Teachers and Students Take Part In University of the Arts' FOLLIES

Teachers and Students Take Part In University of the Arts' FOLLIES

Life was fun, but oh so intense,
Everything was possible, and nothing made sense.

Few places embody these lines more than a university, as University of the Arts in Philadelphia demonstrated in late October with its concert presentation of FOLLIES.  The Ira Brind School of Theater Arts quickly settled on the Stephen Sondheim/James Goldman show as part of its new concert series of significant classic and modern musicals.  But this wasn't a typical college production: faculty played the older characters, while students played the ghosts of their younger selves.

Brendan Dalton & Michelle Vezilj played Young Ben & Phyllis; Carrie Bauer & Greg Nix were Young Sally & Buddy

Brendan Dalton & Michelle Vezilj played Young Ben & Phyllis; Carrie Bauer & Greg Nix were Young Sally & Buddy

Ira Brind School Director Charles Gilbert, who played Benjamin Stone, had looked for a show that would use the student/faculty concept to its fullest.  "We had done a student faculty concert of 1776 two years ago...The faculty and students both enjoyed the experience of working together and singled that project out as a high point of the year."  Assistant Director Richard Stoppleworth, who played Buddy Plummer, adds that they wanted "a piece to engage students and faculty in a meaningful way that both challenged the students and also allowed them an experience that was somehow relative to their range and age. FOLLIES is the ideal vehicle for balancing that demand."

FOLLIES, even without costumes and sets, certainly proved challenging.  The cast consisted of 12 faculty members in the adult roles and 22 students as the characters' younger selves and the ensemble, and was accompanied by a 23-piece orchestra. Adjunct Assistant Professor Frank Anzalone directed the production, as he had directed the Ira Brind School's previous student/faculty venture, 1776.  The Walnut Street Theatre veteran (with 23-years as a production stage manager and stage director), created the spare concert setting at the Prince Theatre.  He also made adjustments to the full version of the score to enable the concert presentation to convey the full story, often drawing from the Lincoln Center concert version of FOLLIES performed in 1985.

Richard Stoppleworth performing "Buddy

Richard Stoppleworth performing "Buddy's Blues"

But the impressive scale of the production never once obscured the show's themes and emotions, thanks primarily to the inspired casting of faculty and students.  "FOLLIES necessitates roles ranging from the 20's to the 70's along with a substantial singing/dancing ensemble," points out Stoppleworth.  "By casting faculty and students, we naturally fell into the appropriate age range, or at least closer to it than if it had been either all faculty or student. The primary discussion of the drama driving FOLLIES became visceral and organic as we saw two middle-aged, bereft couples trying to sort out the pain of the present through reflection on the past."

Charles Gilbert performs Ben

Charles Gilbert performs Ben's anthem of regret, "Live, Laugh, Love"

Gilbert agrees that FOLLIES is greatly enhanced with faculty in the older roles:

"We knew that the casting would bring an added layer of truth to the performance.  All the faculty were young drama students once; we have vivid memories of what it was like to be a young actor, living on 'baked beans and peanut butter sandwiches,' as Phyllis reminds Sally in the show, living in squalid conditions and loving the life of the young performer.  When we look at our students, we are reminded of that part of ourselves, much as the older characters in Follies are reminded of their younger selves when they see the 'ghosts' in the theater."

Casting a mixture of students and faculty not only helps them better understand their characters; it also helps them become better actors.  Students can see their teachers put lessons into practice, while faculty members face the same challenges as their students.  Throughout the rehearsal process, students and faculty learn to rely on each other as creative equals, strengthening the teacher/student relationship in and out of the classroom.  Senior Greg Nix, who played Young Buddy, valued the chance to view his professors in a different light:

"One of the great things about this production...was getting to work so closely with Rick Stoppleworth... It was very interesting to work with him as an actor and see his process as a performer...He was able to help me with character insights and ideas from the older, reflective perspective that maybe I hadn't seen before coming from the mindset of young, hopeful Buddy - and perhaps, vice versa...Another aspect I enjoyed...was that it put us all on an even level, and I got to know my teachers as people and as actors...It was a dynamic that I'd never experienced before...and I was grateful for it. I feel much closer to everyone in the cast, teachers and students, than I did before the show."

Anzalone with original FOLLIES cast member Mary Jane Houdina.  Houdina was also one of Michael Bennett

Director Frank Anzalone with original FOLLIES cast member Mary Jane Houdina. Houdina was also one of Michael Bennett's assistants as he choreographed FOLLIES.

For more information about the Ira Brind School of Theater Arts at University of the Arts, visit its website. To learn more or to license FOLLIES, check out its MTI show page. Discuss this production at the FOLLIES MTI ShowSpace page.