Each year the Bravencore Theatre Troupe, made up of students from the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School, creates an original work for the Massachusetts Educational Theater Guild’s (METG) annual high school festival. Kate Murray, the theater arts teacher at the high school, views this as a badge of honor as not all of the other high schools create their own shows.
“The students run the show at the festival,” she said. “I can’t step on stage. I can’t do anything. There’s no adult tech crew. We sit in the audience and they run the show.”
And they do this while gaining a reputation Ms. Murray is proud of, being the nicest, friendliest group at the festival.
Last night at the Martha’s Vineyard Performing Arts Center, the BravEncore Troupe gave Island audiences a preview of this year’s production, Gossip, before it goes on the road. The performances continue tonight and tomorrow and then, after a few more weeks of intense practice, the students begin the competition on March 3 at Attleboro High School. Martha’s Vineyard will be one of 115 high schools competing. Winners proceed to the semifinals on a subsequent weekend, with finals to follow in mid-March.
Development work on Gossip began last spring in Ms. Murray’s theater classes. Chris Pitt of Edgartown and Jake Sudarsky of West Tisbury, two seniors performing in the production, remembered the early work as a time of brainstorming, participating in improvisation exercises, and developing characters based on the troupe’s collective ideas. A hot topic was what the show’s subject would be; the students decided on gossip, which was also something Ms. Murray had wanted to write about for years. Over the summer, she wrote a script based on the students’ comments and the classroom exercises. Ms. Murray shares writing credit with Allison Carr, a 2006 graduate of the high school who now works as an actress, stand-up comic and scenic painter. But the script really reflects the students’ work, Ms. Murray said.
“The students can literally look at the script and tell you which parts came from them, and they can say ‘Oh, that was me,’ or ‘That was so and so.’ Sometimes they can even tell you the day and the exercise they were doing that it sprang from.”
Gossip, a comedy, looks and sounds quite different from BravÃncore’s previous shows. The troupe’s first festival entry was a 9/11 drama and last year’s entry was a Holocaust play. The comic premise of Gossip was a deliberate choice made by Ms. Murray, who felt it was time for a comedy. This suits actor Chris Pitt just fine. Mr. Pitt is a Minnesinger, member of IMP, and an actor whose previous roles include the intellectual Vladimir in Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. In Gossip, he plays a flamboyant salon owner and he is having fun with the role.
“I’ve never played a character remotely like this before,” he said. “It’s maybe the most unique experience I’ve ever had, stepping so far outside of my comfort zone that I can’t even see anymore.”
Jake Sudarsky has participated in the festival every year of his high school career and he has relished sharing his excitement with the students experiencing it for the first time.
“I’ve tried to put myself in the role of ‘the voice of experience,’” he said. “I’m trying to teach them from what I’ve learned over the past four years.
“Every cast has been different for me,” he continued. “I’ve made so many new friends every year ... Every cast I’ve joined has become a tight, close-knit family for me.”
Mr. Sudarsky’s experience is needed this year in particular. Only five of the students have participated in the competition before; many of the others are freshmen making their stage debuts this weekend.
The action is watched closely by Carl Gosselin, a junior from Vineyard Haven, who is undertaking his first assignment as stage manager. He describes his job as everything from building sets and giving notes to actors, to taking down blocking and calling sound and light cues. Although he hasn’t been to the festival before, he’s not nervous.
“I like the pressure,” he said. “It keeps me on my toes, and it makes me think.”
The level of commitment required to create an original work is an intense one. Weekdays, rehearsals are three times a week, often running three hours long. On weekends they stretch to four or five hours. Co-author Allison Carr remembered the hectic pace from her senior year, when she dashed between basketball practice to rehearsals for the school musical, sometimes still wearing her basketball shorts while getting a microphone hooked up before singing.
The commitment is important not just because of the work being developed but because of the values Ms. Murray wants to pass on.
“We really promote that this is a family,” she said. “We have to live together. You have to throw all of your fears out and you take care of each other.”
Ms. Carr concurred. “Kate is building very deep ground rules that I didn’t realize were so ingrained in me until I went to college. I always describe Kate as catching more flies with honey.”
Gossip is definitely not a way of taking care of each other, though, and the students all recognize the importance of acknowledging its dangers. Everyone interviewed for this article agreed that it is a problem everyone has to deal with, especially in a small community like the Vineyard. Mr. Sudarsky hopes that audiences walk away knowing that “gossip is gossip,” and he wants people to “always try and learn the facts, just listen to everything going on, before gossiping about it.”
Mr. Pitt feels that the message of the production is tolerance, something he thinks isn’t as much of a problem on the Vineyard as it is in other places.
Surprisingly, the festival itself isn’t the hotbed of gossip that pop culture phenomenons such as Glee and High School Musical might lead one to believe.
“We’ve forged a nice bond with other schools,” Mr. Pitt said. “It’s like everything a theater kid could hope and dream for. It’s where you get to perform your play, you get to see all of the other high schools perform their plays ... and some of them are absolutely stunning, they’re amazing. Your eventual goal is to move on to semi-finals and finals. But really, after all of the judging has happened and the performing is over, there’s a dance party ... It’s like going to a giant convention except it’s exclusively for high school kids, exclusively for theater kids, and theater kids are always the most fun kids to dance with.”
Facing his last METG competition, Mr. Pitt reflected on the experience saying it felt like a good precursor to college, where he hopes to be exposed to more people with common interests when he studies film. In the meantime, he’s excited for this weekend’s performances and then the festival.
“Trust me,” he said. “We intend to go out with a bang.”
Performances of Gossip began last night at the Martha’s Vineyard Performing Arts Center at the regional high school. Additional performances are tonight, Feb. 17, at 7 p.m. and Saturday, Feb. 18, at 4 and 7 p.m. Tickets at the door are $10 for adults, and $7 for students/seniors. The play is rated PG-13 due to its adult language, content and humor.