Acting out | AspenTimes.com

Acting out

Stewart Oksenhorn
Aspen Times Weekly
Jordan Curet The Aspen Times
The Aspen Times |

Marisa Post reflects on some of the kids she has coached and directed in theater productions over the last two decades, and she observes that, by and large, it’s hard to classify them as “theater nerds.” The young performers ” including her son Andrew MacCracken, now a freshman at American University in Washington, D.C. ” have also been athletic, worldly, leaders of their classes. Post herself was a stage geek, attending theater camp in upstate New York each summer as a kid, and college at New York City’s American Academy of Dramatic Arts, before moving on to a career on Broadway and in touring productions, and then acting, directing, choreographing and teaching in Aspen. But even from that insular perspective, she can see that there has been a dramatic change in the way kids tend to see the stage and their own creativity.

“It’s been an observation of mine that from my generation, there’s been a shift in acceptability and love for the performing arts. Really, any creative arts,” said the 51-year-old Post, who is the director of education for Theatre Aspen and has also worked with kids in numerous Aspen High School productions. “We’ve had kids pass through our door ” many of them boys ” who are great athletes and love to perform. I think maybe we are in a new generation of students who understand that creativity counts. We learn how to develop one’s creative self. When they go off to college, I want them to know they can access that. Once that’s with you, it only expands. It doesn’t go away.”

For most of the decade that Post has headed Theatre Aspen’s educational program, instruction for young performers was limited to the summer camps, with some after-school opportunities during the school year. Over that period, she got the distinct sense that there was a demand for more.

“It had been a dream of mine for a very long time to have a teen company ” an elite group of young people who could be pushed at a professional pace, and move their skills forward. I could see for many years there was the interest and the talent,” said Post. “Not everybody would want to be in a teen company, but it would be a wonderful opportunity for people who want to put themselves through those paces.”

This past year, Post got to test her theory. She started by launching Theatre Aspen’s Summer Conservatory, in which 21 students ” all of whom had to pass an audition ” were selected to participate in a one-month (meeting for five days a week), high-level program. The summer was capped with a performance of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” at Aspen High’s Black Box Theatre.

For the school year, Theatre Aspen instituted two new programs: the Winter Performance Conservatory, a sort of continuation of the Summer Conservatory; and the Teen Company. Post was quite satisfied to see 60 kids audition. Twenty-seven were eventually picked to participate. “We laugh that it’s not hard to have wonderful students come to us,” she said. “There does seem to be plenty of students.”

That training is put on display beginning this week. Post has two productions scheduled, featuring the combined forces of the Winter Conservatory and the Teen Company. They start with another Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, “Cats,” which debuts Sunday, Feb. 3, and continues with performances the two following Sundays. The program then switches gears, with a production of “The Odyssey,” based on Homer’s epic poem, each Sunday, Feb. 24 through March 9. In a concession to the Super Bowl, Feb. 3 will have a single performance at 1 p.m. All other days feature two performances at 2 and 4 p.m. All shows are at the Crystal Palace.

Post played Hodel, the second-oldest daughter, in a Broadway production of “Fiddler on the Roof,” and also appeared on Broadway in “Godspell” and “Dames at Sea.” She first came to Aspen in the early ’80s to appear in “Cabaret” at the short-lived Columbine Dinner Playhouse (located in the Pitkin County Courthouse Annex, in a space now occupied by the Aspen/Pitkin County Housing Department). It was there she met her husband, Scott MacCracken, who was starring in “Godspell.” The couple returned to their New York base, but when it came time to start a family, they settled back in Aspen in 1984.

Post scaled back her ambition, but remained a prominent part of the local theater scene. For Aspen Community Theatre, she starred as Audrey in “Little Shop of Horrors” and as Nancy in “Oliver,” and also directed the ACT productions of “The Sound of Music,” “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying” and “Steel Magnolias.” Her ACT choreography credits are nearly too numerous to count. With Theatre Aspen, she played Germaine in the Steve Martin comedy, “Picasso at the Lapine Agile.”

In her work with younger performers, Post doesn’t hesitate to bring in the standards she learned in her professional experience. For both “Cats” and “The Odyssey,” rehearsals have been five days a week for approximately three weeks.

“We don’t treat them as though they’re little kids,” she said, referring to Theatre Aspen’s Winter Conservatory and Teen Company. “There are expectations on them. We tell them, we expect you to give what any adult actor we’d hire would give.

“I think they like that. They like being treated with that kind of respect.”

The productions, though, have been tailored to the ages ” 10 to 18 years ” of the performers. “Cats,” which was the longest-running musical in Broadway history (since bested by “Phantom of the Opera”), has been trimmed down to an hour-long version. The show, based on the writings of T.S. Eliot, has themes of aging, death and acceptance of both; Post says those have been toned down. This version, directed by Post, plays up both the ensemble nature of the musical and the individual characters.

Of the ensemble aspect, Post says the actors are “learning that it’s like a puzzle, that everyone needs to be in it for it to work.” Of the individual characters, she said, “Even though we’re cats, every cat is uniquely different onstage. They have human attributes, and everyone got to develop a real sense of character. We started with everyone writing a biography of their cat.”

Rounding out the production are music director Rachel Aurand, a former teacher in Glenwood Springs whom Post coaxed back to the valley to work on these projects, and pianist David Dyer, who works at the Crystal Palace and has done much work with Aspen Community Theatre.

Post saw the Seattle Children’s Theatre production of “The Odyssey” some 10 years ago, and filed it away as a production she would eventually present. She sees it as an opportunity to work out some different performance muscles for the Theatre Aspen participants.

“Our valley is very music-theater-oriented, and I didn’t think the kids were getting much of a chance to focus on the written word,” said Post, who will direct the family musical “Seussical,” based on the writing of Dr. Seuss, during Theatre Aspen’s 2008 summer season. “This was a way to get them unencumbered from song and dance, and really work on the way they use their voice.”

Theatre Aspen’s production of Homer’s 700 B.C. poem gives several twists to the story of Odysseus’ long journey home following the Trojan War. For one, Post says this version is slightly avant-garde ” appropriate, given how modern Homer’s original text was. The narrative is non-linear, and women and servants were not excluded from the action.

“It’s not necessarily set in ancient times,” said Post. “Sort of like ‘Star Wars’ ” is this in the past or in the future? Is it modern or not? And that’s in the way they act, and in the way we use our set.”

Post has also dialed down the gore factor from what is potentially a violent spectacle. Her “Odyssey” won’t be mistaken for the splatter-fest that is the current film version of “Sweeney Todd.”

“We went without the bloody murders,” she said. “It’s apres-ski; it’s for the whole family. And there’s so much more to the story than the bloody swords in the stomach.”

Finally, Theatre Aspen’s “Odyssey” doesn’t run to epic lengths. Like “Cats,” it clocks in at a kid-friendly one hour.

“It doesn’t take us 15 years to get through,” said Post.


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