If there’s anything tougher than comedy, it’s pulling together the production of a comedy in two weeks.
Especially one that involves a lot of physical, as well as verbal, comedy.
That’s the task that fell to the young performers, in grades 7-12, in Highwood Theatre’s Summer Active Intensive program. They’re presenting Rick Abbot’s “Play On!” Highwod’s final production of the season and the only non-musical play the theater is producing this summer.
Rick Abbot is one of several pen names for prolific playwright Jack Sharkey (1931-1992), who published 83 plays under his own name and four others.
The conceit of “Play On!” said artistic director Matthew Nicola, is that while a theater troupe rehearses for – and later puts on – a comedy, disaster follows. Disaster that audiences can laugh at.
“Play On!” found inspiration in Michael Frayn’s classic farce “Noises Off,” which satirizes life in the theater.
“‘Play On!’ also ties in with our theme for the season which is ‘Off Your Rocker,’ and is really a fantastic piece,” said Nicola.
Pulling together all the humor of the play and the play-within-the-play falls on the shoulders of director Jennie Bissell, who said she has been doing theater her “whole life.”
“When I was three, I asked my mom to sign me up for drama lessons,” she laughed. “Then, at New York University, I studied musical theater.”
Since then, Bissell has obtained a Master of Fine Arts degree in classical acting from George Washington University/Shakespeare Theatre Company.
This past year she taught a homeschool class as well as afterschool classes at Highwood. “Play On!” marks her directorial debut.
The theater chose its productions, including this one, but Bissell is independently fond of “Play On!” “It is a love letter to theater, and especially, community theater,” she said.
Because of the age of the actors, Highwood reconceived the play to involve a high-school troupe in the same predicament.
With a high-school troupe, Bissell said, you not only have the strong personalities theater tends to attract but also “people from very different cliques. There are tapes playing at the wrong time, an arrogant playwright constantly rewriting lines, props falling apart, and actors forgetting their lines.”
When the author (within the play) wants to make a speech, that too is cause for humor.
One of the challenges of directing her cast of 10 is that many times, different parts in the play vs. the play within a play go wrong, and the students have to figure out what needs to be consistent and what needs to change,” Bissell said.
“I also help them find the differences between their characters of the play within the play and their real characters, so it’s clear to the audience who’s who,” she added. “But the kids have been great at picking this up. A lot have great comic timing.”
Another challenge is to prevent eager actors (aren’t they all?) from cutting into other actors’ lines.
On the other hand, even early in the rehearsal process, Jennie said she was gaining satisfaction from “how close everyone is. The kids are really supportive of each other and have great ideas. It’s really cool.”
All of which fits into the underlying lesson behind the shenanigans of “Play On!”
“It’s about what the troupe learns – how important it is to make a team,” said Bissell.
There can be, even in physical comedy, too much of a good thing.
In addition to Bissell’s hands-on direction, Nicola is giving the student-actors a workshop on mastering physical comedy, “to make sure the excesses are authentic.”
Comedy, he explained, especially this kind of comedy of “the worst day in the theater,” needs a different skill set.
The production of “Play On!” takes place August 3-4 at Highwood Theatre, 914 Silver Spring Avenue, Suite 102, Silver Spring. For more information, visit the theater’s website at www.thehighwoodtheatre.org.