In early March, a loud saw buzzed across Schenectady High School’s Black Box Theatre as students called for lines in half-formed accents. A porch swing hung on the deck of a home with no siding. A courtroom balcony was half painted. The student actors wore jeans and T-shirts, tennis shoes and sweat pants.
The show was still a work in progress.
If you go:
What: Schenectady High School Blue Roses Theatre Company presents “To Kill a Mockingbird”
When: April 13-16 at 7 p.m.; also, April 16 at 2 p.m.
Where: Black Box Theatre at Schenectady High School
Cost: General admission for $8; students and seniors for $3
But the indelible image of 1930s Maycomb, Alabama, started to take shape. There was only one play the students scurrying this way and that way in the theater could be working on: “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
“There’s still a lot more to do,” said Bill Ziskin, director of the Schenectady High School drama program — the Blue Roses Theatre Company — as he hurriedly introduced the production’s lead performers.
The company was deep into rehearsals, working its way through one scene or a full act before returning to the top and starting again.
“We are just getting solid on our lines,” said Nick James, who plays Atticus Finch, the iconic father-lawyer who represents Tom Robinson, a black man falsely accused of attacking a young white girl. Wash, rinse, repeat.
“Some of us have semi-permanent Southern accents,” said Genausha Moses, who plays Calpurnia, the Finch housekeeper.
The top roles are filled by seniors, most playing their biggest roles yet. Andrea Wilke as Scout. Nick James as Atticus. Elijah Thompson as Tom Robinson. Willa Pisarski as Mayella Ewell.
But not everyone had their accents down solid.
“I still don’t have it down pat. I’ve got to practice it a little more,” Thompson said. “Well, a lot more, but that’s part of the challenge I signed up for.”
The student actors dug into their characters one layer at a time, adding and refining mannerisms, cultivating persona. Wilke, who plays the 9-year-old Scout, Atticus’ daughter who is confused by the racial injustice that unfolds around her, said she picked up tricks by watching Maceo Pray, the real-life 9-year-old playing Scout’s friend Dill.
“I’ve always played the mature character in shows, so being a child is a totally different ballgame,” Wilke said. “[Maceo]’s a little fidgety, so that means I should be a little fidgety too.”
In one scene, Dill and Scout sit together on a bench at center stage after they leave the courthouse, a lone spotlight focused on the pair. Dill nearly broke into tears while the prosecutor aggresively questioned Tom, and Scout joined him outside.
“The heat got you? Ain’t you feeling good?” Scout asked.
“Said I was okay,” Dill answered, trying to hold back tears.
Ziskin jumped in, calming Maceo and urging him to slow down and intensify the strain in his voice.
“You don’t want to cry in front of another person, especially a girl,” Ziskin said, drawing a stifled laugh out of Maceo. “The only thing I want you to add is one sniff and one blow.”
On-the-verge-of-crying scenes are ripe learning moments.
Next time through the scene, Maceo amplified a sniffle, slowed his pace and nailed his lines.
“Stop,” Ziskin said after the pair ran through their lines. “Very good adjustments from both of you.”
If putting on an American classic isn’t enough pressure, when the students were away on February break — just as many had started to internalize their lines and turn their attention to the details of their performance — Harper Lee died at age 89. It was her words that inspired the lines they delivered.
“It totally changed the tone of the room,” James said. “Everyone had a sense of importance in what we were doing.”
Well maybe not everyone. Ziskin argued Lee’s death did not change the stakes of the production.
The show’s content is difficult, he said. It digs deep into the racial prejudices of the Jim Crow South, and the language goes there as well. The show’s promotional poster carries a warning: This performance contains language which may not be suitable for children.
One word in particular punctuates the air as a boy from off-stage shouts at Scout in the opening moments of the play. “Hey, Scout, how come your daddy defends n—?” The word settles briefly in the air — the performance taking hold — before the boy nags Scout in singsong with the slur a second time.
“At first I didn’t know how to take that. I was shocked when he first said it; it didn’t occur to me we were acting,” Thompson said. “It really hit me that I had never been called that, so when he said that, I didn’t know how to feel, but I was struck.”
Ziskin said the drama program has never shied away from challenging material, and the diverse student body at Schenectady makes it possible, and more relevant, to put on a meaningful and convincing production.
“It’s one of the most common, hateful slurs in our language,” Ziskin said. “These students to be willing to portray an era as it existed, using words they may find offensive themselves.”
By the end of March, siding hung charmingly from the Finch home, the buzzing of the saw had faded and the actors started to sport costumes straight out of the 1930s — with the occasional anachronistic neon socks and sneakers.
Two weeks before showtime — April 13 through April 16 at 7 p.m. (and 2 p.m. matinee on April 16) — students hammered home their lines, fine-tuned their delivery and movements across the stage.
With her hair in short pigtails, Scout wore denim overalls, a plaid shirt with the sleeves rolled up and brown, leather high-top shoes. Mayella donned a cream-colored sundress adorned with pale blue flowers; her mussed hair falling to one side. Calpurnia shuffled across the stage in flats, a black blouse and white maid’s apron.
“Alright, you bodies,” Ziskin shouted at the students in his demanding and empathetic directorial tone. “We need to turn … we need to turn …” he said, searching for the words as his plans and directions rushed ahead.
“The court scene,” assistant stage manager Michael Glantzis said.
“Yeah, the Radley house,” Ziskin said. “I know the play.”
The dozen-plus students not in one of the costumed lead roles hopped into action, spinning the Radley house on stage left to show the courtroom balcony — the seating area designated for the blacks of Maycomb. Some of the students lugged long desks onto center stage, positioning the prosecution and defense desks on opposing sides of the judge’s desk in the middle.
“Alright, I need the people who sit in a balcony to be up there,” Ziskin said.
As a group of extras — all black students — joined Scout and in the balcony, a second group of extras — all white — took their seats behind the prosecution table. Striding onto the stage in khakis, a shirt and tie and round eyeglasses, James launched into Atticus’ examination of Mayella, the young woman who accuses Tom Robinson of attacking her.
“Do you love your father, Miss Mayella?” Atticus asked.
“Love him, whatcha mean?” Mayella responded.
“Is he good to you, is he easy to get along with?”
Pressing the sides of her dress tightly against the chair, Mayella lifted her face toward Atticus, who stood over her, leaning on the judge’s desk before circling around and behind her. Mayella’s face started to tighten with anger and sadness, and she lifted slowly from the chair further toward Atticus.
“He does tollable ’cept when…” she said.
“Except when?” Atticus pressed, more gentle than forceful.
“I said he does tollable,” Mayella said, deflating back into the seat, tears building inside of her.
“Except when he’s drinking? When he’s riled — has he ever beaten you?”
Ziskin jumped in to offer notes. Still more gentle, he told James, reminding him Mayella is “not much older than his own daughter.” Ziskin wanted Pisarski to push even further to the edge of tears, without going over.
“I want you to fight like hell not to cry,” Ziskin told her. “But if he says the wrong word, you will burst into tears. I’m talking an ocean.”
But all in all not bad.
One more time. From the top.
Reach Gazette reporter Zachary Matson at 395-3120, [email protected] or @zacharydmatson on Twitter.