Three 17-year-olds stood on the stage of Signature Theatre last Friday morning, doing their best to look older, doing their best to pretend it wasn’t 2002.
The stage was still set for "The Gospel According to Fishman," Signature’s recently premiered gospel musical. This week, the stage in south Arlington serves double duty: By night, it’s Alabama, 1963. In the afternoon, it’s San Francisco, 1969, as Signature in the Schools finishes work on its seventh-annual production, "The Haight - 1969."
Students from Wakefield make up almost all of the play’s cast, with 12 onstage and more in the crew, moving scenery, working lights and sound. The play gives them a good look at what happens day-to-day in a working theater, they said, and has given them some insight into the world beyond high school.
Written by Norman Allen, director of Signature in the Schools, the play centers on the Haight-Ashbury district in San Francisco in 1969, bringing into play issues like the Vietnam War and anti-war protests, civil rights, women’s rights and gay rights.
"It’s seen primarily through the eyes of one 16-year-old boy, who lives on the edge of the Haight and comes from an upper-middle-class family," Allen said.
That role, Robert, is played by Ian MacInnes, a 15-year-old sophomore at Wakefield. His family is played by the three 17-year-olds onstage last weekend: senior Jacqueline Alvarez as mother Jean, junior Nabanjan Maitra as his father, and junior Eric Dean Schiffer as his older brother, Nelson, a recently returned Vietnam vet.
The play is based partly on director Allen’s childhood outside San Francisco, with MacInnes serving as his surrogate onstage. But it’s not an autobiography, the 41-year-old Allen said.
"I was 9, and I lived 20 miles from San Francisco," he said. "But it is things I was aware of. I sometimes wish I was 10 years older, so I could have had the opportunity to experience those things as an adult."
<b>Taking Cue from Students</b>
<bt>The cast members, the oldest 18, were born at least a decade and a half after the play, so "The Haight" has been, for them, a completely different look at the end of the 1960s.
It’s a departure from last year’s Signature in the Schools play, "Leaving Monticello," a look at the Thomas Jefferson/Sally Hemings controversy. "The Haight" was born out of the cast party at the end of that show.
"I asked what I should do this year," Allen said. "I got a deluge of great ideas. Sabrina [Fendrick] said, ‘Let’s do something really cool. Let’s do the ‘60s.’"
Fendrick, now a 16-year-old junior at Wakefield, is one of three students returning this year. She returns in this production as Jane Fonda, one of seven real people depicted onstage, with dialogue taken from transcripts, writings and newspapers of the time.
Maitra, one of the other returning cast members, said the end result was not what he had imagined a ‘60s play would be. "I envisioned a musical, about sex, drugs, rock ‘n’ roll," he said. "This shows the other side" of the era.
Maitra bears the brunt of depicting the other side of the ‘60s, as a middle-aged, white-collar father who has to confront an era and a family that veer away from his ideals.
Schiffer plays Nelson, disillusioned after his stint in Vietnam, and represents the pull of the counterculture on MacInnes’ character. But in real life, he and Maitra swap politics.
"The vision I have of the ‘60s is different," he said. Where Allen and Maitra are "more liberal, I’m more conservative. I think everybody in the ‘60s was delusional, the government and the hippies."
The play has balance, Maitra responds, "but the story wouldn’t be interesting if it didn’t have a bias to it."
Differences of opinion help define the personality of each year’s cast, Allen said. "They each have a unique group personality. This year, because of the subject matter, we’ve had great lunch discussions," he said. "We sit together and argue out these issues. Really, we have people who feel strongly about each side."
They discuss politics and events that are news to the high-schoolers, Jacquelyn Alvarez said, finding out about Fonda’s past or hearing a speech from Lady Bird Johnson. "It’s like a history lesson, but it’s not boring," she said.
<bt>The actors all have their own views on the politics of the 1960s. They bring similarly individualized theater backgrounds to Signature as well.
MacInnes has the most history with Signature itself, working on the stage crew for "Gypsy" last year and the current production of "Fishman." Maitra acts occasionally at school and was in last year’s Jefferson play, while Fendrick starred as Sally Hemings. Alvarez missed last year’s Signature production but worked instead on school plays.
All agreed that the production at Signature is more demanding than school theater, more professional. "It’s a lot more structured here," Fendrick said. "They try to give you the whole professional acting experience. There’s not as much BS as in high school."
"We do the best we can to show a professional attitude to acting," MacInnes said. "Norman Allen is a professional director, so he puts higher expectations on us than at school. He expected us to be off [the script] in two weeks, where at school it takes a month."
The gist of the program was to give high-schoolers the professional perspective, Allen said, although it takes some adjustments from working with professional actors.
"I guess the biggest difference is, they simply don’t have as much experience," he said. "They need a little more guidance. But the comment I get every year, from teachers, is that they can’t believe how professional [the students] end up appearing onstage."