Rehearsal gauntlet turns Hairspray cast into ‘family’

The Southerner

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By Emma Powers

With an hour until show time, the females in the cast of Hairspray are primarily doing their hair. The smell—20 different perfumes mixed with the sulfurous scent of freshly straightened hair—is pungent, but the noise is almost as overpowering. It’s opening night—Feb. 3.

Above the talking, the laughter, the pleas for Bumpits and bobby pins, the thumping bass so loud you feel the music rather than hear it, there’s one sound: the show’s namesake. The hiss of hair spray.

 

Wednesday, Jan. 19

 

There are two weeks and one day until opening night.

“I’m sorry, playtime is over,” director Jake Dreiling says during the customary lecture/pep talk that begins most rehearsals. “It’s time to kick it in gear.”

Dreiling ends the meeting with a plea, asking for everyone to be ready to start the run at 4 p.m., not 4:10, like yesterday.

“That means you’re backstage at 3:59,” Dreiling says. “You have six minutes.”

It’s 4 p.m. The introduction music for Act II begins after chorus instructor Kevin Hill jokingly calls, “10 seconds!” The music isn’t a recording of actual instruments, but the jangling notes of synthetic ones. It sounds a bit like a cellphone ringtone.

During the opening number, some people are obviously more in character than others. One girl halfheartedly snaps, looking bored.

Tracy Turnblad, played by senior Promise Hartung, is left alone on stage to sing a solo number. In the awkward moment before the next scene begins, someone catcalls.

Hartung shrugs, shy. “OK,” she says, sounding like she means, “Let’s get a move on.”

After the run, the cast breaks into groups to rehearse individual scenes. On stage, Dreiling runs one scene at a time, working out the kinks he noticed before.

In the theater lobby, a group of nine works on the dance number for the song “I Can Hear The Bells.” Hartung sings the song while junior Caitlin Wade—who plays Tammy—tries to teach the others the choreography. Hartung almost misses her cue to get back on stage.

“Ah! Ah!” she yells, jumping away from the wall she was leaning against. “Gotta go!”

The rest of the group continues without her. Wade sings nonsense words to the tune of the song to help keep the beat.

“It’ll be easier when she comes back,” Wade says apologetically.

 

Saturday, Jan. 22

 

Rehearsal is from noon-6 p.m. today.

“Saturday rehersals kinda suck,” junior Amber Yates says. “But it’s fun because we’ve all become a family.”

Junior Jack Webster, who plays Link, doesn’t mind Saturday rehearsals. They’re productive, he says, and only half an hour longer than rehearsals after school.

Webster has an edge on the rest of the cast. Last month, he finished a production of Hairspray—in which he also played Link—with his church’s youth group.

“That’s why I know all my lines already,” he says.

Wade leaves this rehearsal feeling confident. The cast missed four rehearsals because of the snow but, despite her initial fears, Wade doesn’t think it hurt them.

“I realized everyone panicked and started working that much harder,” Wade says. “I think we’ll be ready.”

 

Tuesday, Jan. 25

 

“Today is all vocal,” freshman chorus member Eliza Renner says, sounding tired. “For the next what, five hours? We’re gonna be going through every song over and over again.”

Some of the cast members do their homework at a table in the back of the music room. Junior Maya Grandoit works on AP Statistics while Yates does a physics lab. Junior Brianna Fairley sits by an open window—a coveted seat in the sweltering room—doing trigonometry.

“I came and got it before anyone else,” Fairley says, sounding just a little smug.

Grandoit makes a frustrated sound.

“Trying to do homework while people are singing: it’s hard,” Grandoit says.

“It’s true,” Yates says.

Grandoit laughed. “We have to fight the urge to sing!”

While singing can be hard not to do, other things are more difficult to recall.

“The cast sometimes has trouble remembering the choreography, so they came up with little sayings to help them remember,” says senior Nia Ray, lead choreographer.

One of the sayings is a colorful, somewhat inappropriate rhyme about grabbing a girl of ill repute and pulling out her weave.

“Everyone knows that part of the dance now,” Grandoit says.

Sophomore Aaron Gibbs, Gilbert in the show, walks up to senior stage manager Shelby Garcia with a huge smile on his face, obviously up to trouble.

