SALT LAKE CITY — With the designation as a small professional theater with Actors' Equity Association, Salt Lake Acting Company is accustomed to using seasoned actors in its shows.
But with the upcoming production of “Surely Goodness and Mercy,” which runs Sept. 6-Oct. 15, the theater company has cast a group of four young actors between the ages of 12 and 17 with little, if any, experience performing in front of an audience.
“This particular cast has been a blast in that we have a range of experience,” said director Alicia Washington in an interview with the Deseret News. “(I’ve walked) into the process the same way that I would with experienced actors where we have an agreement that we're all going to support each other, that we're all going to drive and tell this story together.”
The four young actors are double cast in the roles of Tino and Deja, two young teens living in Newark, New Jersey. “Surely Goodness and Mercy” follows Tino, “a motherless, bible-toting boy with a photographic memory and a tender heart” as he befriends a “cantankerous” woman who works in the cafeteria at his school, according to SLAC’s website, and forms an unlikely friendship with his classmate Deja. Clinton Bradt, 16, and Devin Losser, 13, alternate playing Tino, while Jenna Newbold, 17, and Kiara Riddle, 12, play Deja.
Both Clinton and Kiara had previously participated in a few school plays, while Jenna had small acting experiences in elementary school and had once been a princess at a festival. Devin had modeled and worked on commercials, but none of the young cast had ever worked on a professional production before.
"I was really worried at first, but it's been really fun, especially considering how my first introduction to the play business was in a professional play,” Devin added. “It’s been a lot of hard work, but I can tell with everyone that it’s been paying off.”
Because “Surely Goodness and Mercy” is the first professional experience for all four young actors, Washington and the rest of the crew at SLAC laid the groundwork to prepare them, taking time to discuss terms such as “cross to stage right” and “call out line.”
“We've taken the time to train these young actors to hopefully continue their career (in acting),” Washington said.
“I’ve learned a lot because at first I had no clue about anything,” Jenna added with a laugh.
The young actors have a lot on their plates right now with school and other extracurricular activities. Kiara, for example, not only has rehearsals for the SLAC show but also plays soccer, takes honors classes and plays the piano and viola. The cast has been in rehearsals since Aug. 7 and rehearses Monday-Friday from 4-9 p.m. and Saturday from 10 a.m.-6 p.m., with breaks throughout for eating and homework.
“It’s really showed me how to manage time well,” Devin said.
“These young people are fully employed right now and handling school,” Washington added. “(They) have better time management than I do.”
Washington said she and the rest of the creative team initially thought they would have to cast older actors that looked young enough to play junior high students, and they had several older, more experienced actors audition. But when they narrowed down the pool and realized they had four talented actors close to the characters’ ages, Washington and her team decided to double cast the two parts, which she says is a compliment to the young actors.
“It just magically worked itself out, and we get to work with four amazing actors,” she said.
Double casting the show not only allows some flexibility for the young actors’ busy schedules but also allows them to learn and grow in their parts together.
“(Devin) will be on stage and he’ll do something and I’ll be like, ‘Oh. I like that. That was good,’” Clinton said. “Then I’ll apply that and have my own stuff to add, so that’s been fun to see us tell the story in a different way.”
Washington said working with the young actors has been an enjoyable experience and hopes more theater companies take a chance on young actors, even if they don’t have as much experience.
“Someone did it for me where they invited me to an audition and they cast me in a show when I was younger and that started my love of theater,” she said.
SLAC, located in Salt Lake City’s Marmalade district, was founded in 1969 and maintains a mission to produce contemporary theater pieces, many of which are world premieres. “Surely Goodness and Mercy,” written by playwright Chisa Hutchinson, is a National New Play Network Rolling World Premiere, which helps three theaters produce the same play within a 12-month period and provides the opportunity for the playwright to work closely with each theater to develop the new work, according the NNPN’s website. SLAC is the first of the show’s three stops, according to BroadwayWorld.com.
Content advisory: “Surely Goodness and Mercy” contains some instances of strong language.
If you go …
What: “Surely Goodness and Mercy”
Where: Salt Lake Acting Company’s Chapel Theatre, 168 W. 500 North
When: Sept. 6-Oct. 15, Wednesday-Saturday, 7:30 p.m.; Sunday, 1 and 6 p.m.
How much: $24-$38