Young actors let their ‘Hair’ down in Basalt | AspenTimes.com

Young actors let their ‘Hair’ down in Basalt

Stewart Oksenhorn
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

Stewart Oksenhorn/The Aspen TimesRobbie Rittenhouse stars as Berger in Jayne Gottlieb Productions' "Hair," playing this weekend in Basalt.

BASALT – In consideration of the age of her cast – 14 to 18 – Jayne Gottlieb removed several songs from the version of the musical “Hair” that she is directing this weekend in Basalt. Gone are “Hashish,” “Sodomy” and “I’m Black/Colored Spade.”

Which still leaves a considerable amount of drugs, sex and race issues – as well as anti-authoritarian protest, intergenerational conflict, death, the draft and war.

Gottlieb, and her music director Corey Simpson, have brought their young actors into the adult realm before, in productions of “A Chorus Line” and “Les Miserables.” But never before have the grown-up issues seemed so close at hand. “Hair,” as Simpson put it, “is real life, and not a fairy tale.”

Mindful of the thin line between the stage and the actual lives of the cast members – and the concerns of the actors’ parents – Gottlieb and Simpson took pains in how topics like sex, pot and war were raised. The first day of rehearsal included a circle in which cast members were encouraged to bring up their most outrageous experiences. They led a camping trip, that included roughly half the cast, in which, between rounds of s’mores, they discussed the list of issues raised by the definitive ’60s musical: “The Vietnam War, Vietnam vets, the draft, war in general, current wars, hippies, excess, diversity,” Simpson said. There have been group meditations, and a parents meeting – no children allowed – in which the older generation voiced their concerns and made suggestions.

Gottlieb and Simpson understand that many parents may not want their teenagers to explore, as one of the musical’s signature songs puts it, “the age of Aquarius.” Gottlieb notes that the cast is smaller in number than in previous summers, with just 20 members. But the directors see “Hair” as not only a chance for excellent entertainment – the original Broadway production ran for more than 1,750 performances, and a 2009 revival ran for over a year and earned a Tony Award – but as a way to engage the actors in a conversation about difficult topics.

“We told the parents, it’s your job how you want kids to think about these issues,” Gottlieb said. “But we also said, this show gives you an opportunity to talk about these things in a way that isn’t as awkward as it usually is. Having this show, the parents can say to the kids, ‘Hey, what do you think about these things?'”

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Over the course of preparations, it became clear that these are not abstract matters for the young actors. At that first rehearsal, when Gottlieb and Simpson brought up the subject of marijuana, all of the kids said they had been offered it, or had been in places where it was being smoked. And one actor – 18-year-old Robbie Rittenhouse, who plays the tribe member Berger – had to take time away from rehearsals to visit a friend, a soldier who is about to be sent into combat.

“He was dealing with giving this friend, potentially, his last hug,” Gottlieb said.

While they have addressed gingerly the topics of war, drugs and sex, Gottlieb and Simpson have enthusiastically jumped into other aspects of “Hair.” The two directors – both born after the ’60s had ended, and both of whom are not parents – have held out the hippies as role models for political engagement and being part of a community.

“They’ve gotten a good sense of what the hippies were about – peace, love, togetherness. All those good things. And we’ve done a lot of that stuff with the kids, a lot of consciousness stuff,” Simpson said.

Gottlieb added that the song “Walking in Space,” which in the original production is an LSD-laced sequence, has been turned into something very different: “We’ve taken that and created a sacred space and we meditate to it, and create a blissful space to explore consciousness.”

Simpson thinks the current generation of young people can use the messages “Hair” sends. At the center of the story is the draft; with the draft now gone, he believes civic engagement has ebbed.

“We live in a democracy, and I’m not sure this generation has heard how important it is for them to say what they believe, and that it matters,” Simpson said. “I think this generation hasn’t heard that, individually, they can make a difference. They haven’t seen Kent State happening; they weren’t on the Boulder campus when the school was taken over. They’re not seeing uprisings against the wars we’re in.”

Gottlieb and Simpson hope and expect that audiences will see more than controversial topics in their production, which is presented Friday and Saturday, July 16 and 17, in the Basalt Middle School auditorium, and Sunday, July 18, in Arbaney Park. To get across the point that “Hair” is as much about freedom and release and emotional ecstasy as it is about sex and drugs, Sunday night’s performance will be followed by a concert by the rock band Slightly White (whose singer-guitarist is Obadiah Jones, who plays the tribe leader Claude in “Hair”). The directors are encouraging audience members to come dressed in hippie garb, especially for Sunday’s performance.

“It’s more about the other stuff – peace, love, acceptance, connecting,” Gottlieb said. “And freedom, or joy. Just being free to be yourself. Act one is a celebration. It’s love and happiness and peace. It’s rock music.”

stewart@aspentimes.com