In January of 2009, NEYT Founder and Artistic Director, Stephen Stearns, took NEYT actor, Allie Bliss, and Costumer, Sylvianne Shurman, with him to the Gifft Hill School on the island of St. John in the US Virgin Islands, to produce the musical play, "Princess Willow and the King of Thieves" written by Stephen and his musical theatre collaborator, the composer Peter Amidon. In the process, the three NEYT'ers helped the Gifft Hill School understand the rudiments of Youth Theatre and lit the fire within the school to begin its own theatre training program. Twenty six Gifft Hill students took part, coming from grade six through grade ten. The residency was two weeks long and after the final two performances of "Princess Willow", the students met with the NEYT staff and Gifft Hill Headmaster, Ben Biddle, and determined to push forward in setting up a theatre club and acting and improvisation classes at the school immediately. Many of the Gifft Hill School kids who partook of the two week residency have been in constant email and fact book contact with Stephen, Allie and Sylvianne and all say that they are being sillier with each other than they were in the past and that they love this new way of being. They said that one of the most important outcomes from doing the play with Stephen, Allie and Sylvianne was that the upper class kids now feel firmly bonded with the sixth, seventh and eighth graders whom, heretofore, they would have avoided. One upper class girl said, "We now feel like a family and I don't want to ever loose that." The Gifft Hill School has invited NEYT to return in January of 2010 to do another play with their students and further their youth theatre aspirations. Stephen says, "Return to St. John? How could we not?"
Following are the notes preparatory to a radio interview concerning the trip to St. John.
Thanks for being willing to interview me, Allie Bliss and Sylvianne Shurman about our Theatre Residency on St. John, US Virgin Islands, at the GIFFT HILL SCHOOL
We will be at WTSA at 2:00 PM on Monday, February 2nd for the interview.
Here is your primer sheet on the trip and thanks again for being willing to speak on air with us.
Who went to St. John?: Stephen, Allie as Assist. Director, Sylvianne as Costumer and Tech Director/props master
What did we do?/what was our purpose in going?: The three of us produced the Stephen Stearns/ Peter Amidon musical, PRINCESS WILLOW AND THE KING OF TH IEVES with 23 6th-10th graders at the Gifft Hill School, a private school that is grades pre-school to 12th grade and educates 180+ kids. The school teaches a mix of West Indian children and North American children whose parents live on St. John.
When did this take place?: We met the kids for the first time on Wednesday, January 7th, conducted improv games, theatre/mime/clown training in order to get a feel for the kids and cast the show. We also showed the kids 2/3rds of the NEYT production of "Princess Willow" which was staged and produced in the old NEYT Latchis Theatre space four years ago. Allie played the lead heroine part, Princess Willow, in that production. We posted casting the following morning; began classes in vocal pitch recognition, projectional shelf [ie: confident vocal and acting projection... which equates to students learning how to be very private in public], diction, articulation, breath control, focus control, physical body work, timing, learning takes and double takes, falls, slap stick and the lot of it... this we did each and every morning along with stretching and learning the Salutation to the Sun, a yoga sequence which I do in a clown way:
Then, each morning and afternoon, between 8:15 AM and 3:15 PM, we broke the show down into scenes and songs and dances and ran a four ring circus of rehearsals: ring 1 Stevie blocking scenes in the big room which we used as our theatre; ring 2 Allie blocking other scenes in the playground area; ring 3 Music Director, Luba, teaching songs outside on the patio with electric piano and: ring 4, Sylvianne working with non actor kids putting together the costumes, props and set which evolved from day to day as we devised how to stage the play without stage wings, stage lighting, theatre seating [except floor mats and folding chairs on a flat floor and a tiny 12 inch high platform at one end of the room sized 8 feet deep by 16 feet wide [we had the local carpenter add two 4X8 foot platforms to the four existing platforms, making our final stage 12 feet deep.]
We rehearsed each day, and taught theatre techniques and musical techniques and dance techniques each day on Wednesday-Friday, January 7th to January 9th and from Monday, January 12th to Friday, January 16. We did a "Barrel on Through" the show for the lower school children, grades K to 5, on Thursday afternoon, January 15, and opened the show to the public on Friday evening, January 16th. We performed the play a second time on Saturday afternoon, January 17th. We flew back to the states on Monday, January 19th.
MAJOR PURPOSE OF THE TRIP/RESIDENCY: The project was intended to help the Gifft Hill School start its own theatre training program and it did, indeed, leave the participants fired up and eager to take more acting and theatre classes. There was firm talk from the kids about starting their own theatre club, doing another play, asking us to come back in January of 2010, maybe having some NEYT alums journey down to St. John to teach in the interim, finding a qualified theatre director for them to hire part time to work with the kids and, the follow up also being that at least 4 of the kids involved in this project have voiced their definite desire to come to Vermont this summer to participate in one of NEYT's summer camps, particularly Senior Melodrama and Junior Shakespeare and possibly the NEYT summer Musical Theatre Camp which will perform Grease this summer under the direction of NEYT Executive Director, Rebecca Waxman.
In all events, this residency was the beginning of a firm and long term relationship between NEYT and the Gifft Hill School and garnered praise from its sponsor, Dana and Martha Robes and the Gifft Hill Headmaster, Ben Biddle. Allie Bliss and Sylvianne Shurman were wonderfully helpful and qualified for this short, very intense task and did NEYT very, very proud indeed! Our thanks to the Robes, Ben Biddle, the Gifft Hill School and the NEYT staff and faculty who so capably took over the reins of NEYT while we were gone.
Those are the basic facts about the trip and the project.