“All the world is a stage”

And this theater group teaches local youths how to become empowered as players

Theater group 2Traveling Players Ensemble founder & director Jeanne Harrison. PHOTO BY MARK POETKER

MCLEAN, VIRGINIA – Students who joined a theater program with the intention of learning to act said they received more than they expected.

Maereg Gebretekle, Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School junior, and Jeremy Wenick, a Walt Whitman sophomore, said they had wanted to acquire theater experience outside what their high schools had to offer.

“It’s given me a lot of theater experience that I never thought I would get,” Gebretekle said after a rehearsal Friday. “I didn’t know theater was run this way because I only did one show and it wasn’t even that big of a deal in middle school,” she said, remembering her school play.

Wenick said he, too, had remembered his experience acting in his middle school play and wanted to return to theater.

However, he said he believed his high school drama program was too competitive and high-stakes for what he was looking for.

Theater group 3Members of the Traveling Players Ensemble rehearse a scene from "Taming of the Shrew." PHOTO BY MARK POETKER

“For my high school the theater environment it’s. ..” he said, pausing, “‘Toxic’ might not be the right word, but it kind of is. It’s like very competitive and angry ... And that’s very different from TP (Traveling Players).”

Both consulted family friends, who pointed them toward the Traveling Players Ensemble. Traveling Players, founded and directed by Montgomery County native Jeanne Harrison, teaches high-school-age students how to prepare and run a theatrical production as an ensemble. Gabretlekle and Wenick’s ensemble has an instructor-student ratio of 1-to-4.   

Wenick said he found that ensemble structure of the program afforded opportunities to work as a cohesive team. He said he liked the fact that the program emphasized team building rather than competition between actors.

“It’s more relaxed, and it’s more about bonding with your ensemble members and just creating something,” Wenick said, comparing Traveling Players with his high school theater program.

He said the fact that ensemble started with just a script, William Shakespeare’s “Taming of the Shrew,” and ended with a production that they created was refreshing.

“None of us knows where it’s going to go, and then seeing this (the finished product), you are the one(s) that made it what it was,” Wenick said. “It’s very empowering, I would say."

Harrison, in charge of Traveling Players Ensemble in its 15th year, said she continues to direct teens in dramatic productions for a few reasons.

Theater group 1Jeanne Harrison preps the cast of “Taming of the Shrew.” PHOTO BY MARK POETKER  

“The ruse is that I’m teaching theater, which I am, but maybe that is the play within the play,” Harrison said.

“The real thing that frames this is that I am impacting kids’ lives and helping them grow up,” said Harrison in a near-whisper.

“Kids have very real problems,” Harrison said. “So, I think what Traveling Players does more than anything is gives the kids a safe place to grow up. And how we do that is through play!”

She said Shakespearean works provide the most potential for youth to discover their senses of self, as they assume different personalities and act through their characters’ problems.

She said she believes teenagers’ lives are more stressful than they used to be.

Compared with 30 years ago, “I think the pressure that the kids are under is higher,” she said. “Their lives are more structured. The pressure is higher; the bar is higher.”

With the added structure and higher standards, she said students have fewer opportunities in school to make mistakes, to take risks or to experiment. In addition to that, students each day are dealing with challenges that Harrison believes are equal to adult challenges, but that most adults “pass kids off” as having a not-so-hard time.

“They get real problems, and they get adult-size problems with kid-size solutions because they don’t have any choice,” Harrison said. “They can’t change jobs and move to another city.”

She said students will bring their challenges to rehearsal.

“People bring their baggage on stage,” she said. “Kids are under stress these days.”

Traveling Players gives the students “a space they can play,” she said.

Back at the set following the Friday rehearsal at the McLean Governmental Center in Fairfax County, the actors were rehearsing “Taming of the Shrew.” Harrison offered direction to the actors in how they performed parts of scenes, how they delivered lines and problems the actors needed to fix.

Gebretekle said she likes Harrison’s style of directing because she finds a way to “use” something each actor contributes.

“She really can see what skills and talents you have,” Gebretklke said. “(Harrison) takes that and then puts it in the show.”

She said she did not consider herself an actor when she first entered Traveling Players, four shows ago. Harrison helped with that, and the B-CC junior said Harrison continues to help actors with guiding questions if they’re stuck and don’t know the manner in which to become their character.

 “If you’re having a hard time like making decisions about (interpreting) your character, she’ll talk to you one on one ... help you just make your own choice about that character,” Gebretekle said.

During a gap between warm-ups and the run-through, as well as during a break in the rehearsal and as the actors were dissembling the set after rehearsal, Harrison asked the actors one-on-one how they were doing. Several of them shared with her about struggles they might be having outside the program. She also used these times to give praise to individual actors for doing well or for showing improvement in part of the play in which they had worked particularly hard.

Harrison said the actors’ sharing some of their personal challenges with each other aids the relationships among the actors and in turn enhances the quality of their acting.

“Allowing them to share that a little allows them to be a little closer on stage,” she said.



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