“What’s up?” she asks.

“Did you get the costumes?”

“No, no,” Garcia says. “Oh my God.” She says it like Gibbs is crazy just for asking.

“Are you gonna get them before the show?” Gibbs asks. Garcia laughs, sounding a bit frazzled.

“I hope so,” she says. “I’m spelling your name R-E-M-E-Y, is that OK?” She changes the subject without a pause, addressing an actress with whom she traded numbers during her conversation with Gibbs.

That sort of multitasking is standard for Garcia, who exudes efficiency with her rapid-fire manner. She talks quickly and sounds half-distracted almost all the time, stressed, high-strung and competent.

Later, Garcia recites the bland party line: “I think it’s going to be a great show.”

Then her manner abruptly changes. She laughs like she’s just realized something, her own private joke.

“Disclaimer: if it sucks, we tried really, really hard,” she says.

Garcia isn’t the only person who’s had doubts.

“You know, at the beginning I was really worried that it wouldn’t be good,” says senior Emily Drabik-Stevens, who plays Penny in the show. “But now I’m like, ‘We got this.’”

It seems like every cast member has the moment when they start to believe in a show—for Wade it was Saturday—but for Hartung it was her director’s approval after a run of the show’s finale.

“[He was] highly satisfied…and I didn’t expect that,” Hartung says. “We’re not that perfect star-quality yet, [but] he thought our rehearsal was fantastic.”

Senior Jonathan Ward has not had fantastic luck. He tripped on the stairs in the theater during a rehearsal, breaking his foot.

“I didn’t know at all it was broken until the hospital called me,” Ward says. “I had to keep off it for two days, but after that I was up on the stage rehearsing again.”

So don’t tell him to break a leg.

“Break a leg?” Ward repeats, mock offended. “I already broke a foot!”

 

Friday, Jan. 28

 

Acting in a play on top of everything else is a special challenge for the eight teacher actors and actresses in the production.

“I’ve never considered how much work it is to balance the memory of a role on top of your head,” fine arts chair and art teacher John Brandhorst said, submitting to an interview during a free moment. With only six days until the show opens, all of the teachers are short on time.

Though there was some initial controversy over Dreiling’s decision to cast teachers alongside students, neither Brandhorst nor journalism teacher Deedee Abbott, who plays Velma Von Tussle, think it’s been a problem.

“I thought it would be [weird],” Abbott said. “I’m an adult, but I don’t see the kids as… kids. It hasn’t been weird. It’s been good.”

She hasn’t acted in a play since fifth grade, when she was an orphan boy in her school’s production of Oliver.

“I love musical theater [but] I’ve always been too afraid to do it myself,” Abbott said. When Pope told her to try out, though, she started to consider it. “I just thought I’d try it. It’s so fun. It’s super fun.”

Some roles, of course, are inherently more complicated than others. Tracy’s mother Edna Turnblad is traditionally played by a man in drag. That created a somewhat strange problem for history teacher Lee Pope, who’s playing the role in Grady’s production.

“I was concerned with the fact that I don’t have the first clue as to how to make myself look like a woman,” Pope said. In an attempt to learn, he went online and watched videos of drag queens doing their makeup, an experience he called “kinda bizarre.”

But Pope quickly realized he wasn’t going to be able to learn enough from online videos, so he asked fashion teacher Vincent Martinez if he knew a “local drag queen” who could give a tutorial on doing women’s makeup. Though Martinez agreed to find someone to help, the makeup isn’t Pope’s only worry about playing a woman.

“This sounds very funny, [but] it’s difficult to do the part without the boobs,” Pope said. “The fat suit has huge gazongas and a massive behind. It’s weird, but it makes me feel not like myself.”

That’s exactly what he said he needs to play the role, though.

“I’m scared,” Pope said. “That’s all.”

Despite the nervousness, though, there’s an overwhelming sense of family.

“I’ve been around the theater for years and years and years [but] this is my first real experience on the stage,” Brandhorst said. “Initially it was terrifying… Now I feel tremendous comfort and joy being a part of the gang.”

This story won first place in the Feature story category of the Southern Interscholastic Press Association Mail-In Contest on March 4, 2012.

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