David Reece Hutchison wanted a break from Philadelphia, where he attended the University of the Arts and has been performing, mostly Shakespeare, since.
“I was itching for more,” said the young actor.
A friend suggested Hutchinson apply to the National Players, where he would be on the move.
Known as the oldest traveling theater company in the United States, the National Players allow early-career artists to join and perform. However, they are not just performing at their home base at Olney Theatre Center, but around the country. Their performances make theater companies more accessible in venues such as schools, public-performance spaces and prisons.
This is their 70th season – 10 National Players perform for more than 10 months in a three-play repertoire. Now, they are gearing up for a production of “Twelfth Night” at Olney.
One of Shakespeare’s beloved comedies, “Twelfth Night” involves mistaken identities, mismatched lovers and a dose of revenge.
Shipwrecked and alone, Viola disguises herself as a boy and enters the service of Duke Orsino, who sends her to court the Lady Olivia. But Olivia is more interested in the cute newcomer. To complicate things further, Viola’s identical twin, Sebastian, also washes ashore.
As they prepare for their new production, the actors try to adjust to their surroundings after the lengthy travel. Over the past 10 months, the actors have clocked some 13,000 miles.
But being in National Players is not just about acting. Each tour member assumes other responsibilities such as Hutchinson has been doing costuming as well as marketing and public relations.
“Being in the Players has been a great experience,” Hutchinson said. “When we perform at schools, the kids are really happy we’re there and treat us like celebrities.”
Each production of the frequently performed “Twelfth Night” has a different concept, Director Jenna Duncan said.
“When I think of ‘Twelfth Night,’ I think of heightened emotion; how truthful it can be but also how wild it can be. So, I thought of summer and beach and lots of colors,” she explained.
“The time framework is now, but not super-modern,” Duncan added. “The actors aren’t using cell phones, for example. It’s a slightly old world.”
She has cut the play somewhat, again focusing on accessibility and faster pacing for audiences.
Duncan has also doubled up the roles. But it works out well, she said, because “Twelfth Night” has only 10 primary characters, “so the doubling up doesn’t get too tricky.”
And unlike performing on the road, there will be fewer problems with props to fit the theming of their production. Hutchinson will carry with him several vivid memories of the past 10 months, including improving when certain items essential for the play were not available.
“Sometimes, there are unexpected complications, such as the time we intended to bring beach umbrellas from the set into a prison. And we didn’t know ahead of time that they weren’t allowed to. So, we used towels as hiding places. We had to adjust all the time,” Hutchinson said.
He recalled going to a school in a small Mississippi town where the principal insisted the students follow a dress code to see the National Players performance. They had to negotiate a little so that jeans were allowed.
With the season now over, Hutchinson said he has slowly returned to his “daily routine, some kind of stability” now that he is home. But he is grateful for the training that has turned him into a teaching artist and a “well-rounded citizen artist,” someone has done in a lot of outreach. And, after a year of living together and traveling cross country on a van, he will miss his fellow actors.
For her part, Duncan, who is also the casting director at Olney, said she loves that National Players actors function more as collaborators.
“Twelfth Night” is performed at Olney Theatre Center, May 29-June 2. Recommended for children in grades 7-12. 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, Olney. www.olneytheatre.org.