In 'Above the Timberline' students go back to the future with radio play world premiere

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GREAT BARRINGTON — On Friday night, theatergoers stepped out of the cold and into a futuristic ice age of "Above the Timberline Radio Play," a world premiere blending the revival of a 1930s storytelling style with modern-day technology.

For one night only, the words and art of Gregory Manchess, a current exhibitor at the Norman Rockwell Museum, were brought to life in dramatic fashion.

The year is 3517. ... We enter now as explorer Galen Singleton, famed for his hard-won contributions, is on a clandestine expedition to find a lost city under the ice, rumored to bear technological wonders beyond imagining.

The undeniably wintry sounds of howling winds and snow crunching beneath footsteps boomed throughout the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center as six young actors — Robin Lamb, Lou Finston-Fox, Wesley Blackwell, Cedar Potter, Eliza Keenan and Fiora Laina Caligiuri-Randall, standing across the apron of the proscenium from stage right, respectively — set the scene, portrayed multiple characters by reading through microphones from scripts set on black music stands.

Behind them, tableaus from Manchess' novel of the same name moved brilliantly across a cinema screen, thanks to the digital illustration skills of the Norman Rockwell Museum's education and outreach manager Patrick O'Donnell. From a sound booth located at the back of the theater, engineer Kazmin Blacklow, a senior at Berkshire Waldorf High School, made sure the sound effects maintained harmony with the cast and imagery. All took place under the direction of another Waldorf senior, Toby Keenan, who said he was gobsmacked by the entire experience.

"This was great," he said. "No strings attached, I was just given this opportunity to direct by people who've been so open and supportive of all us us. It's a great gift for any kid to have."

It was a gift that the folks at the Norman Rockwell Museum and Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center, and author-illustrator Gregory Manchess all said they were glad to be able to share with the community's up-and-coming young talent.

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The museum has been intentionally convening and collaborating with community arts partners to ramp up their engagement with area youth and schools. Friday night's performance served as a prelude to Saturday's opening of the 33rd annual Berkshire County High School Art Show and Sunday's celebration of Rockwell's 125th birthday, both held at the museum and drawing crowds of students and families.

Later this spring, the museum's education team will recruit 20 area eighth-grade students to participate in a pilot "Rockwell Young Scholars" program, a free, four-year opportunity for arts-minded students to receive individualized instruction and mentoring in art making, arts management and college and career planning.

"We want to play a part for high school kids in their artistic and workforce development," said the museum's chief educator, Mary Berle.

The young cast and crew of "Above the Timberline Radio Play," got a taste of the initiative through their work with the museum and theater staff, and interactions with Manchess.

"He was a very useful resource to have on hand," said Potter. In addition to a private gallery tour and rehearsals with the artist, Manchess also presented them with original hand-painted portraits of themselves, and invited some to take a master class with him.

"Greg is just baller," said Blackwell, using the youthful euphemism to express the big impression Manchess made on him and his crew mates.

"This performance is about an adventure and it's been an adventure," Berle said.


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