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Swashbuckling thespians present Playhouse operetta

November 22, 2013

Jordan Kost (Frederic) with Jennifer Velazquez (the Pirate King) and Summer Winkler (the General Major’s oldest daughter, Ruth) at the Nov. 9 dress rehearsal for “Pirates of Penzance, Jr.,” directed by Debbie Clarkson. The play debuts Friday and runs for two weekends. Photo by Bob Rice

(This story originally ran in the Nov. 14 issue of The Inyo Register. –Ed.)

The show must go on, but how? The Playhouse 395 “Pirates of Penzance Jr.” cast of young actors recently took a break from a dress rehearsal to reflect on the artistic process.
First-time director Debbie Clarkson has been at the helm of a crew of green horns with big talent during the three-month “Pirates” production process. Curtains went up for the first show at 7 p.m. Friday, Nov. 15 in Bishop Union High School’s Dorothy Johnson Auditorium, 305 N. Fowler St., Bishop. Remaining show times are 7 p.m. on Friday, Nov. 22 and Saturday, Nov. 23, with 2 p.m. matinees on Saturday.
The plot of “Pirates” plays out under the umbrella of conflict between Pirate King of the high seas and Major General of Cornwall, England, the father of four maidens of marrying years. The lead,  love-struck, duty-bound pirate Frederic, struggles with first love, freedom and loyalty as free-wheeling pirates clash with bungling policemen.
While for Shakespeare “the play was the thing,” Clarkson said her ultimate goal is to enrich her young actors’ lives. During interviews at the Nov. 9 dress rehearsal of “Pirates,” the cast and crew agreed that Clarkson consistently imparts her sense of organization, teamwork, preparedness, respect and fair play to them. Photographer Bob Rice said, “Debbie treats everyone like she would like to be treated,” adding that this is one of the best groups of kids he’s seen in his four years with Playhouse 395, a direct reflection of Clarkson’s approach.
Clarkson, aka Cap’n Kracken Whip, said the production process should net more than a “wonderful” stage play. When the curtain drops, Clarkson said she hopes “we have all gleaned beautiful nuggets of team work, courtesy, ambition, motivation, strength, understanding, patience, joy and laughter” – in short, skills for successful living.
A young cast is learning these skills, “much younger than previous junior shows,” said 13-year-old Grace Griego who plays Black-eye Swab. “(They are) mostly middle school and freshmen.”
They unanimously agreed that putting on a play is very, very hard work – learning lines and choreography; vocal training; balancing school, sports and rehearsal commitments; and “reacting right when something goes wrong” on stage, said lead actor Jordan Kost (who plays Frederic), 13.
According to Kost, the cast is a really unique, positive, hardworking group. “They like to get things right.” For example, Jennifer Velazquez (Pirate King), 12, had to master the “awkward swinging in on the rope with one foot in the loop” while decked out with sword, microphone battery pack, puffy long sleeves and a tri-corner hat. “It’s nerve-wracking,” Velazquez said, but there’s only been “one little” collision with another actor. Jessica Cozad (who plays Peg Leg McGuire), 13, said backstage is “crazy and hectic but we get everything done.”
So why go through all that?
Cozad loves “the fun, enthusiastic songs.” Kali Barrett (Mabel), 15, loves acting; “it give me a good feeling (and) the whole cast is one big family.” Just before taking the stage, Sarah Barrett (Edith), 14, gets “an adrenaline rush that I want the audience to feel.” For Alayna Stone (Kate), 13, “when you take a bow, it’s the best feeling in the world.” Velazquez said, “This is the best part I’ve had because I have a lot of moments when I can be almost myself. I love (the Pirate King’s) swift movements and he’s kind of crazy.”
Before taking the stage, Summer Winkler (Ruth), 14, said they hold hands, have a pep talk and just breathe. “It’s amazing to be on stage especially when the audience laughs.” Griego said, adding, “this play has the best props” – swords, Polly the parrot and a teeny cannon that makes a huge noise. “The sets are really elaborate, too.”
Emily Ball (Isabel), 14, likes getting ready to go on, listening to the audience and “making faces at my friends ‘cause we can’t talk backstage.” For Rowan Benson (Major General), 14, it’s the “free lunch on Saturday play days and at big rehearsals.”
Kost loves making people laugh. “It’s tiring being myself all the time. I like to be someone different … When the audience is really into it, it’s like fuel. It tells me I’m doing something right.”
Choreographer Marissa Clarkson, 19, the director’s daughter, said she is grateful to work with such great cast members who encourage one another. Cast members snatch moments to do their homework during rehearsals with the older kids helping the younger ones, said Costume Assistant Courtney McElvogue.
While some of the cast began performing in kindergarten, for others this is a debut, like Xochitl Martinez (Ragetti, Time, a servant), 13.  “I’m normally shy. This is making me open up more.” Her mother, Katrina Martinez, teary-eyed, said Xochitl’s “really come out of her shell.”

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