The Highwood Theatre is about to open its latest play, August: Osage County. A major part of Highwood’s mission is to offer programs and to work with students. They are continuing to do this with this play, but there’s a new facet to it. I spoke with Sarah Scott, Highwood’s marketing coordinator, and the concept was simple to appreciate and understand. August: Osage County deals with the topic of mental illness and as part of the production, Highwood partnered with Johns Hopkins’ chapter of Active Minds to work with the young actors to develop their understanding and handling of the material.
Highwood’s intention is to use the production both as a program to educate and engage with the community on the issues of emotional and mental illness. There will be a talk-back following the opening matinee performance (Saturday, March 28at 2:00 p.m.) of the show and Highwood will continue to offer instructional material and resources after the show’s run.
The value of this program was easy to appreciate even from the initial discussions with Sarah, but it was all taken to another level when I saw the program at work first hand. This is far beyond a regular production. It’s clear to me that this is the evolution of The Highwood Theatre, one step closer to Highwood executing the type of programming and engagement with the actors and the community in the way they’ve always intended.
I’m going to break typical format now to share with you my experience watching the rehearsal for August. I didn’t take any pictures or recordings of this part of the session out of sensitivity for the work that was going on, but I want to share what I experienced with you.
This is a true preview of The Highwood Theatre’s production of August: Osage County.
Kevin Kearney, executive director of The Highwood Theatre, led me to the rehearsal studio upstairs. Rehearsal was already in progress, so my expectation was to sneak past the few actors as they went through a scene and find a spot out of the way where I could watch. As soon as Kevin opened the door I knew I was mistaken. Kevin gently turned the doorknob and opened the door ever so slightly. He spoke quietly with Matthew Nicola, the mental health awareness coordinator for the project, who then invited me in. My puzzlement lifted as soon as I entered the room. A circle of 10 or more middle and high school students were sitting on the floor talking. We were on sacred ground.
I gave my subtlest nod and hello to thank everyone for welcoming me into this space and quickly made my way to the side. Matt rejoined the circle and I tucked myself on the outskirts. As I settled in and the room returned to the state before my disruption, I looked around and studied the individuals that comprised the circle.
High school students appear to be younger year after year. I looked around at all of the young faces. Matt and two other members of Active Minds were there, but the rest of the group was comprised of the student actors. Young adults with youthful faces still identifying their hairstyles and wearing clothes that they don’t quite fit yet. It’s a time that I’ve far distanced myself from and nearly forgotten. For these few moments I began to wonder how this was meant to work. I haven’t read August: Osage County, but I know it’s a very adult play, both in the concepts and themes, but also in the sense that all of the characters are… adults. Life-weathered adults; the children in the family are full-grown with kids of their own.
August: Osage County was adapted into a movie last year and starred Meryl Streep as one of the leads, Violet Weston, an older, frail woman battling cancer, smoking habit dependence, and at the very least an alcohol and pill addiction. All of these labels are used within the play not to paint the typical antagonistic and volatile character, but to shed light and explore the various types of mental illness that Violet and the other characters of August are dealing with. So again, I was wondering how this was meant to work. How would young actress Shannon Leach, who portrays Violet, identify with any of those things and get over the hurdle of the fact that she just didn’t have the life experience of this character? The same went for the rest of the cast.
Then the students began to talk. The conversation flowed once more after my disruption. I mentioned that I haven’t read or seen August. I don’t know that all of these vices of Violet Weston and the other characters operate as signifiers to depict the themes of mental illness in the play. The cast explained this to me through their discussion.
There is a perception that middle and high school students are incubated from the issues of the outside world, or that they can or should be. What was clear after watching these young adults talk and share is that the people with that perception are naïve and sheltered. Whether someone believes that these students should be isolated from such issues is a moot point, they’re not. These were issues that the actors were clearly well-versed in and faced regularly.
In just the few minutes I watched them, the conversation covered the topics of mental illness, anxiety, suicide, addiction, sexuality, isolation and acceptance. These young minds were familiar with all of them and either shared their own experiences or a sincere and considered opinion on the topics. Matt and the other members of Active Minds were there to offer support and moderate the conversation, but the cast ran the discussion. They rarely required any assistance. These topics, and more so, the contribution of ideas and opinions to the conversation were on equal level with that of any “adult” that I have had similar discussions with.
Whatever adolescence was exhibited by the appearance of these young actors was not present in their approach to the material. They deal with these matters regularly, probably more so than some adults who choose to distance themselves from such things. The conversation wrapped and the cast quickly prepared the set and started rehearsing. I watched Shannon Leach as Violet and laughed. This young actress would shame anyone who questioned her ability to handle the material. Her and fellow actor Max Rome as Beverly pushed themselves, not to understand or appreciate the material, but to harness it. The entire cast toiled to pull from that conversation and all their experiences to deliver the play’s themes through these characters, this show, and put it on the stage. That is exactly what they did.
This is The Highwood Theatre’s production of August: Osage County.
August: Osage County runs from March 27 – March 29. You can buy tickets here.
Thank you to the cast for welcoming me into their space:
Beverly Weston: Max Rome
Violet Weston: Shannon Leach
Barbara Fordham: Laura Goldberg
Bill Fordham: Sam Goldberger
Jean Fordham: Ally Peek/Anna Beth Starr
Ivy Weston: Madison Middleton
Karen Weston: Eva Silverman
Johnna Monevata: Elena Meiman
Mattie Fae Aiken: Layla Edwards
Charlie Aiken: Colin Sidley
Little Charles Aiken: Max Rome
Steve Heidebrecht: Gabe Kammann
Sheriff Deon Gilbeau: Vinny DeFeo
Thanks to Matthew Nicola and the members of Active Minds as well.