In 2000, the Acting Loft performed Once On This Island. Now, a decade later, the studio once again returns to the Jewel of the Antilles. But while the current actors look forward to this year’s production, they can’t help looking back at those who came before them.
Once On This Island is the story of four gods, Agwe, Erzulie, Asaka and Papa Ge, and the way they meddle in the lives of two mortals on a small Caribbean island. These parts are challenging as the actors must speak with a Caribbean dialect. Making it even more difficult is the fact that many of these actors also play more than one part. So one moment they may be a god and the next line they are speaking as a peasant in a different accent and tone.
That is why it is so important to have outstanding actors. In 2000, Chris Courage, Acting Loft artistic director, struck gold. In fact, the four performers who previously played the roles of the gods are still acting professionally in New York City and Los Angeles.
Kristen Gehling played the role of Asaka in the original production. She graduated from New York University five years ago and has not left the Big Apple. She has worked steadily and has even traveled the country performing.
“I’ve worked with some really talented people,” Gehling said.
“I’d wonder, ‘What am I doing here?’”
Gehling attributes much of her success to Courage’s advice. Even as she continued receiving juicy parts in performances, she has never stopped learning. She still takes acting classes and has a voice teacher and a vocal coach. Her connection to the Acting Loft doesn’t end there. She said she is part of a bowling league with former castmate Tom Caron and in June they held a mini Acting Loft reunion in the city.
“We formed a tight bond,” Gehling said.
So tight that when Gehling gets married later this year, Courage will be in attendance. She referred to him as a second parent. If that is true, it looks like Courage also has a new son. Gehling’s brother, Nick, will be performing in the new production of Once On This Island, which runs Jan. 21 through Jan. 30. Barbara Lawler will play Asaka this year.
Besides bowling, Caron is working as an actor in New York. He moved there about a year ago. Caron once played the role of Agwe, who is now being brought to life by Nathan Barnes. Barnes is a graduate of Plymouth State University. He said that there is little written dialogue in the musical so it is important to convey the characters through body language and facial expressions. He said the cast has worked hard to create layers of relationships amongst the characters. This is made easier by the fact that everyone seems to enjoy working together in the Acting Loft.
“There is an environment where everyone is comfortable but still works hard,” Barnes said. “Everyone has a fantastic work ethic and sense of commitment.”
Barnes also said it is thrilling to know Acting Loft alumni have been able to make a career out of acting.
One such person is Stephanie Saunders. Saunders knows how to get ahead in the profession. In fact, she is starring as a severed head in the lead role of Head, The Musical in Los Angeles. Saunders left cold winters behind when she attended San Diego State University for college. She went on to earn a master’s degree in San Francisco and settled in Los Angeles, where she said there is an up and coming theater scene. Head, The Musical is based on the 1962 B movie The Brain that Wouldn’t Die. Like Gehling, Saunders attributes much of her success to her early education.
“I think about them [people at the Acting Loft] every day,” Saunders said.
Inspired by her roots, Saunders now gives back by helping out at the Young Actors Project in Malibu.
“I really support youth programs,” Saunders said. “It really carries you if you decide to do this wild ride of acting.”
Although she doesn’t get home much, Saunders learned this year that Hollywood shuts down after Dec. 15 and so she will try to return to New Hampshire next year at this time. Saunders played the role of Erzulie in Once On This Island. Holly Marshall is making that role her own now and it is one she obviously wants as she drives to rehearsals from Cambridge, Mass.
Craig McKerley is not afraid to drive either. The actor, who is playing Papa Ge, this year comes from Dracut, Mass. McKerley, who has an extensive theater background, has done research on native religions using Haitian rituals as his centerpiece. He said after learning so much about a culture he walks away with a deeper awareness of the world around him.
“Maybe in the past I would glance over a headline about Haiti or another island,” McKerley said. “But now I really understand because I can relate to their sense of community.”
Nathan Atkinson first played Papa Ge in 2000 and has gone on to great things. Last spring, Atkinson made his off-Broadway debut in Sarah Rule’s acclaimed Passion Play, according to Courage.
Such success is not a surprise to Sally Landis, musical director. Landis first worked with Courage when he was a child and has been with him at the Acting Loft for years. She said she is never surprised when an actor goes on to great success. She can certainly see talent at a young age, but she said all of the other factors that go into success are not as easily identifiable. Yet whether they become Broadway stars or go on to a career in an unrelated field, every child who passes through the Acting Loft shares a moment in time.
“There are shared moments in theater that are stronger than most people realize,” Landis said. “Old high school football players always reflect back on the big game. For theater kids, they remember the shows they were in.”
It is a bond that seems to only grow sweeter with time.