From a Simple Drumbeat
Even though the audience is invisible during rehearsal, an actor dressed in bright colors addresses them and asks them to sing with him in a rhythmic but simple song: "Cho-cho-cho, Choriato."
The piece of musical theater is coming together, but underneath the backdrops, instruments, dancing and dialogue is a unique approach to performance.
When the students of Appalachian State's Theatre Production and Performance for Young Audiences class enter this hands-on, interactive setting, they usually receive a script of the play or musical they will be performing.
This year, however, they became the script; the musical, "Drum Song of Africa: Choriato's Journey," was written specifically for this group of actors while they all tried different ideas out.
"We created it with the cast - it has helped us with the revising," Teresa Lee, director of Appalachian Young People's Theatre, said. "I would write the dialogue down at night."
The group knew it wanted to center on Africa as a theme, but everyone, especially choreographer Sherone Price and percussionist Shawn Roberts, contributed to the end product.
"The ideas, the seed of the idea came from Shawn, who has been to Africa several times," Lee said. "It came from this song called 'Zangaiwa.' He took the idea of this song, a four-line song, and said, 'OK, here's what this song literally translates to.'"
What emerged was a combination of music, dance, and acting that works specifically to engage a young audience, as the group will go on tour to perform for students in public schools in addition to performing in the High Country.
"We got to thinking about how we wanted to do something about Africa, but also a story that would transcend cultures in a way," Lee said. "The story ended up emerging as a coming-of-age story for the main character, Choriato. He wants to grow up before his time, and that's something that children of any culture can relate to."
The students in the class, in addition to learning songs and lines as they were written, have learned about interacting with the children in the audience before the show to increase participation in the songs that the cast invites the children to sing.
The show has been a whirlwind of activity for the cast and director.
"I've had to split my focus between creator and director/interpreter, which has been challenging," Lee said. "I would have liked more time with directing."
While the actors have also had extra elements in their learning process, the composition has had a positive side effect on the show itself.
"Because the characters have been emerging, and the actors had so much to do with creating their own characters, they really know their characters," Lee said. "Their characters seem so much more solid to me than in a process where you begin with the script. There's nothing like owning the process to really know it."
The costumes have been designed by an Appalachian State faculty member, Sue Williams, who has crafted brightly colored garments that reflect both African influences and an attention to children's interest in eye-catching fabrics.
The Appalachian Young People's Theatre has been performing since 1972, and each year up to 6,500 children will see the performances, including this year's performance of "Drum Song of Africa: Choriato's Journey."
The play will be in Boone at the I.G. Greer Studio Theater, at the red door below the main movie theater, on the ASU campus. The performances include April 1 at 7:30 p.m., and April 2 and 3 at 2 p.m. Tickets are $10 for adults and $6 for students and youth.
Tickets are expected to go quickly, and will be sold in advance at the Valborg Box Office, the number for which is (828) 262-3063.