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Jenny Emerson directing young actors at a rehearsal for The Strongest Girl in the World. Courtesy photo.




See The Strongest Girl in the World

Where: Andy’s Summer Playhouse, 582 Frye Highway, Wilton
When: Saturday, June 28, at 7:30 p.m.; Sunday, June 29, at 2 p.m.; Tuesday, July 1, at 7:30 p.m.; Wednesday, July 2, at 7:30 p.m.; Thursday, July 3, at 7:30 p.m.; and Saturday, July 5, at 7:30 p.m.
Admission: $14 for adults, $7 for youth 12 and younger
Contact: andyssummerplayhouse.org, 654-2613
Other summer productions: The Block, written and directed by Jared Mezzocchi, July 19 through July 26; Circumference: Around the World With Nellie Bly written and directed by Shannon Sexton Potter (touring production) July 19 through July 27; and Phantasmagoria written and directed by DJ Potter, Aug. 8 through Aug. 16.




The Strongest cast
Andy’s Summer Playhouse opens, kids and alums return

06/26/14
By Kelly Sennott ksennott@hippopress.com



 When current artistic director DJ Potter asked Andy’s Summer Playhouse alum Jessica DiGiacinto to write for the summer youth theater company, his only criterion was that her play contain a strong female lead.

DiGiacinto didn’t take this request lightly; the first production of the season at Andy’s Summer Playhouse in Wilton is an original called The Strongest Girl in the World, about a 12-year-old tomboy turned superstar with extraordinary weight-lifting ability. The play showcases 18 kids, ages 8 to 16, and also two alum, playwright DiGiacinto and director Jenny Emerson.
“I thought about the Andy’s shows I grew up doing, and I thought about what interested me,” DiGiacinto said. “I’m big into fitness, CrossFit and weightlifting specifically, and these two things are becoming more mainstream, especially for women. I wanted to write something that was very pro strong-girl, both literally and figuratively.”
The play follows a young girl named Clara and her quest to belong. The setting is Coney Island during the early 1900s. Much of Clara’s youth, and thus, much of the play, happens amongst “freaks” — bearded ladies and contortionists, sword-swallowers and tattoo-extremists — as her father is a circus barker (“Step right up!”). Her world is vibrant, as you’ll see in the design of the first act — the colors are eye-catching, and so are the costumes, said Emerson — but it’s also lonely.
Often associated with the “freaks” she knows well, Clara doesn’t fit in with most kids her age. But maybe, she reckons, if she becomes truly exceptional — say, a strong woman, no, the strongest girl in the world! — things could be different.
“Clara never feels like she fits in with the other kids. She doesn’t do traditionally girl things. But she thinks that, maybe, if she becomes this amazing person, maybe she will find friends. The play follows her journey trying to achieve that goal,”  DiGiacinto said.
In stark contrast to the bright first act of exuberant costumes and fantastical characters, Act II follows Clara to a black and white, Vaudeville-styled Hollywood. A filmmaker thinks her story could be the subject of a great movie, and here, she’s presented with a real opportunity to become that exceptional person. But she wonders, is it all that it’s cracked up to be?
“She comes to look at what the word ‘strong’ means from all different angles,” DiGiacinto said.
DiGiacinto, who grew up in Hollis, currently lives in New York City and looks back at her Andy’s experience fondly. It was here she felt hope that the things she loved, theater and writing, could become something more than a hobby. She earned her master’s of fine art at NYU, her thesis tackling Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen, which Andy’s had produced while she was a kid there. (Fun fact: this is also the story that Frozen was very loosely based on.) 
In fact, DiGiacinto looks back so fondly, she said, that she probably would have written Strongest Girl for no pay. She looks forward to seeing how the young actors interpret her Coney Island misfits.
“I’ve always loved how imaginative Andy’s gets with the costumes. … But most of all, I hope the kids have fun saying the lines and enjoying the comedy. For me, it’s not about, ‘Oh, they got that right,’ but I want to see that these kids are having a great time. I tried to write it so that every kid gets a moment,”  DiGiacinto said. 
Andy’s Summer Playhouse often produces original works, so every show is a world premiere -- meaning the kids are given artistic license to portray the characters as they see fit. For Strongest Girl, Emerson has been encouraging the kids to delve deep into their roles. As a group, they’ve spent plentiful time talking about what they’re trying to tell the audience.
Emerson, who also studied at NYU and currently lives in Harrisonville, got her start in Wilton too; she wrote her first play there in the late 1980s, before the John C. Russell Playwriting Lab was a thing. (She’s curated the lab the past four years; it’s a program where kids learn the art of playwriting, and it culminates with a series of staged readings performed by the young writers’ peers.) 
“Andy’s is known for doing all original works. When I was about 11, I suggested to Dan Hurlin, the artistic director then, a stage adaption of A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle,” Emerson said.
His response?
“He said, ‘Great! Why don’t you write it?’ I was the first child playwright at Andy’s. I was in sixth grade,” Emerson said.
It’s because of this confidence in the kids that so many alumni eagerly come back.
“I acted in theaters all over New Hampshire as a kid. … Andy’s was definitely unique in the sense that they wanted to create good theater, but their prime mission is to instill the kids with a sense of artistic pride,”  DiGiacinto said. “It was this magical experience, where people were taking my writing seriously, even as a child. I think that really shapes you going forward.” 
 
As seen in the June 26, 2014 issue of the Hippo.





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