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January 16, 2003

Drama students take over as local theater’s ‘Outsiders’

When The Outsiders opens next week at Seattle Children’s Theatre (SCT), its cast should look familiar to a lot of people on campus. Half of the 17 cast members are part of the UW Professional Actor Training Program and the other half are undergraduate drama majors. Moreover, costumes and sets have been designed by graduate designers who just picked up their degrees in December.


It’s a collaboration that, according to Drama School Director Sarah Nash Gates, is not unprecedented but certainly on a larger scale than usual. She says that students have often served internships at SCT, but have never formed the entire cast of a show before.


“Linda Hartzell, the director of SCT and a drama school alum, came to me and said she had an idea,” Gates explains. “She said she wanted to do The Outsiders but that its large cast made it very expensive. She wondered if she might do it using all UW interns — and provide the students with a very generous stipend.”


From Gates’ point of view, the show would be a terrific learning experience for the students, providing them with the chance to work in a professional theater and perform for a younger audience than they would normally find at the University.


“I asked Linda if she might consider using two of our graduate designers as well, and she readily agreed,” Gates says.


From there it was a matter of getting permission from Actors Equity, the theater union, to use the student actors. The Outsiders is being produced as an “extra” beyond SCT’s regular season, so no Equity performers lost jobs because of it.


It isn’t surprising that Hartzell wanted to do The Outsiders. The book, which was written by S.E. Hinton when she was just 16 and adapted for the stage by Christopher Sergel, has been required reading in many schools since the 1970s. The story revolves around two subgroups within a high school whose conflicts lead to tragedy, but the larger theme has to do with the cruelty of cliques and the bullying that can come out of them.


“It’s been said that high schools have the strictest hierarchies of any institution in our society,” Hartzell says. “Once you’re labeled, it’s hard to move up in the hierarchy, and sometimes the labels stick to you long after you’re out of high school.”


Hartzell says SCT likes to do one show a year that is aimed at audiences 12 and up. The fact that The Outsiders is part of the curriculum for that age group made it a natural. “But I also look for shows with contemporary themes, and bullying is certainly an issue that’s widely talked about today,” she says.


The Outsiders was also a natural for a UW cast because the characters are young people. For Hartzell, working with this young cast has been both exciting and challenging.


“They have so much talent and understanding,” she says. “But I’m used to working with people who have 20 years or more of experience. It’s been said that casting is 75 percent of directing; you get the right person and you can practically go on cruise control. I couldn’t do that here. I’ve had to do a little more coaching, but the result has been very gratifying.”


The Outsiders has already been assured a successful run; tickets to its school performances were sold out two weeks after they went on sale. Tickets to the general public are selling well, too.


Hartzell says that adults often come to SCT shows, and she hopes that will be the case for The Outsiders. “I want UW students to come,” she says. “Just because we have ‘children’ in our name doesn’t mean we’re doing sophomoric and condescending stuff. I think they’ll find out it’s a very compelling piece of theater.”


The Outsiders plays Jan. 24 through Feb. 14 at the Charlotte Martin Theater in Seattle Center. Tickets range in price from $12 to $26 and can be purchased by calling SCT’s ticket office at 206-441-3322 or by visiting http://www.sct.org