Published : Tuesday, November 6, 2018 | 5:45 PM
These are the most challenging roles that student actors in Mayfield’s Theatre Conservatory said they have ever played.
Helen Keller, blind and mute. No lines. All expression.
Annie, Helen’s passionate and determined teacher. Energized spirit. Heart and mind on fire.
When the Mayfield Senior School revival of the Tony-award winning play The Miracle Worker opens on Thursday, Nov. 8, the show will reveal the dramatic and technical theatre skills of our students, capping months of learning not only about their craft, but about life.
The all-girls Catholic school in Pasadena has a special affinity for the rigorous study of arts through its signature Conservatory for the Arts program, which offers nine courses, including visual arts, dance and vocal music and photography.
The Miracle Worker is the iconic story of Helen Keller and Annie Sullivan, her extraordinary teacher for whom the play is named. It’s a story of overcoming seemingly insurmountable obstacles. The late-1800s setting reveals the discriminatory, often cruel, treatment of those with disabilities. Yet ultimately this is an inspirational story about perseverance, light and the human longing for connections that and has inspired generations.
For Rory Burke and Anika Ash the two seniors cast as Helen, their training began with at-home practice for the demands of the role. They would blindfold themselves and wear noise-canceling headphone to help them understand Helen’s dark and silent world.
As Helen, “you can’t look as someone when they talk to you. You have to have stone eyes,” said Ash said. “Helen is not a happy person and you have to portray her feelings only through action.”
Both Ash and Burke are relieved to be double cast for the role, which they said can be draining.
“We’ve had to learn to have very big movements, yet never make eye contact with others,” Rory said. “Getting into character has been so important.”
Senior Emma Gilliland, who plays Annie, said the physicality of her role is a challenge and calls on her to develop new stage skills, such as conveying frustration and power. Her past Mayfield productions have largely included comedic roles.
“There was something incredibly appealing to me about Annie’s spirit and it’s unlike anything I’ve ever done before,” she said. “Annie is powerful character.”
Theatre Conservatory teacher and Mayfield alumna Andrea Sweeney prepared her students for the role first through studies and research, requiring each cast member to present a character analysis and historical review of the play.
“It really helped me understand Annie and her motivations when I studied and had to present on her real-life hardships,” Gilliland said. “It’s been an awesome experience. Ms. Sweeney treats us like professionals.”
Backstage, the Technical Theatre Conservatory has been working nearly non-stop these past weeks building a late 1800s-style cabin, living room, dining room and bedroom under the guidance of teacher Phil Velasco.
Mayfield offers an extraordinary experience for our crew members, who built 4’x8’ flats, walls, and a rolling wagon. In their on-campus “scene shop,” located in a converted garage, our girls are adept with power tools including chop saws, circular saws and pneumatic staplers.
The set’s working antique water pump, which plays a critical role in the show, is their crowning achievement.
The actors said studying and performing in this show has given them deep empathy for the obstacles that confront those with disabilities.
“This show has brought us all so much more awareness of the subject and how treatment has improved over the years,” Ash said.
In her director’s note for the show, Sweeney beautifully summed up her wishes for the young actors in this show:
“Mayfield is a place that fosters an education of the whole person, in mind and spirit,” she wrote. “Like Helen, the young women in this show have a deep curiosity, a passion for learning and a profound ability of self-expression.”
Mayfield Senior School of the Holy Child Jesus, 500 Bellefontaine Street, Pasadena.
Show times are Nov. 8 at 7 p.m., Nov. 9 at 7:30 p.m., Nov. 10 at 7 p.m. and Nov. 8 at 2:30 p.m. Tickets ($10/$5) are available at the door.