Broadway, here they come
Young actors take the stage in schoolhouse drama
By Rachel Breitman
Before the pint-sized cast of Sideways Stories from Wayside School sets foot on stage, the audience is greeted by the familiar rhymes of Schoolhouse Rock, a 1970s educational television ad campaign.
But the calculated chaos that will soon commence onstage has little to do with the nostalgic elementary-school concepts of unpacking adjectives, conjunction junctions, or passing a bill on Capital Hill. Instead, the audience is treated to a fictional classroom tale full of mystical spells, strobe lights, and whimsically off-kilter teachers.
The New Acting Company production, a combination of adults and elementary and middle school students, is the theatrical version of Newbery Award Winner Louis Sachars magical books about a 30-story high school building.
Funded by the Childrens Aid Society, the six-year-old company engages young actors from the citys public and private schools in afterschool theater classes. The strongest performers are selected to act in the end-year performance alongside professional adult actors. This year, students from Tribecas PS 234, Thompson Square Middle School, Hunter College Elementary School, The School at Columbia University, and Dwight School were selected.
This is the first year weve selected six kids. Usually we have only three in the performance, said Stephen Michael Rondel, the programs founder, who directed the show and previous New Acting Company productions including The Jungle Book and Once Upon a Mattress.
After a grueling rehearsal schedule, the cast was ready to begin their 21-performance season in mid-April. At first the students admitted that they were a little intimidated about working with grown-up actors.
When wed have a warm-up, it was children on one side, and adults on the other, recalled Maxine Dannatt, 10, the shows youngest performer. She has been part of the New Acting Company for five years, and is now in the fifth grade at PS 234.
As Bebe, the class artist of Wayside School, she bravely holds up a mirror to her evil, witchlike teacher, Mrs. Gorf, turning her oppressor into an apple that is later eaten by the much-loved playground supervisor Louis, played by Jeremiah Maestas, one of the shows four adults.
The young actors had to use their imaginations to make the outrageous storyline seem realistic.
It was hard to make Michelle Matlock, who plays Mrs. Gorf, seem scary because she is so nice, said Juliette Kessler, 12.
Once transformed into an apple, Mrs. Gorf is replaced by a new teacher, the playful and sweet-voiced Mrs. Jewls, played by Carrie Heitman, who also served as an acting coach.
I worked to help the kids develop the idea of a fully fleshed-out character, said Heitman, who has worked with the company for two years. It isnt like a school play, which you perform once or twice. It is tough to keep up the energy.
Wearing matching purple and yellow patchwork dresses, Emma Biegacki and Juliette Kessler are joined at the hip as Les-Lie, a two-part character who can only read standing on her heads. Their long braids constantly tempt classmate Myron, played by Teo Rapp-Olsson, 14, to pull them.
It is hard for me and Juliette to say all the lines in unison, said Biegacki, 13.
But the children werent thrown off by the outrageous storyline, which included magical spells, a tornado, a cow and a missing floor of the building. Literal plays are harder to get into than fictionous ones [sic], added Biegacki, who has previously acted in the companys productions of Once Upon a Mattress and The Little Mermaid.
You cant exactly relate whats happening in the show to real life, said Adrian Blandori, a seventh grader at Tomkins Square Middle School, who plays the soft-hearted but clueless Dameon. You have to ask yourself, how would I react if a person was flying around the room?
The plays humor is slapstick and silly, with Dr. Pickle, the white wigged school counselor, using a fake German accent and a pickle on a string to hypnotize Myron and help him to get over his braid-pulling fixation.
In a scary turn, the students are taunted by a substitute teacher named Mr. Gorf, who is Mrs. Gorfs pink-haired, hunch-backed progeny come to seek revenge for his missing mother.
Finally, Les-lies pigtails save the day by helping the crew rescue Myron, who has been blown out of the window during a tornado, to climb up the sides of the steep building, Rapunzel-style.
All the students agreed that the excitement of working with the New Acting Company had convinced them to keep acting, and maybe even pursue theater as a career someday, but they were practical enough to know that their future is still unscripted.
I would like a career where I can make up new things, working in plays and doing improvisation, said Teo Rapp-Olsson, who will be a freshman at the Dwight School next fall.
Juliette Crellin, 12, a student at Hunter College Elementary School, considered her future options carefully.
I really want to be on Broadway
or maybe be a dermatologist, since my mother said I should have a back-up plan.