Growing into their roles: Barrington Stage Summer Youth Theatre director matures with her actors
Photo Gallery | Barrington Stage Youth Theatre's 'The Wiz' at Berkshire Museum
PITTSFIELD — Christine O'Grady has a talent that any parent or teacher might envy: She can get teenagers to listen to her, follow directions and do amazing work — all 13 of them.
For the past decade, the North Kingstown, R.I., native has been the director and choreographer for the summer Youth Theatre production for Barrington Stage Company, managing casts of up to 20 teenagers from Berkshire and Hampden counties, along with a creative and technical crew of company interns and staff members.
Now through Aug. 14, at the Berkshire Museum, she's directing the baker's dozen of youths in "The Wiz," a modern, jazz and funk-filled musical re-telling of "The Wizard of Oz."
How does O'Grady do it?
"She treats you like your a professional," said Brianna Nicola. The rising Pittsfield High School sophomore, who portrays Evillene and shares the role of Glinda, credits O'Grady "for helping her find her dream."
The director-choreographer said she's always been one to push herself and others to "be braver" and "to meet high expectations." She also aims to "pull larger-than-life performances out of high school students."
O'Grady said that three years ago, Nicola was reluctant to speak even a single line on stage. On Friday night, Nicola was featured in two songs in front of a sold-out audience of about 235 people.
"When she opened her mouth this summer to sing, tears filled my eyes. She showed that spark in her," O'Grady said.
Both Nicola and Maya Finston-Fox, who plays Aunt Em, have returned to work with O'Grady and Barrington Stage for a third summer. And work it is, as each cast member earns a stipend from Barrington Stage.
A rising senior at Miss Hall's School, Finston-Fox said that in her summer roles with the company, "I'm not a 17-year-old. I feel like I'm a professional, coming in and doing my job. We have a responsibility, we have to work together and be on time."
The students are also involved in making and caring for props and sets.
Courtney Stewart, who has also been working with O'Grady and BSC's Youth Theatre for the past three seasons, said of his director, "She treats us so professionally.
"Often coming up in youth theater programs ... you're treated like a child. Working with Christine, we have a voice in the creative discussion and are allowed to participate in that process," Stewart said. "There has been so much growing up here."
Asked about her own experience, the effect on O'Grady has been parallel.
"Doing this has really helped me grow as a person and continues to help me professionally," she said.
The first year she directed a Youth Theatre musical production, "High School Musical," she was 30 years old, with a communications degree from Boston University and a master of fine arts degree from Arizona State University, where she studied youth theater, in addition to directing.
"That first year here, I got to use that. I loved the staff I was working with and the way the Youth Theatre was run — as a pre-professional theater program that promotes incredible practices and standards," O'Grady said.
"That year, I also met my future husband," she said. Jeffrey Roberts was a fellow freelance theater artist, a jazz musician working as an orchestra member for Barrington Stage.
The two, who are based in New York City, loved the Berkshires so much, they even got married here, at what is now Cranwell Spa & Golf Resort in Lenox.
Professionally, O'Grady said she has also met "such incredible friends and collaborators," including costume designer Kristina Sneshkoff, and her future right-hand woman, Natalie Sala.
In 2009, Sala performed under O'Grady's direction in the BSC Youth Theatre production of "High School Musical 2." She now serves as O'Grady's associate director and co-choreographer on "The Wiz" and O'Grady has invited Sala to work with her on other productions in the Berkshires and New York.
"Part of what keeps me coming back is getting to help a group of kids grow up, and helping to give the interns their first design experience. It's also about working with a staff that pushes each other to grow," O'Grady said.
Her young actors say they trust in the director's process, even if it means adding more sound and light effects and choreography cues on Friday afternoon, just hours before an evening performance. It works, it seems, because they make those decisions together.
"It's amazing, because they give you the support to be your best self," Nicola said.
Having that level of responsibility and autonomy, Stewart said, "gives me hope.
"It shows me I'm capable of doing this, of working in a professional setting and putting together a show of merit," he said. "For those of us who are planning to do this as a career — in an uncertain field — I feel better prepared."
Looking at his fellow cast members shimmy, step and sing through a group number, Stewart said, "We've all grown tremendously as artists, and as people, we're closer to our goals and to each other."
iF YOU GO ...
What: Barrington Stage Company presents the Youth Theatre production of "The Wiz."
When: Through Aug. 14. Performances are at 7 p.m. Wednesdays; at 2 and 7 p.m. on Thursdays; 7 p.m. Fridays; and 2 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays. Added 2 p.m. matinee shows will be held Aug. 3 and 10; with an autism-friendly performance at 2 p.m. Aug. 4.
Where: The Little Cinema auditorium at the Berkshire Museum, 39 South St., Pittsfield.
Tickets: Prices range from $12 to $16, at the Barrington Stage Box Office, 413-236-8888 or barringtonstageco.org.