For the first time in the Piedmont Players Theatre 50-year history, a student will direct a production. Catawba College student Austin Young of Salisbury, who has a long track record with Piedmont Players, has the honor of being that student. Young is the director of "Boxcar Children," which opens at the Norvell Theatre on November 7.
Young's mentor, Piedmont Players' Artistic Director and Catawba alumnus Reid Leonard '76, proposed that Young direct this show.
"I was blown away and leapt at the opportunity," Young says, recalling that he had read the "Boxcar Children" series books as child. But whereas those books were too many and too much the same, Young explains, the "Boxcar Children" play "is distilled and interesting."
Casting "Boxcar Children" "was by far the scariest thing," Young accomplished as the show's director, and "Reid was there," he remembers, as the auditions and then the callbacks were completed.
From 100 youth, ages 8-18, who auditioned for this production, Young invited approximately 50 of them to callbacks. He only had to resolve a cast of 16.
"After those who came for callbacks left, I turned and looked at Reid and said, 'I'm too nice,' and Reid said, 'You'll learn.' "
But with those auditions and callbacks, Young did achieve his cast and describes it as "a group of people who can play familially."
The young man who plays the lead in "Boxcar Children," he says, "is very much a part of an ensemble" who can interact with the other characters.
As the rehearsals have proceeded, scenes were blocked with each character knowing where to stand and how to move. Young, like his young actors, is also very much learning.
Of his directorial role, he notes, with wry self-analysis, "My reach is limited by my experience as a director. My reach is to train this cast into actors. There's a lot of weight behind directing a show that's not Reid Leonard," likening Leonard to "the Lexington Barbecue of Salisbury."
Leonard has been at Piedmont Players since 1986 and has helped this community theatre grow to its current gem status in the region.
"I find myself in those teaching moments more often with Reid," Young says. "I can more clearly see the through lines. He is teaching me, preparing me for life in the theater."
Leonard is also preparing the set for "Boxcar Children." Young describes it as "having a Tim Burtonesque flair with tall, odd angles and sepia tones, and where the boxcar becomes a place of warmth and home in an oppressive world."
"You can almost feel the set leaning over you," he shares, noting the difficulty of trying to convey the setting of the Depression to the children who will attend. All second and third graders in the Rowan-Salisbury Schools will be bussed in to see the production.
"It's a very heavy show that doesn't open with any frivolity; it opens with dead parents," Young confides. "And then you have to turn that into a show that second and third graders can enjoy and get something out of."
Young's history with Piedmont Players began when he was in the ninth grade after his mom announced, "You need extracurriculars," and explained that he was going to an audition at the Norvell for a production of Shakespeare's "The Comedy of Errors." This young man, who self-describes his childhood as that of an introvert and bookworm, auditioned for Reid Leonard at Piedmont Players and was cast as Egeon.
"I fell madly in love not only with acting in general but with that space and those people in particular," he says. "All but two shows I've ever done have been done in the Meroney and the Norvell."
Young even served as a summer intern for Leonard.
After graduating from high school, Young enrolled at UNC Chapel Hill, but transferred to Catawba for his sophomore. Now, he is pursuing a double major at Catawba - one in Sustainability and Leadership and the other, a B.F.A. in Acting.
Yet amazing as it seems, Young's theatrical education and new experiences are just beginning. He plans to take off the spring semester of this academic year to work as "an assistant director, gopher and actor" with a German touring company showcasing a production of "In God's Own Country." And yes, Reid Leonard is responsible for that too.
"Reid will be building set for their American tour. He came to me early this year and said, 'Hey Austin, want to go to Germany?' I thought it was a joke. It was completely out of left field and for the first time, I recognized there had been merit in what I'd been doing [in theatre] for the last six years.
"The theatre community in Salisbury is a microcosm of a body of amazing resources. It's an amazing cross-section of what I would consider this overarching artistic world and I'm thrilled to play my small part in that."
And Young's mother, who actually helped set him on his theatrical path, "She's always very excited for me, but you can tell there's always that air of 'I told you so.' "
"Boxcar Children" public show dates are Nov. 11 and 18 at 7:30 p.m., and Nov. 12 and 19 at 2:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. School show dates for this production run Nov. 7-10. For ticket information, visit the Piedmont Players Theatre website at www.piedmontplayers.com.