeared in Legally Blonde as well as Les Mis.
Passing down a torch
For young actors interested in theater as a career, the opportunity to work with seasoned professionals is enticing. PlayMakers has brought in veterans from San Francisco and New York to direct and choreograph Hairspray. Grady Bowman, who produced Billy Elliot on Broadway, is overseeing NC Theatres Boot Camp for that musical.
Its such a luxury to get to work one-on-one with people who have so much professional theater experience, said McCarthy. Its almost like theyre passing down a torch.
Walker, who is 50 but doesnt look it, has lots of Jesus Christ Superstar experience to pass along, having played Judas on Broadway, in Europe and at NC Theatre in 2006. Hearing a recording of the latter performance helped draw current Judas actor Ratliff to the role.
Not many people have a vocal teacher whos been on Broadway and knows what thats like, Ratliff said during a rehearsal break. Then he looked over at Walker and mentioned the recording of his NC Theatre Judas performance.
Its so good, Ratliff said. Your voice has not changed at all.
Youre kind, Walker said with a laugh. But I could not do that eight times a week anymore.
As part of his voice-saving regimen this summer, Ratliff has been limiting his speaking. He and fellow cast member McCarthy went to see Katy Perrys concert at Raleighs PNC Arena last month, and Ratliff did not speak the entire evening.
Walker has also done some unusual things to prepare the cast. One of their first activities took place outside the theater, doing a high-ropes course at N.C. State as a trust-building exercise to create that tribal sort of 70s hippie feeling of the play.
Theater is like folklore, Walker said. The only way to really pass it down is by people who have done it. This is a natural way of progressing theater to the next generation. Were obligated to hand it down, pay it forward and teach it.
Menconi: 919-829-4759 or www.newsobserver.com/OnTheBeat