Barrington Stage Co. marks 2 decades of pro experience for youth performers with 'James and the Giant Peach'

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PITTSFIELD — It's a busy time for Gwendolyn Farnsworth.

The North Adams teenager said her friends don't understand why she can't hang out or go to parties this summer "because we have rehearsal."

But for Gwendolyn, 15, and her fellow cast members cast members, most of whom say they have theatrical aspirations for their futures, the Barrington Stage Company Youth Theatre production of "Roald Dahl's James and the Giant Peach" is worth the extra effort.

Just ask Phoebe Lloyd of Northampton.

"As a 17-year-old trying to do this for the rest of my life, this is a free opportunity," she said, "that gives you experience working in the professional world, with people who are fun, interesting and intelligent."

The show, which starts previews Thursday and opens Sunday in the Berkshire Museum auditorium, offers a vaudevillian musical take on Dahl's classic fantasy novel in which an orphaned British boy overcomes obstacles in an adventure across the Atlantic, with a giant peach as his vessel and a clever crew of larger-than-life talking insects.

This show also marks the 20th year of the program, which offers a professional summer theater experience — from contract to curtain call — to youths from 13 to 19.

Lloyd said most youth theater programs are presented camp-style, often costing hundreds of dollars and resulting in an end-of-week or partially staged performance.

With Barrington Stage Youth Theatre, students who successfully audition follow Actors' Equity Association guidelines working through a rigorous and articulated rehearsal schedule, under the guidance of a professional director and choreographer, in this case a team with credits from Lost Nation Theater in Montpelier, Vt. Each actor receives a stipend for their work, in addition to master classes with Barrington Stage actors and staff, and opportunities to see shows together throughout the Barrington Stage season and take part in talkbacks with the casts.

"I think this is a professional production with youth performers," said Sarah Jane Schostack, who is directing the cast of 15 youths.

"They sign a contract and have the same asks in commitment to rehearsals. These are kids who have chosen to give up their summer to say I'm going to perform for others," she said. "Directing them, with all the excitement and energy youth bring when they get it right makes it more rewarding than anyone can imagine."

Schostack said this troupe particularly impresses her with their commitment to the craft, with "some more advanced than college students, so I can do more advanced work and techniques with them, which is really lovely."

During a Wednesday afternoon rehearsal at the Boys & Girls Club of the Berkshires, choreographer Steven Dean Moore drilled cast members for nearly two hours, teaching them dips and lifts and movements in synchronized lines at a salsa dance tempo. The youths responded with well-timed twirls through stage-ready smiles, laughter and beads of sweat.

Adding another layer of technique, the primary ensemble has to work with hand puppets, custom-tailored by Katie McGeorge, to represent the initial states of characters Centipede, Grasshopper, Earthworm, Spider and Ladybug before they're fantastically transformed into human-sized beings.

"But they were ready," the director said. "This cast walked in on the first day of rehearsal and said, 'What puppet am I?'"

Costuming is another layer. Costume designer Johanna Pan, who said she was inspired by the concepts of street theater and the colors and patterns of the late-1950s into the 1960s, said she stumbled into her field while studying for her drama elective as a school kid in Singapore.

Her acting teacher said that what she lacked in performance skills she had gained in drawing and sewing skills. She's been enjoying this aspect of the theater ever since.

Having worked on last summer's Youth Theatre production of "Bye Bye Birdie," Pan describes the "James and the Giant Peach" costumes as "more make-believe and fantastical, and more fun to play with."

Blending her research on the shapes and movements of bugs with her color studies, the character of Centipede is at once a colorful and boisterous leader. So Pan has crafted a military jacket-inspired ensemble in golden hues, with broad shoulders and a suit lined with tassels to represent the multitude of the insect's legs.

"In the musical, he has to be able to dance and move in full capacity, so I wanted the actor to think, 'How does this costume help me express that I have more than two legs?'" she said.

Centipede is portrayed by Jacob Jamross, 17, of Pittsfield, who admits, "I have terrible posture," so the military jacket helps "straighten me up."

Lloyd plays a devious Aunt Spiker, and will don a gravity-defying, pointy foam wig.

"My costume makes me three times more colorful and completely changes the way I walk," she said.

But more so than the costumes, the Youth Theatre program seems to help participants transform each other.

"It's important that we're being pushed as young actors, to do better," Jamross said.

As teenagers, Lloyd said, they can all relate to the characters' experience of loss and longing to find friends and a place to fit in.

"Everyone wants someone who makes you feel at home," she said.

Emily Taylor, 17, of North Adams, who portrays Spider, said that blend of trust, professionalism and creativity inspires the energy and input of the group. She said the program led her to successfully audition for the drama department at Marymount Manhattan College.

"Everyone here is really fun, really supporting and serious about this show," she said. "And they're so talented and so kind."

Jenn Smith can be reached at jsmith@berkshireeagle.com, @JennSmith_Ink on Twitter and 413-496-6239.


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