Lyle Sweppenheiser is the 2019-2020 education and outreach apprentice. One of the exciting things our education and outreach apprentice has the chance to do is assist with school tour, which performs adaptations of classic children’s literature for as many as 20,000 audience members each fall across Pinellas and Hillsborough Counties.
For 2019’s school tour production, THE WIND IN THE WILLOWS, Lyle served as the directing apprentice. Read on to hear more about how he approached this assignment and what he took from the experience.
Being the directing apprentice was such a wonderful, educational and challenging experience. Everyday I was surrounded by such creative and positive energy.I could feel myself grow as an artist after every rehearsal. Directing has always been one of my biggest passions, so getting an opportunity to be a directing apprentice was huge for me. I was immediately put into a position where I had many moments to learn and grow, so I was extremely thankful to have the opportunity.
Before I even knew that I would be the directing apprentice for THE WIND IN THE WILLOWS, I was extremely excited about the fact that American Stage was producing the show. The book was one of my absolute favorites when I was a kid. I believe I even wore out the VHS tape of the Disney movie that our family had. The Wild Wood was something that always stuck with me because I love the world and characters. As I’ve gotten older, I have realized how universal and poignant the messages and themes still are.
One of my first assignments was to work on a dramaturgy packet for the actors. A dramaturgy packet is something that is meant to help actors discover the world of the play and make character choices. I did a lot of research about England during the time that Grahame was writing, why he wrote the book and what he used for inspiration, as well as the different animals in the wild wood. At first I wondered how much useful research I could actually find, but I quickly became fascinated with Kenneth Grahame’s life and his reasons for writing the story spoke so much to our lives today. It was extremely fascinating to see that Grahame, who was born in the Victorian era, wrote THE WIND IN THE WILLOWS as a response to how the world around him was changing. He went from never seeing any cars and enjoying nature as a boy to working in a fast paced city with cars that could drive up to 55 mph. Many critics even called his work a Victorian’s response to the Edwardian era. I believe this is one way way the book has continued to resonate with audiences for so long, because the world is always changing. Working on the dramaturgy packet was a lot of fun, but also extremely challenging. I loved to do research and compile the information in an interesting and cohesive way.
When rehearsals started I made a goal for myself: try to contribute one thing to the show everyday. I was a little intimidated at the start of the process because this was the first show I was working on outside of college. Our director, Tiffany Ford, said on the first day of rehearsal that she works from a place of devising. This was so encouraging and made the environment open and collaborative. When decisions about staging or characters were being made it always felt like a discussion which gave the actors a lot of freedom to not only make choices but take risks. Everyday at rehearsal there was an environment where everyone felt empowered to share their ideas, I naturally got more and more involved with the show everyday. Supplying dramaturgy research was a great way to help the actors.This research was also a great way for me to ask questions to the actors during discussions and help them to create their characters. I was also responsible for taking blocking notes, and I often sat next to Tiffany when doing so. She would often ask my opinion on a scene and I always felt like my voice was being heard. By the last rehearsal, I was even able to take notes during the show and share them with the actors. It was great to see how receptive they were to them. I also got to do a lot of other cool jobs like create the pre-show playlist. I really enjoyed searching for songs that fit the theme of the show, so much so that I may have even stumbled upon a hidden love of sound design.
Theatre for Young Audiences (TYA) is important in so many different ways. It is extremely important that we give young people an exciting, engaging and educational show in what may be their first theatrical experience. There is a quote from Jordan Tannahill which has always stuck with me: “The more friends and strangers I asked, the more defining encounters with the boring play I unearthed, and, in many cases, these plays had forever influenced the individual’s perception of theatre.” This makes doing TYA shows so important to the future of theatre. We have an obligation, to the audiences and the artform, to make sure the people who see this show have a great experience. That is what will keep them coming back to the theatre when they get older.
One thing that really stuck out to me in the rehearsal process was how important it is to embrace the freedoms that TYA grants, something that you don’t have in many other types of theatre. That’s the freedom to be big and silly with every choice you make. You can also very subtly create a hodgepodge of genres and styles, and keep an awareness of the audience. The show itself has such a farcical element to it because of the pacing, timing of entrances and exits and a lot of characters played by the same actors. All of this just makes the play more enjoyable because it is something that everyone can appreciate. It’s been so wonderful to see that we created a show that connects with children and adults.
Seeing the show with an audience was incredible, I was able to see two very different shows. The first one was at PARC in Pinellas County. PARC is a place that provides many different opportunities for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities. I am lucky enough to be one of the teaching artists at the drama club at PARC so it was really great to sit with them and see how much they enjoyed the show. It was really cool to see the adjustments and changes the actors made to make the show more inclusive. Everyone was so appreciative that the actors came and they all wanted to meet the actors afterwards. There was so much joy in the room and it was just so clear from everyone’s faces that it was a special day for them. It was also just a great reminder at the power of theatre and live performance. The audience was so engaged and invested in the story. Seeing the other show at Tampa Theatre was such a wonderful experience too. Over 500 kids came in and gave their attention to the stage. I don’t know if there is anything that compares to that many kids laughing in unison.
I am so grateful for this experience and hope that it leads to many more directing opportunities in the future.
Learn more about ASFWD: The Next Generation at americanstage.org/FWD