The summer is usually a sleepy time in the world of theater. For the past month, however, UNC’s Center for Dramatic Art has been awash in activity.
A group of talented young students has been feverishly assembling a production of “Sweeney Todd” as part of PlayMakers Repertory Company’s Summer Youth Conservatory.
The conservatory, which is in its sixth year, gives local high school students the chance to rehearse and perform a play in PlayMakers’ theater space. The students are taught by professional directors and choreographers, receiving individualized attention and rigorous training.
All of the participants’ hard work will culminate in performances of “Sweeney Todd” beginning Wednesday, July 17, and running through Sunday. The students will perform in center’s 200-seat Elizabeth Price Kenan Theater.
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This year’s director is Tom Quaintance, artistic director of Cape Fear Regional Theater in Fayetteville. Quaintance has directed previous conservatory shows and cites students’ unbridled passion as the driving forces behind the conservatory’s’ success and singularity.
“These kids are extraordinarily enthusiastic and committed, so it is absolutely electric to be in a room with them,” Quaintance said. “Everyone is completely engaged.”
PlayMakers’ education manager, Jenny Wales, has been similarly struck by the students’ investment. She has always been interested in capitalizing on this dynamism by getting the students to challenge and stretch themselves. Part of how she does that is by picking plays that are different or difficult.
“’Sweeney Todd’ is very emotionally deep and dark, and it’s also extremely musically challenging,” she said. “We wanted to choose something that would force the students to push themselves.”
The conservatory is separated into sections: a Theater Intensive program for actors and a TheaterTech program for those most interested in the behind-the-scenes, technical aspects of theater.
While the Theater Intensive participants rehearse, TheaterTech students learn about scenic, costume, and lighting production. Working with professional carpenters, painters and designers, this summers’ students received on-the-job training as they labored to bring the technical aspects of ‘Sweeney Todd’ to life.
Emma Beck, a rising senior at Chapel Hill High School, focused on scenic design this summer, her second at the conservatory.
“Working on a professional set like this is just so different than anything I experienced in high school theater tech classes,” she said.
Theater Intensive student Sadie Frank is a rising junior at Chapel Hill High and is participating in the conservatory for the fourth time. Like Beck, she appreciates the program’s demanding nature.
“In school shows there’s a lot of time when you’re not doing anything — when you’re sitting around,” Frank said. “But in the conservatory you’re always working.”
This summer, the conservatory accepted 26 Theater Intensive participants and 14 TheaterTech students. According to Wales, applications grow from year to year. Especially in the TheaterTech program, she says, the conservatory keeps the numbers down in order to maximize one-one-one instruction and make sure students aren’t waiting on the sidelines.
This summer marks the second year of a change in the age range of the participants. In the past, younger children could participate; now the Theater Intensive and TheaterTech programs take only high school students. A separate program, Theater Quest, focuses on building middle school students’ skill sets.
“We wanted to meet each group of students exactly where they were,” said Wales. “Now the high school students will get to experience more of a true conservatory program.”
One of the program’s priorities, according to Wales, is to provide the students with a complex experience that will meet them where they are yet seek to push them a little ways out of their comfort zones. Both Wales and Quaintance emphasize their faith in the students’ ability to rise to meet high expectations.
The levels of rigor and professionalism that have been encouraged over the past month will soon be on display. With the participants’ month of immersion in a professional theater setting drawing to a close, they are now tasked with performing on a professional stage.
Audiences will have the chance to glimpse a rare bit of summertime theater perfected and performed by students whose love of it all is still very fresh.
“These are performers who love what they’re doing,” Quaintance said, “and, really, having that passion is the most important thing in musicals.”