Growing up on the Theatre Aspen stage
If You Go …
What: 2017 Theatre Aspen Apprentice Showcase
Where: Hurst Theatre, Rio Grande Park
When: Sunday, Aug. 13, 7 p.m.
How much: $33
Tickets: Theatre Aspen box office; www.theatreaspen.org
Annabel O’Hagan pretty much grew up onstage in the Theatre Aspen tent.
Seeing shows there fed her love of theater as a kid. Some of her first onstage performances were in that tent as a teenager and Theatre Aspen School student. And this summer, the 20-year-old Harvard University rising junior and Theatre Aspen Apprentice has had one of the most prominent roles of the season there, playing the sharp-elbowed bully Amber in the summer’s hit production of “Hairspray.”
O’Hagan grew up in Virginia but has been spending summers with her family in Aspen since age 12. After O’Hagan gave stand-out performances in Theatre Aspen School productions like “Working” and a “Romeo and Juliet” musical, she recalls the company’s former artistic director Paige Price offering her some key words of encouragement.
“She told me, ‘Some day we’ll move you up,’” O’Hagan recalled Tuesday before a rehearsal at the Red Brick Center. “‘You’ll be an apprentice or you’ll make it to the main stage.”
She did both this summer, earning a spot in the 15-member 2017 Theatre Aspen Apprentice class, alongside talented theater students from across the U.S., and winning the part in “Hairspray” after a springtime Boston audition.
“It felt very full circle to be on the main stage after sort of growing up there,” O’Hagan said.
With her history in the Theatre Aspen School, O’Hagan did have some concerns that she wouldn’t be taken seriously this summer.
“I was worried about being treated as a kid,” she said. “But that was not the case at all. … They treated me like a professional actress, even though I still have a lot to learn.”
She and her fellow apprentices will take over the Hurst Theatre on Sunday night for the annual Theatre Aspen Apprentice Showcase. The up-and-coming theater professionals have titled the evening “15 Degrees of Separation,” taking a cue from the tight-knit relationships that have formed among the 15 apprentices this summer.
O’Hagan will sing “The History of Wrong Guys,” from “Kinky Boots,” in the showcase and perform in an ensemble number during an eclectic evening of song and dance. The apprentices also wrote an original song for a group performance this year, and have drafted their non-performance members — who are working in stage management, production, lighting, education, costume, administration and sound — to perform in the show, as well.
“It’s a beautiful collection of work that also shows how we’ve grown this summer,” O’Hagan said.
The theater’s apprentice program invites students to work alongside Broadway and regional theater veterans on the summer repertory season, while they also take master classes and teach in the theater’s school (and often man theater concession stands). Some apprentices have onstage or backstage roles in all three of Theatre Aspen’s summer productions. O’Hagan has just the one big part, but also understudies in “The World According to Snoopy” and teaches. On some days this summer, she’s led a class at the Theatre Aspen School in the morning, performed in a matinee of “Snoopy” and then after nightfall taken the stage as Amber in “Hairspray.”
“At the end of those days you take a breath and remember that you’re living the dream,” she said.
Playing a villain like Amber, with sold-out “Hairspray” crowds at the Hurst Theatre rooting against her, has been a fresh experience for O’Hagan. Often, when she finishes her big solo song, “Cooties,” in which she torments and teases the show’s lovable protagonist, she’s met with glares instead of applause.
“I have to keep the energy up when I know the whole audience is against me,” she said. “I usually play the sweet girl, so this is a complete 180 for me. Some days it’s fun and some days it’s hard.”
Director Mark Martino helped her find a three-dimensional Amber rather than a caricature of the high school “mean girl.”
“He pushed me and helped me find the balance between the high school girl and being a totally nasty human being,” she said.
Unlike most of her fellow apprentices, she’s not studying in a conservatory program that focuses on performance. A broader liberal arts education, she hopes, will inform her work as an actress.
“For me to become a great performer I wanted to really learn what it means to be a human — studying English and psychology and doing analytical study of theater,” she said.
And though her gifts as an actor and singer have been on full display this summer, O’Hagan isn’t dead-set on making her way to Broadway after college.
“I love performing — it’s my first love,” she said. “But I also love teaching and I’m interested in counseling and arts therapy and I would love for performance to be integrated into whatever I do in five or 10 years, but I’m leaving it open.”
Wherever she ends up, she’ll be a part of the Theatre Aspen family forever.
“It’s been tons of fun, but also so rewarding,” she said of her apprentice summer. “I’m never going to forget these people. And what’s cool about Theatre Aspen is that they never forget about you.”
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