At City Rep’s Theater Workshop for Teens, Homer’s Odyssey Navigates Scylla and Charybdis of Bad Habits
FlaglerLive | July 22, 2016
City Repertory Theatre director John Sbordone abhors clichés and what he calls “old habits” – vices he believes are rampant among community theaters in Flagler and Volusia counties, vices he discerns taking root in young performers who’ve stepped on a stage less than some bean counter auditing tax returns in an IRS bunker.
And so, for the production to be staged by CRT’s sixth annual student summer workshop, Sbordone chose a work that was written before clichés and old habits existed. A 2,800-year-old work. The second oldest work in Western literature – Homer’s “Odyssey.”
The ancient Greek epic, which tells the story of the hero Odysseus and his 10-year journey back home after the Trojan War, “is the kind of show that meets the criteria for what we want to do in the summer workshop,” Sbordone says. “We work on the process of acting rather than the performance. Process is our key word. We try to help the students see when they are using clichés.
“My main complaint with so much of the theater I see is that there are a lot of clichés. Theaters and actors as artists need to explore. And so – I get myself in trouble – a lot of community theater work, a lot of the school work, they jump right to the product. They force the product because the process takes a long time”
The workshop’s production of “The Odyssey” is “far less important than how we’re getting there,” Sbordone says.
CRT’s “Odyssey,” which will have three performances from Friday July 22 through Sunday July 24 at the troupe’s black box theater in City Marketplace in Palm Coast, stars eight performers ranging in age from 15 to 21. All are recipients of CRT’s $500 acting scholarships. The performances are the culmination of the six-week-long workshop.
“But six weeks is not a long time to break a lot of old habits,” Sbordone says.
Wait a minute – old habits? Aren’t these students too young and inexperienced to have developed old habits?
“You’re going to get me in a lot of trouble,” Sbordone says with a sly smile. “They do middle school shows. They do high school shows. If you study acting at a major studio or college program, most of the conservatories will not even allow you to do a role for two years. They need to break you down to understand the tools you are using — the voice, the body, the mind. They begin all over again to drive out the demons because it’s so easy when you’re doing ‘Oklahoma’ to just get up and do it. A lot of people call that acting – I don’t.”
“They begin all over again to drive out the demons because it’s so easy when you’re doing ‘Oklahoma’ to just get up and do it. A lot of people call that acting – I don’t.”
John Kearney, a 21-year-old workshop student who just earned his associate’s degree from Daytona State College and is pondering a major in film, is participating in only his second show outside of high school.
“I don’t want to say we’re cramming, but we’re hitting the ground running,” Kearney says. Sbordone “has a very particular way of explaining things and making things apparent to actors that don’t seem apparent in high school — making it more emotional, more real, more worldly, trying to get motivation in motion. I really appreciate that.”
Caitlin Eriser, 18, is a student at Daytona State College who has been working under Sbordone’s tutelage since age 13, when she performed in his production of “Annie Jr.” at the Flagler Playhouse. She’s also appeared at CRT in such Sbordone shows as “Jesus Christ Superstar,” “Avenue Q,” “Shoah” (a Holocaust remembrance play) and all six summer workshops.
“Since my first workshop here, each summer I get more involved and understand his process more,” says Eriser, who plans to major in theater. “You can’t understand his process in one workshop. You have to keep working at it.”
“This process is fascinating and fun in and of itself,” says Sbordone, who is co-directing the workshop with CRT co-founder Diane Ellertsen, Evelyn Lynam and Ellen Boener. “In most of the programs I run, we don’t talk about developing actors. We talk about developing problem solvers, developing communicators. How do you solve this problem? How do you in this group make this happen? Because your interest is acting this is what we use as a vehicle to solve these problems.”Sbordone admits that this truncated production of “The Odyssey” is “experimental” and “even “sketchy.” Calypso the nymph didn’t make the cut, but Odysseus’s rival suitors, the Cyclops, Aeolus the ruler of the winds and Circe the sorceress, with her penchant for turning men into swine, all appear. Each of the performers will portray multiple roles. They’ll use masks to bring different characters to life.
While today’s pop culture is littered with fantasy figures — Iron Man and other comic-book-to-screen heroes, “Frozen” heroine Queen Elsa, Pokemons, etc. — Kearney astutely notes that Homer’s “Odyssey” “is one of the original fantasies.”
And so, when Odysseus, played by Shane Hardison in his stage debut, and his mates land on Aeolus’ island, it’s a perfect place for Sbordone to lead his charges into exploring that process he’s keeping in the forefront.
“Just to feel the waves and the winds, to step on Aeolus’ island which floats, so when you step on it you’re walking on a spongey thing — so how do you balance your weight?” Sbordone says. “One of the things we do over six weeks is work on ‘No, no, please try that again. What are you thinking? Why is this happening? How are you relating to everyone else? How are you creating environment?’ Then we’ll do some exercises to work on those things.”
Attendees at CRT’s “Odyssey” will get a taste of some of that process: Prior to the show proper, Sbordone and company will demonstrate some of the techniques and exercises employed during the workshop.
Eriser applauds Sbordone’s choice of Homer, whom she studied during a semester at Stetson University in DeLand.
“CRT always does interesting stuff you won’t find anywhere else in the county,” she says.
“Community theater gets a bad rap because of the clichés and ‘everybody can do it,’ ” Sbordone says. “There are great community theaters in this country. You’d never know the difference between them and a good professional theater.”But, he adds ruefully, “If you gotta sell seats, then you’re forced to choose certain kinds of shows. If you look at the roster of community theater in this area, you’ll see the same shows in New Smyrna Beach, Athens (in DeLand), Lake Helen, Daytona Playhouse, Flagler Playhouse, Limelight (in St. Augustine) – same plays over and over and over again. We avoid that syndrome.”
For any potential theater-goer who may be leery of a student production, Eriser offers a hardy defense: “This is something I’m super passionate about – arts education. No adult just wakes up and is perfect at acting. They all start out as students.
“So you need to support your local arts. Otherwise they’re just going to die out. If you support a kid to play baseball all his life, you should support a kid who wants to sing or act his whole life. If you go see a baseball game, why not go see a show that’s just as long, same cost, same amount of hard work that goes into it as practicing for a sport. This is our sport and this is what we do. The arts affect so many people that it’s super important to support them.”
“You see habits in all performers – and this goes for older performers as well,” Sbordone says. “You go to what you’re comfortable with. If your mommy and your daddy and your brother and sister and aunt and uncle and grandfather and friends tell you how good you are, you’re going to continue doing the same things.
“A number of actors come and work with us here because we try to break through those stereotypes and stretch and grow. That’s again part of what the art of acting and the art of theater are about. It’s not ‘Let’s put on a show.’ We don’t put them in costumes and send them out to do ‘Beauty and the Beast’ or ‘Seussical the Musical’ or whatever. That’s fine. It has its place. We’re trying to do something different.”
City Repertory Theatre will stage Homer’s “The Odyssey,” its student summer workshop production, at 7:30 p.m. Friday July 22 and Saturday July 23 and at 2 p.m. Sunday July 24 in City Marketplace, 160 Cypress Point Parkway, Suite 207B, Palm Coast. Tickets are $15 adults, $10 students, available by calling 386-585-9415.