As theatre educators, many of us feel a deep responsibility to present classic work to our students. We are compelled to remember our roots and pay homage to the greats: Rodgers and Hammerstein, Gershwin, Bernstein, Sondheim, Kander and Ebb. Though the 20th century musical theatre canon is wonderful, young people tend to gravitate toward 21st century story telling. While we will continue to teach the classics, mixing in a contemporary show every few years can help grab the attention of the students on stage and audiences as well. I have co-directed and choreographed the West Hartford Summer Arts Festival in West Hartford, Connecticut since 2010. This year we had a strong group of character actors and fewer overall students than our average summer. It was the right year for a contemporary comedy and we chose The Addams Family.
Presenting a show that was written for a Broadway house and a multi million-dollar budget in a high school auditorium with… well, lets just say LESS than a million dollars, can be a daunting task. A professional theatre will have fly space and the ability to motorize turn-tables and tracks. While our facility is well-kept and updated, it does not have a fly loft nor does it have ample wing space. Scenery has to be minimal and mostly on wagons or lateral tracks. In order to keep the changes clean and swift, our cast of “Ancestors” moved all the pieces. Our concept was that the Addams’ house moved magically at the hands of the Ancestors (kinda like Hogwarts) so our students were motivated to stay in character as they made the changes. We used light to isolate locations and changed the set upstage during solo numbers which were often set downstage in tight light.
Casting The Addams Family was pretty straightforward, though we had to be creative in a few areas. We added a gargoyle to the ensemble who blended in with the gates to the house and then served to be a house pet for the Addams Family. This actor did scene changes, got props on and off stage in creative ways, and watched much of the action from a little perch built into the gate. She later doubled as “Cousin ITT” for the wedding scene. The role of Pugsley is written for a younger boy with an unchanged voice. The age range of our program is 13 to 25 and currently all of our male actors’ voices have changed. We auditioned both men and women for the role. Ultimately, Pugsley was played by an 18 year old tenor, so we contacted the licensing company to use a lower key for his tunes.
In addition to the principal characters, there were a total of 14 students in the ancestor ensemble. Three women sang the “trio” parts and we cast six women as featured dancers. Those students danced in Morticia’s songs and were generally featured in the production numbers. Our ensemble was almost entirely female, so when we set the tango scene in “Live Before We Die,” we didn’t pair up men and women as dance partners as they did in the Broadway production. Instead, Gomez and Morticia danced the tango while the dancers framed them in jazz and flamenco style choreography. We also threw in a little feature for Lurch in the tango, which got a great response from the audience.
That brings me to the LAUGHS. In all my years directing educational theatre, I have never heard an audience belly laugh the way they did for this show. The script quips along like an updated version of the source material sitcom. Our cast did an amazing job playing off one another and embracing the campy dark comedy. One of our jobs as theatre educators is to teach our students to entertain. To that end, there is no better teaching tool than a funny script. The business of educational theatre is akin to herding cats. Limited resources, teenage energy and late nights will have you tearing your hair out if you let the stress take over. A great piece of musical comedy like The Addams Family keeps the work FUN by appealing to the adults who remember the original television program and a whole new audience of kids who just want to laugh.
Kate Morran (Director/ Choreographer) has been a part of the West Hartford Summer Arts Festival family for 15 summers. Since 2004, Miss Kate has served as choreographer fand co-director of the Northwest Catholic High School Dramateurs, where she also works full-time in academic support. She has worked on productions with the Hartt School's Connecticut Children's Chorus, Park Road Playhouse, and Conard High School; taught yoga/dance at Watkinson School as a part of the middle school physical education program; and been on faculty with the Hartt School’s Summer Vocal Institute: Musical Theatre Intensive and the Middlesex Consortium's Broadway Bound Program. A 2012 graduate of the West Hartford Yoga teacher training program, Kate teaches the WHY Tween/Teen series, and offers private in-home instruction. Under the Artistic Direction of Dr. Stuart Younse, Kate is assistant director/ choreographer of the Simsbury High School musical productions.