Toby Orenstein teaches teens to act like pros for `Beauty and the Beast'

Going through a stage

Teens act seriously in `Beauty'


Toby Orenstein has made teenage actors delve into the experiences of African-Americans at the turn of the century with Ragtime and the drama of war with Aida, but she says for a real challenge try being a dancing candelabrum.

Or a spoon, or a teapot, or one of the other colorful Disney characters in Beauty and the Beast, which is being staged this year by the Teen Professional Theatre program.

"This is probably harder than Ragtime or Aida," she said, "to do comedy and to do Disney and finding the root of realism and then exaggerate it."

The Teen Professional Theatre, one of several summer programs of Orenstein's Columbia Center for Theatrical Arts, will have performances today through Sunday as the culmination of three weeks of intense rehearsal.

Each year, the camp holds auditions for young actors with the skills to take on a big Broadway musical. It uses sets, props and costumes from Orenstein's two dinner theaters and hires professional musicians, lighting designers and other technical crews to expose the participants to high production values and high expectations.

For the third year in a row, the Teen Professional Theatre has received a $28,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. In exchange, the youths participated in surveys and activities that allow researchers to evaluate the effect of arts education on young people. Orenstein said the grant money helped her bring in professionals for vocal, dance, makeup, auditioning and acting workshops that intensify the learning experience.

Still, the production remains the biggest thrill.

Jennie Gold, 15, of Columbia said she liked the selection of Beauty and the Beast. "The show is so much fun," she said. "It's so much energy. You can really play off of each other."

Shoshana Rose, 18, of Pikesville, who is sharing the role of Belle, agreed that with Ragtime and Aida "it was easy to get involved. ... [For Beauty] we really had to put emotions into our characters. That was the challenge."

Arielle Kook, 16, of Columbia plays one of three "silly girls," who pine for the manly Gaston. Even though the characters' scenes are played for laughs, Kook said the actresses were told to create backgrounds for their characters, and that "really helped with our relationship onstage."

This year's production is being directed by Russell Sunday, a regular actor with Toby's Dinner Theatre who played Gaston under Orenstein's direction.

He has encouraged his actors to be broad and even cartoonish in their actions to make the characters larger than life.

"What it allows them to do is make bold choices and take risks. As long as they commit to it and believe in what they are doing, it plays into anything they do," Sunday said.

It is a departure for Orenstein to supervise but not direct the show herself.

"In order [for the theater] to keep going when I have to retire, I have to develop the people," she said.

But, she added, "I love this too much to ever just not be involved."

The actors say Orenstein's influence is felt throughout the camp.

"She has a huge reputation," Rose said. "It's a huge opportunity to work with Toby."

Kook added, "She is so inspiring; she makes me want to be so much better. She [gives you instructions] so you can understand it, and then you do it, and it's so much better."

Nick Lehan, 19, is one of seven Teen Professional Theatre alumni to land a role in one Toby's professional productions this summer. The Catholic University sophomore said Toby's methods are the same for directing paid actors as for training her students.

"What are you feeling? What is our character feeling," he said, recalling how Orenstein uses those phrases while painting a picture in the air with her hands. "And then you go [try it], and then you get it," he said.

Orenstein said she wants to prepare her students for professional experiences, whether they continue acting or not.

"We want to raise the bar," she said. "We can all get away with mediocrity. I'm trying to push them not to accept that. ... I want to tell them whatever you do, to keep going and ask what can I do to make it better."

Performances of "Beauty and the Beast" are today at 11:30 a.m. and 7:30 p.m., tomorrow at 2:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m., and Sunday at 2:30 p.m. at Reservoir High School, 11550 Scaggsville Road, Fulton. Information and tickets:

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