To Thine Own Self Be True: USC Senior Ryan Stevens Produces Original Play

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Photo by Alexandra Herstik

“It’s a meditation on hard work and why we dedicate ourselves to careers. It’s a question of the self vs. a higher cause, whether it’s better to be honest or successful, and an insight into the travails, stresses, and rewards of life in the theater and the arts in general,” University of South Carolina senior Ryan Stevens says, describing his new original play. “And it’s funny.”

Introspection? Theatre? Humor? What more could you want from a play? That’s exactly what you’ll get from Stevens’s new work Player King in the Lab Theatre at USC, and you’ll get it in verse, too!

“…I decided the concept of the play had to be big, ostentatiously so…and I decided to write it in verse. From there I figured, even though I’m not a theatre major, I’ve learned so much and gained so much from the people in the University’s Theatre Department, professors and students alike, that this would need to be a sort of thank you note/love letter to theatre and to these past four years. So I made it about actors. And in verse,” Stevens says.

Not only is Stevens the esteemed playwright, but he is also directing his piece.

“It’s been a very interesting dynamic because ‘writer Ryan’ only knew so much, and now ‘director Ryan’ has to come in and be the intermediary between the actors, audience, and whatever that lunatic writer was trying to say,” Stevens explains. “Directing it has shown me both just how loopy lines become when you have to say them out loud, and also shown me just how smart actors are. When we’re rehearsing, these actors are connecting dots and analyzing subtext that, unless my memory is horrible, I never thought of while writing the thing. They’re basically doing alchemy, making something out of what I assumed was nothing, but I guess like those old-time ‘alchemists’ they’re actually just really good at finding what they need to find and putting it on display.”

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Photo by Alexandra Herstik

The “alchemists” that Stevens describes include some veterans of the theatre department, some beloved improvers, and some new to the university’s stage.

“I’m working with a lot of actors I’ve collaborated with in the past, and a lot that I’ve gotten see perform before and was very excited to work with, and a few who have never performed on a USC stage before, but even with such diversity of experience, everyone in the cast is giving a hundred percent in rehearsals,” Stevens says. “I think it comes from the fact that I’m encouraging them to go wild, and be sure they’re having fun, because they’re the ones who will have to go out and perform it four times, not me, so they might as well enjoy it. A lot of the actors involved come from an improv background, so while the text is pretty stiff (verse’ll do that), we’re discovering a lot of places of wiggle room, experimenting a lot with actions and nonverbal communication and the like. There are twelve actors with twelve distinct and fine senses of humor, and the results of all this mixing have been spellbinding.”

All in all, this production is the perfect denouement for the last four years Stevens has spent at the university.

“It’s a really fulfilling experience. I get to spend four hours every day collaborating with these people who are very dear friends, yes, but also just brilliant artists, and we get to put our heads together and create something worthwhile. This play opens two weeks before I graduate, so in many ways Player King is a very overt symbol for my finishing my college career, but who am I to complain when the process is this enjoyable,” Stevens says. “To get to put something like this on, to get to have posters and interviews and press releases, all about something that I strung together over a year ago, is nothing short of a dream come true. It’s the best closing note I could ever envision for my college career, and I never thought I’d be so lucky as to get to do this project with so many of the people that have made college so great for me.”

Player King runs April 23-26 at the Lab Theatre. The show starts at 8 p.m. and tickets are only $5 at the door for “Fakespearian fun for the whole family, another chance to see just how amazing the undergraduate talent of USC is, and a very passionate thank you note to the arts, from a farm boy with a keyboard.”

 

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Review: The Secret Garden at On Stage Productions by Melissa Ellington

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Frances Hodgson Burnett’s book The Secret Garden has inspired numerous adaptations for stage and film. The classic story follows the metamorphosis of lonely orphan Mary Lennox, a miserably difficult child who blooms into a compassionate leader. Entrusted to the care of her ailing uncle Archibald Craven, Mary defies the stern housekeeper Mrs. Medlock and scoffs at kind Martha and the other maids. As the youthful gardener Dickon Sowerby teaches Mary about the transformative power of nature, the girl bonds with his large family. When granted her wish for a piece of earth to plant seeds and grow living things, Mary knows exactly what she wants: to find the key that opens the door to a secret garden where her aunt perished many years before. Mary’s discovery of her mysterious cousin Colin leads to a touching reunion and redemption of the garden, as well as Mary herself.

Broadway fans will likely remember the 1991 Tony award-winning musical by Marsha Norman and Lucy Simon. However, On Stage Productions presents a different musical of The Secret Garden with their current offering. This upbeat version showcases music and lyrics by Bill Francoeur and book by Tim Kelly, proving a suitable choice for the On Stage team.

As with other On Stage shows appreciated by this reviewer, director Robert Harrelson delivers an enjoyable production and inspires confidence in the actors. The cast represents a wide range of ages and artistic backgrounds, which becomes a significant strength through Harrelson’s effective direction. Sincere camaraderie shines in the performance as children and adults work together to tell a beloved story.

Experienced musical director John Norris guides the cast successfully, while remarkable producer Mandy Tenney accomplishes the countless achievements associated with an ambitious theatrical endeavor. The admirable commitment typical of On Stage events is evident as several team members pull double duty both on and off stage. Melissa Berry-Rogers provides sprightly choreography and also performs a lovely dance interlude; Gail Carter serves as Stage Manager while contributing a moving performance as Colin’s mother. Anne Snider and Chris Cheatham play important characters as well as designing scenery and lighting.

