BREWSTER — The room is abuzz as everyone waits to hear what their parts will be in the upcoming show. Young actors, ages 13 to 18, sit on folding chairs and chat among themselves as director Maura Hanlon, stage manager Julie Hamilton, and speech and dialect coach Allison Weller gather behind the casting table. When all 31 actors have quieted down, Hanlon begins to announce her decisions. But this is no ordinary group and no ordinary casting process: it’s Cape Rep’s Young Company (or, as it is affectionately known, YoCo), a free eight-week program that draws passionate young actors from all over the Cape and beyond.
Hanlon tells each actor the reasons for casting them in the roles they are given — it’s a uniquely transparent process that prioritizes the growth of the actors. Since YoCo’s birth, Hanlon has made a point of challenging actors by casting against type. In its first-year production of Macbeth, the witches were played by three young men, while many of the male roles were played by young women, including the titular role of the king.
After the full cast is announced — and, as usual, everyone gets a part — the room fills with congratulations. The atmosphere is congenial, not fiercely competitive, as it can be at other school or community theater productions.
“It’s very supportive,” veteran YoCo participant Nell Hamilton of Eastham said. “We clap for each other at literally the smallest things.”
The encouragement actors receive in Young Company is a highlight of the experience, as is the level of professional training and the one-on-one mentoring that takes place throughout the process. Even students who have little or no acting experience are given the opportunity to get out of their comfort zone and expand their horizons. With this variety of backgrounds and abilities among participants, the playing field is evened, and nobody takes him or herself too seriously, making the environment positive and lively.
“I’ve learned a lot, and I’ve made a lot of friends and become a lot more confident in myself,” said first-time participant Kendall Smith of Brewster.
The production this year is Once in a Lifetime, a 1930 play by the comedy-writing team of George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart. The show follows a trio of vaudevillians as they open a school of elocution to hustle actors in Hollywood, where the arrival of talking pictures has made that skill a sudden necessity. There are also a myriad of side characters in the ensemble. The play will be performed at Cape Rep on Friday night with two more performances on Saturday.
Many of the lines in Once in a Lifetime are meant to be spoken in a transatlantic accent, a dialect that was affected by actors and aristocratic types in the early 20th century. It falls somewhere between a British and an American accent — think of Katharine Hepburn or Cary Grant. Take, for example, the sentence “I’d be happy to drink some water.” In the transatlantic accent, it becomes “I’d be happeh to drink some wah-teh.” The accent poses a unique challenge for the YoCo group, since it fell out of style decades ago and is largely unfamiliar to them.
Woodmyha Lima of Wellfleet faces an added obstacle: born in Haiti, English is not her first language. But she mastered the difficult language of Dickens and Homer in past YoCo productions and is ready to take on the transatlantic accent.
“I think, in a way, accents push you to be a better speaker,” Lima said. “If you are insecure about it like I am, it helps you push forward and overcome it.”
Voice and accent coaching from Allison Weller helps the young actors with their volume and diction. “Working with YoCo is one of the most rewarding teaching experiences I’ve ever had,” Weller said. “It’s such a thrill to watch the students progress over the years and see them come into their own as artists.”
The program has grown from year to year, with participants returning for the welcoming community and stellar training. Over half of this year’s cast has been involved in a previous Young Company production: Macbeth in 2017, Great Expectations in 2018, and The Odyssey last year.
The company focuses on works with rich and poetic language. “We wanted it to be challenging, because we believe young artists are eager to pursue something difficult and they like being pushed artistically,” said director Hanlon.
One of the biggest challenges is the eight-week schedule. The first two weeks are spent
on ensemble building and foundational theater skills, as well as auditioning. With only six weeks remaining to pull the show together, complete with all the technical aspects of a professional production, actors must be focused and willing to work at a quick pace.
Which doesn’t mean the process can’t be fun. Participants play games like Wah, a YoCo favorite. The players make eye contact, gesture with their arms, and shout “Wah!” to send the energy around the circle. Though it sounds simple, it quickly gets complex as players struggle to keep up with the pace. They shout the words “focus,” “volume,” and “intent” before each game, which sums up not only the goals of Wah, but also the goals of YoCo itself.
A crucial part of YoCo is that it’s free. “We created the Young Company to provide rigorous, professional theater training for young people on Cape Cod regardless of their experience level or ability to pay,” Hanlon said. “It is open to all interested in participating.”
The young actors the program attracts come from near and far. Liam Henderson, from Plymouth, said sarcastically that what he likes most about YoCo is “the one-hour drive to get here.” Diversity has its benefits. “I am happy I’m meeting kids from other towns, different schools, different ages,” Nell Hamilton said, “It’s good to connect to people who I wouldn’t connect to otherwise.”
No matter where they come from, the students who participate are all dedicated to learning theater skills.
“It’s a remarkable community that I feel privileged to be a part of,” Hanlon said. “I love these kids — their openness, courage, and humor. It’s the program I would have wanted when I was a teen.”
Baylie Hartford of Eastham and Brielle Whalen of Orleans are student performers in the Young Company at Cape Rep’s production of Once in a Lifetime.
The event: The Young Company at Cape Rep performs Kaufman & Hart’s Once in a Lifetime
The time: Friday, Feb. 7, at 7 p.m. and Saturday, Feb. 8, at 2 & 7 p.m.
The place: Cape Rep Theatre, 3299 Route 6A in Brewster
The cost: $10; students 18 and under, $5; at caperep.org or (508) 896-1888