April 03, 2017
By Angye Morrison
In his three-act play, “Our Town,” American playwright Thornton Wilder takes the audience to fictional Grover’s Corners in the early 1900s. While there, we see life through the eyes of the Gibbs and Webb families, and experience the highs and lows of it.
In this minimalist production, the Stage Manager addresses the audience directly. The part of the Stage Manager is played by Tehrelle Billups. A Statesboro native and graduate of Georgia Southern University, Billups comes to the stage with a varied background in music and literature. He’s relatively new to the stage, but says he loves acting.
He’s looking forward to playing this particular role.
“I understand the Stage Manager as the agent of knowledge and time,” he said. “I have the honor and burden of setting the stage and the mood for many of the scenes, but with Jackie Gordon as the director, she has managed to make this tough role work.”
To prepare for the role, Billups says he’s spending a lot of time in front of the mirror.
“Sounds vain, I know, but this character really has to command both its words and actions. But when it comes to the really hard part for me – the lines – I sing. No matter how horrendous it sounds, it really helps me memorize them and connect to the words,” he said.
Billups said that performing, for him, is about the energy he receives from it.
“It really helps me live in the moment, because for that one or two hours, I’m focusing everything I have in that character. I like to make people smile, laugh, cry or anything that makes someone feel what I’m feeling as the character. It’s like writing a letter to someone you miss…you want them to feel as connected to you as possible,” he said.
As for the heavy-duty subjects the play deals with, Billups says he hopes that the audience will simply “feel the moment.”
“I want the audience to be able to go home, and step out of life and watch it like the Stage Manager does throughout the play,” he said.
Death is a central theme in the play, and Billups says the topic worries him a lot.
“It makes you wonder what will happen or what happened with the loved ones who passed or will pass,” he said, adding that he’s not sure how it will affect the audience. “Everyone handles emotions differently. But I can hope it still makes them smile, even with this heavy topic. It’s something we can’t avoid, so we ought to see the bright side to it as best as possible.”
Ashley Morgan Brack will be playing the part of Mrs. Gibbs. Like Billups, she’s spent a lot of time trying to understand her character.
“I am taking time to really embody her in a way that makes her unique and memorable,” she said, adding that she and her character have similar thought processes.
Brack says Mrs. Gibbs is a “pleasant, loving woman who makes her family a priority and strives to be a good friend and neighbor to all those around her.”
“She has a very protective nature, but not overbearingly so,” she said.
Brack says that performing allows her to take pieces of herself and show them to others in a safe environment.
“Performing is a place of catharsis for me, something I get to do to recharge. I live for shows like this one where I am able to make people think by cultivating an environment where they can think about ideas that they normally would not,” she said.
She agrees that death is a central theme in this play, and says that it causes an actor to re-evaluate his or her life, and those they’re around.
“It makes you appreciate the moment you are in with those in the cast around you, because you know that you are sharing in a very intense emotional experience,” she said. “In my experience, dealing with death in a play has an emotional effect on the audience. It makes it a memorable experience and allows them a chance to grieve and feel things in the comfort of a theater, where they do not need to feel obligated to verbalize their emotions. It is as cathartic for them as it is for us as actors.”
Director Gordon, who has been acting and directing for about 20 years, says the play is “basically the cycle of life.”
“It has some important lessons in it,” she said. “A reminder for us as human beings to stay connected to each other, to really appreciate the small things in life. That really gets driven home in the third act when we deal with death.”
Gordon says she loves that the play is minimalist, because “then the focus is the story and not on costuming or props or set. “
“I love it because it’s a play that’s aware that it’s a play,” she added.
Gordon will take a unique approach to the script by having the actors on the stage at all times. Instead of waiting in the wings, they will be seated at the rear of the stage, awaiting their moments to enter the various scenes.
As is typical with “Our Town,” Gordon said there will be no props; they will just be mimed. There will also be no period costumes, although she plans to have pieces that represent the different characters that the actors will use.
Gordon calls the cast really awesome, and says it’s a mix of Averitt regulars, high school students and people who just showed up and wanted to do theater.
As for what people can expect in this production, she points to the central lesson Wilder penned in the script.
“In this time when we’re being bombarded with political issues and anger and just kind of general angst in our culture and in our society, this play will help people remember that we are all human beings on the same path,” she said.
“Our Town” will be performed at Averitt Center for the Arts April 6-8, at 7:30 p.m. each evening. Tickets may be purchased at averittcenterforthearts.org, or calling (912) 212-2787, and are $20 for adults, $10 for youth, and $22 for box seats (for non-members).