It's a whirl of costumes as the 18 members of the Theatre Adventure Program's Adult Troupe prepare for rehearsal at the West Village Meeting House in West Brattleboro.
Rhinestone-studded cowboy hats. Tall chef's hats. Tiaras. Fedoras. Leather jackets. Tuxedo tails. Capes. A pink ball gown. A pirate's gold chain. A floor-length rain jacket. A dapper sport jacket over cool white turtleneck. A fire hose.
The troupe is just days from its performances of the original play "Enchantment" -- 10:30 a.m. on April 11 and 7 p.m. on April 12 at the Meeting House -- and the energy in the room is big.
Shelley Bevins, playing the "Firefighter-Clown," races from person to person and mimes spraying each
Katharine Breunig slips into a dapper tuxedo jacket with tails, her lacy cravat billowing from neck to stomach, as befits her character, "Beethoven." Nathan Hirth makes a spectacular "Cinderella" in a fabulous tiara pink gown. Chantae Samuels stomps her boot-clad feet as she becomes the pirate also known as "Evil Hawaiian Queen."
Since 2004, TAP, a program of Brattleboro's New England Youth Theater, has offered theatre arts classes for children, youth, and adults with disabilities, while also welcoming a smaller number of typically developing students. The classes
Early spring sun floods the Meeting House's Main Hall, turning everyone into crisp silhouettes as they gather slowly near the floor-to-ceiling windows. They form a loose circle that completes when Zach Teller, the "Handsome Dude" in sport jacket and turtleneck, steps forward so that he is between Laura Lawson-Tucker, one of the troupe's two directors, and Leif Pfaff-Powers, a fellow actor currently playing "Elvis-Cook."
"Welcome, everybody," Laura says. Her voice is clear and resonant. "Let's look around to see who is here."
The entire troupe turns watchful and quiet immediately. They know each other well by now, having worked together from 9 a.m. to noon every Thursday morning since January 10. All but one have been members of previous TAP troupes, too.
But this is more than a social group, more than a collection of people who spend time together. Even without the costumes, their attention and commitment to each other, to the warm-up exercises Laura leads and to the rehearsal as it begins, mark them as something different.
These women and men are actors.
They stretch, shake out their limbs to the best of their ability and play a game called "Zing!," passing the word from person to person around the circle as a way of heightening concentration and cooperation. Parents and support professionals, individuals who assist the actors, participate fully in the games.
Then Laura calls places. Co-director and stage manager Darlene Jenson readies sound cues at a computer in the back of the room while doing several dozen other stage managing tasks simultaneously. With a focused hubbub, the actors find their off-stage stations and wait for the play to start.
Susan Mandell, a member of the troupe for the past
These two "Rhinestone Cowboys" walk halfway down the ramp. Susan begins to deliver her first speech: the chorus of Glen Campbell's "Rhinestone Cowboy."
Laura stops them there. This entrance needs to be magnificent. Susan works on her gallop, on directing her attention to the audience, on acting the lyrics while she sings them. Danny, with the help of several thoughtfully enthusiastic support professionals, practices miming lassoing and talking on the phone.
The action starts, stops at moments that need to be punched up or re-blocked or just done again, starts again, stops. When an ethereal Sarah May enters as the "Magical Figure" who transports the Cowboys into allegorical dreams, everyone sighs a little at the loveliness of her graceful gestures and robin's-egg blue costume.
Movement, halting. Thinking, action. Attempts, mistakes. Listening, asking. Stumbles, applause. The rehearsal moves like a life, one with great humor and heart, with patience and a love of excellence.
Jane Barron and Julia Kondracki act out teasing and ridicule as the "Rough & Tumble Cowboys" who mock the Rhinestone Cowboys for loving glitter and glamour. In a dream sequence, Jenny Rainville's "Loretta Georgia May" and Brian White's "Edward Cullen" dance like it's nobody's business -- they're that good. Liz Cutts makes a majestic and otherworldly "Queen of England" (with Carol Nilges as her devoted "Lady-in-Waiting"), as does Adam Crocker as "Dr. Who."
"Frank Sinatra" shows some classy moves in Erin Ansart's cool-cat interpretation, while Ben Milkman's "Elwood" goes the appropriate amount of Blues Brother crazy. Meanwhile, Evan Cross as "Pirate Jack Sparrow" and Josh Blaushild as "Pirate Captain Rich," alongside the indomitable "Evil Hawaiian Queen," are indeed as mean and boisterous as you'd hope pirates to be.
The characters tumble along as the play explores themes that TAP staff discovered were important to troupe members. In the TAP process, the story is born out of character studies the actors begin in September. The staff creates the script around those characters and the actors' interests.
In "Enchantment," the guiding themes are that everyone is welcome at the table for who they are; that all ideas are heard; that differences bring unexpected and delightful possibilities; and that imaginations inspire greatness. These are the values the actors live on and off the stage.
At the rehearsal's midpoint, just after Frank Sinatra has bested Captain Rich with the power of his singing, the Magical Figure returns to send the Rhinestone Cowboys into another dream. With an elegant wave of her arm, she transforms the scene to a place where the characters will make room for everyone to succeed, where cowboys glitter and pirates bake pies.
First, though, the troupe takes a break. It's hard work to make something extraordinary, and everyone is looking forward to snacks.
The Adult Troupe of the Theatre Adventure Program warmly welcomes all to attend their performances of "Enchantment" on Thursday, April 11, at 10:30 a.m. and Friday, April 12, at 7 p.m. at the West Village Meeting House. For more information about this production, and the Youth Troupe's performance of "The Jungle Book" on May 9 and 10, contact Laura Lawson-Tucker at 802-257-7024 or Darlene Jenson at 802-254-9528.
To support the Theatre Adventure Program, send donations to NEYT, 100 Flat Street, Brattleboro, Vt., 05301. Learn more at neyt.org.