Caroline Quinn is excellent in the pivotal role of Mary. She communicates a convincing journey from despising wretch to blossoming triumph, displays an appealing singing voice, and even shares a nifty tap number. Her earnest and believable portrayal illuminates songs like the solo (and later duet) “Secret Garden.”

Tucker Privette tackles the role of Colin with vigor, creating an audience-pleasing performance that is entertaining and poignant. Led by the enchanting Ingram Trexler as Mrs. Sowerby, likeable siblings Dickon (John Carter) and Martha (Hayward Moak) invite Mary into their comforting world, aided by the rest of the good-natured family (Dominick Campbell, James Rabon, Mia Coats, and Ella Johnson). The delightful Sowerby clan presents a standout musical sequence along with Mary, “One Big Happy Family,” one of several numbers that highlight Trexler’s gorgeous voice.

Cheatham crafts an appropriately haunted portrayal of Archibald Craven, while Tim Privette becomes a forceful Dr. Craven. Debb Adams (Cook), Snider (Mrs. Medlock), Julie Smoak (Mrs. Crawford), Alexandra and Murphey White (Kanchi), Michelle Privette (Nurse), Brighton Grice (Chorus/Bellmaid), and Gloria Edlam (Chorus/Servant) give valuable performances that help to convey this compelling tale. Considerable care has been taken with the details of costumes (Gina Cotton and Harrelson), scenic design (Snider and Harrelson), lighting and sound (Cheatham and Zach Tenney).
In the pre-show welcome, Harrelson warned that the play can be a “tearjerker,” and he was quite correct. A longtime fan of Burnett’s book and familiar with other stage and film adaptations, this reviewer was nevertheless surprised by the emotional impact of the final scenes and gratified by the actors’ unabashed investment in their roles.

Attending an On Stage performance is a rich experience. An environment of warmth and welcome pervades the theatre from the moment an audience member walks in the door. Thoughtful touches like actors distributing flowers after “Take a Flower to the Fair” mean a lot to viewers, especially young ones (including this reviewer’s enthralled seven-year-old). Through The Secret Garden, On Stage Productions shares an irresistible invitation with the community: Join this “One Big Happy Family” for a satisfying sojourn into a magical garden in an inspiring theatre.
Performances will take place at 7:30 p.m. on April 23, 24, and 25 and at 2:30 p.m. on April 26. Visit www.onstagesc.com for tickets and information, or call (803) 351-6751. On Stage Productions is located at 680 Cherokee Lane in West Columbia, SC.

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Sea of Art: The Vista Guild Presents New Public Work by Stephen Chesley for Artista Vista

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By Haley Sprankle

“Public art, by its nature, is meant to enhance the quality of life and perhaps stimulate a dialogue within a community on many levels—to search for ways to make life richer for all within the urban fabric,” local artist Stephen Chesley says.

Recently, Columbia has seen an influx in public art works popping up, along with a myriad of different local arts festivals. While Columbia is not always thought of as a cultural hub of the East Coast, the artistic tides have been raised high thanks to the help of groups like One Columbia and Vista Guild.

“Columbia’s public art collection is steadily increasing and we’ve certainly seen an uptick lately,” One Columbia’s Executive Director Lee Snelgrove adds. “One Columbia has more projects in the works for various areas of the city and there are other organizations such as the Vista Guild and the University of South Carolina that are interested in adding more permanent public art. With all the new construction and development, I’m anticipating many more opportunities.”

This year, Chesley unveils his new public art sculpture at the Artista Vista gallery crawl, commissioned by the Vista Guild. The sculpture will reside on Lady Street.

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“The sculpture evolved from a project which salvaged the steel from the demolition of the City Garage around 2004, so the materials in the sculpture are recycled. The title of the piece is ‘Cedar’s Fog,’” Chesley explains.

With its triangular base suggesting a ship’s hull and a wind bell within representing the frequency of a fog buoy, this piece offers a balance of industrial and acoustic elements.

“This piece references my affinity for the ocean and the poetic lyricism of cedars,” Chesley discloses. “The sentinel quality and quiet strength of the cedars reflects a stewardship of nature–The dignity of living things.”

This representation of the dignity of living things through Chesley’s work further enhances the aesthetic of the city while providing a rebuttal to the notion that South Carolina lacks cultural growth and development.

“Having this work on public display is a way of sharing its symbolism and adding to the elevation of art and culture in the city–a respite perhaps from the demands of the times and free to contemplate and enjoy–it may help to instill a sense of character and place for the Vista,” Chesley hopes.

This wave of hope for the arts in Columbia washes over the city as local artistic presence increases.

“For me as a citizen of Columbia, it’s really great to see public art that is unique and of high quality. I love the idea of the city in which I live expressing itself through public art, and I really enjoy encountering art in my daily life,” Snelgrove says. “But, in my role at One Columbia, I feel that more public art being installed represents Columbian’s collective creativity, talent and support for the arts. Public art is a sign to visitors and citizens that we are a culturally vibrant place to live and work.”

The Artista Vista gallery crawl will be April 23-25, showcasing artists and galleries in the Vista along with the premier of “Cedar Fog.” The event is free, so come out and support local art and celebrate the growing culture in the city.

“I would venture to say future of Columbia as a destination point will be enhanced by its level of culture and stewardship of its natural resources,” Chesley says. “It is up to us to plant and nurture now, so that future generations will have fruit.”

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