Actors bloom at Arboretum: Part 1

Published 1:52 pm Wednesday, October 8, 2008

When “Gypsy Grannie” Marilyn Meilleur took on five young, aspiring actors, using nature to set the scene, I wonder if she realized that occasionally she would be upstaged by turtles and walking sticks?

Last Saturday, under the award winning Pinecote Pavilion, acting class was in session as the 10 year acting veteran of Diamondhead, the “Gypsy Grannie,” met and started to make connections with her students.

She used warm-up exercises to break the ice. Students were asked to perform their best monkey impressions and hula hoop to loosen up their minds and bodies – the most important tools for an actor. While some of the students started out shy, it wasn’t long before brick walls came crashing down and they were all giggling and participating.

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The four week workshop will culminate in a Picayune premiere performance of Meilleur’s original work “The Dragon Who Loved Flowers.” The class will have the opportunity to showcase what they learn on the last day, Saturday, October 25, for friends and family.

Meilleur easily kept the focus with her eccentricity. The students were enthralled with her story telling. She carefully went over the themes of her play, and the different types of roles that were available. Of course the story centers around some central themes such as love, but it also has a message about the dangers of smoking.

Meilleur explained that she wrote the play in such a way that the cast can double up on the parts. With such a small group, some of the actors may face the challenge of being more than one character in the show. Meilleur told the parents, who were allowed to stay and learn along with the children, that she would accept more participants if they knew anyone else who might like the class. Any new students would have to want to participate, have to want to be on stage, she said.

Not once talking down to her younger, captive audience, Meilleur said, “I always tell my actors just pretend [the audience is not] there.” She joked about having magic fairy dust that made the audience disappear but then quickly recanted her statement — the actors would have to use their imaginations to make the audience disappear.

“Acting is hard work,” she said when she addressed the potential for stage fright. “The most horrible thing is standing in front of an audience and forgetting what you are supposed to do.” She assured the wide-eyed students, who seemed to be realizing that possibility for the first time, that she had some fail safe measures in place. She said that she wants theatre to be fun and comfortable for them.

She was very good about teaching all the different aspects of theatre from how to deal with the audience to different parts of the stage. She taught them about the wings —not the kind that help you fly. She walked them up the trails leading to the pavilion and said that those would serve as wings (corridors to the stage for making entrances and exits) on the day of the show. Since the play will take place during the day, the sun will serve as the spotlight while the young performers bask in the limelight.

Meilleur was also very good about educating the accompanying parents who also had lots of questions for her. She was patient and loving with her answers. By the end of the workshop, I have no doubt both parent and child will have an expanded repertoire of basic theatre knowledge.

Before the students became overly enthralled by a “walking stick” bug, Meilleur asked how many of them knew the “cha cha slide.” Everyone did, and just like that the newest flowers in bloom at Crosby Arboretum got up and danced.

“I have been coming to the Arboretum and that’s the first time I saw flowers dance,” Meilleur said beaming.

Roles are still available in the upcoming production “The Dragon Who Loved Flowers,” and space is still available in the workshop. Only workshop participants will be cast in the show. The prerequisites are students must be between ages 6 – 12 and they must want to perform for an audience and be on the stage. Please call the Arboretum for more details, 601-799-2311.