Onstage at the Temple Civic Theatre, director Betsi Chamlee is adamant: “There’s too much wiggling in Pestilence.”
The half-dozen children crouched beneath a blanket, which is standing-in for Pandora’s Box, quiet down and freeze in place.
“Get inside the box; inside the scene,” Chamlee encourages, and then focuses on Samantha Mauser, 15, and Lauren Carlson, 12. “Pandora and Hermes, you and Conscience (Rebecca Alley, 11) help each other,” Chamlee said. “Improv is all about ensemble cooperation.” The four-week Summer Youth Workshop culminates in “Myths and Legends” onstage at the Temple Civic Theatre Aug. 16-18.
The dozen or so workshop participants range from 7 to 15 years old and Chamlee is assisted by Jonathan Robinson, a four-year veteran of Tablerock’s productions, and Angelica Elliott, 17, a Harker Heights High School grad en route to NYU later this month.
The unscripted production will consist of several separate stories, all with plots, dialogue, and sometimes, characters invented by the young actors during this workshop.
At the conclusion of the Pandora’s Box rehearsal, Chamlee gathers the kids in a seated circle on the stage. “Lots of good stuff came out of that (run-through),” she said. “And you’re absolutely not squished under the blanket. Remember to stay in character — I’m gonna call you on it this time,” Chamlee said as the children rise and prepare another scene.
How does she manage to corral the different ages, personalities and experience levels? “I primarily teach choice — what you choose determines your outcome on this stage. When we fall into disagreement, we change the scene, begin a different scenario. In structured improv, we must choose to agree, otherwise we hurt the story.”
As the ensemble works through a scene based on the Trojan horse legend, a paper “wheel” falls off the horse, which is several smaller actors duckwalking under a fabric. One of the children breaks apart to retrieve the wheel, and the horse falters and stops. “It’s OK, but could you feel that for the story, we were at a dangerous spot?” Chamlee asks. Her students nod in agreement and patiently re-work the paper prop wheel’s attachment.
Chamlee is quick to point out professional improv points: “Explain what you’re doing; help the audience to understand the plot,” she exhorts. “And remember: if you’re moving, they’ll look at you rather than the actor that’s speaking.” Her workshop students seem to have absorbed theatrical lingo, using terms like “stage picture” (blocking; or the physical location of actors on the stage) and “stage space.”
Helping a young actor with vocal projection, Chamlee said, “Sit up straight. Get your ribs out of your hips,” as the girl laughs and tries again, with a louder outcome.
No stranger to area theatrical venues, Chamlee, a slender, intense woman, is director of Milam Community Theater’s “South Pacific,” which just completed its run at the Cameron ISD Performing Arts Center. The next Young Actors’ show will hold auditions sometime this fall, she said, with a fully-scripted, non-improv production.
Shepherding her young actors backstage, Chamlee sums up her take on their creativity. “The younger you are, the more you absolutely do not have to think outside the box — because you haven’t been put in it yet.” Her kids wait quietly in the wings — she turns and calls out “Scene,” and it’s showtime.