Training the next generation in theater
There are few shows that warm the heart more than Annie.
The tiny orphan with the indomitable spirit has been charming audiences for decades. Its iconic stature was confirmed when a brand new film version, starring Jamie Foxx as the Daddy Warbucks-like character and the dynamic Quvenzhané Wallis as the plucky title character, brought a contemporary spin to the popular tale in 2014.
This month, Fire & Light Productions tackles the story in a production that will take place at the University of Saint Francis.
Currently holding their rehearsals in, of all places, a former orphanage in the city, Fire & Light has come a long way in less than 10 years.
“I started it in 2010 at the request of a few friends,” said Lisa Ellis, the founder and executive director of Fire & Light. “It started out as a skit group, and we ended up with 40 kids. We had no costumes or sets, and I hadn’t even put together a curriculum yet. We put together a team of about 30 adults with experience in direction, choreography, vocal training, set design.
“Now we have 120 kids who have a passion for theater and we train them for performing and train them for work behind the scenes. They can pursue any area that they have a passion for because theater has all kinds of artistry, and we can all together create a beautiful story.”
Part of the preparation for each production includes teaching the kids in class in support of the show, providing a comprehensive exploration of not only the show itself but its context.
Ellis said that Fire & Light looks for shows that have “a wonderful story that lifts people up,” and she feels that Annie fills that bill.
“It’s such an inspiring story,” she said. “This little orphan sees the sunny side of any situation, and that spirit is contagious. She has this sunny disposition that infiltrates everyone around her. There are so many positive messages about adoption and positive experiences with that.”
Mary Beth Frank, who is directing Fire & Light’s Annie, echoes Ellis’s sentiments.
“What I think draws me to the story is, how do you look out for people who are not like yourself, who might be in a different place than you are? At first, Daddy Warbucks doesn’t even see Annie, she’s just this ‘other.’ The show teaches kids how to see people as people who may be different than we are or from a different culture or a different place in life. But we’re all still people. There’s hope and progression as Warbucks starts to see Annie differently. He’s forced to stop and see this child. It’s very meaningful.”
Finding the heart of the show
The success of any production of Annie rests on the shoulders of a very young girl who is at the heart of the entire show and plotline. Finding that actor is typically challenging, and Frank admits that they had three strong contenders who were put through a tough series of tests, looking for a weakness.
While each girl held up well to the tasks, the final decision was to cast Jillian Hanson. In a quirky twist of fate, Daddy Warbucks will be played by her brother, Jake, who is in his last year with the program.
“When they did a scene together, they were just so comfortable with each other,” Frank said. “They were just brilliant together. I was hesitant at first, wondering if it would be weird for them. But they had such a comfortability with each other — they giggle, they hug — that it wasn’t at all awkward. And since this is his last play with us, I thought this performance together would be something they could hold onto together in the years to come. They’re both just incredibly talented.”
Frank herself has a history of her own with the show, having performed in a touring production starring Jo Anne Worley as Miss Hannigan.
The show, which took place almost 30 years ago at the Starlight in Indianapolis, featured star performers in the leads but area talent in the supporting cast, with Frank being cast as the orphan Pepper.
Now approaching the show as an adult and as its director, Frank looked at the script and story in a new way.
“When you’re a kid and you’re in it, a lot of it goes past you,” Frank said. “But as a director, I’m dissecting it textually, and you come to understand the characters more. You see how they grow and how they’re challenged.”
Learning and Growing
Frank also appreciates watching the kids who learn from and perform for Fire & Light grow and face challenges as well. She said the actress who plays Miss Hannigan, Jessica Munsie, was afraid to project her voice when she was first playing Belle in their production of Beauty and the Beast.
Now, said Frank, Munsie “blows the roof off the place.”
“That’s what I love most about what we do,” Frank added. “I love to watch the kids progress. I see kids who are shy and timid and unsure of themselves grow into confident people who are comfortable in their own skins. They can go out into the world and not be scared.”
Ellis, who could little have imagined what that skit group would grow to be, hopes that their productions not only serve to inspire the performers but also the audiences.
“If we all do our jobs well,” Ellis said, “there will just be that much more passion in this community for theater.”