Lafayette play director is also a student

WILLIAMSBURG — Christine Strong is a 15-year-old sophomore attending Lafayette High School.

But at the snap of a finger she can transform into a nagging Brooklyn mother from 1937.

Last Friday, Strong chastised her real-life classmate but make-believe son Caleb McNabb, shaking a roller skate at him.

"A rolla' skate? On my kitchen flaw'? You want me dead?" Strong said. McNabb shrunk back from the domineering mother, the dropped R's pummeling him into submission.

It was opening night of Lafayette High School's Brighton Beach Memoirs. In a little over an hour, Strong and McNabb's friends, family and teachers would fill the auditorium.

For the students, the play was the result of months of after-school rehearsals. But for Director Suzan McCorry, Friday and Saturday's performances had been three years in the making.

Back to school

McCorry produced the play as her Master's thesis, culminating three years of study. The longtime teacher became a student again in January 2014 when she began her studies with Roosevelt University in Chicago, to get a Master's in directing degree.

"I always wanted to get my master's in directing, but I have five children. I didn't want to do an online class, I wanted a real performing arts theater," McCorry said. "I waited for many years until kids were out of the house."

On Saturday night a special guest attended the show: Jerry Profitt, the Administrator of McCorry's program at Roosevelt, flew from Chicago to Williamsburg to watch Saturday's performance. But he was not there just to be entertained — his assessment of the play determines whether or not McCorry's three years of work will end with her receiving her Master's.

"The play is like a final exam," she said. "Proffitt is very critical on plays, but he is very good at what he does."

But McCorry, who will get feedback from Proffitt in the coming weeks, said she was not nervous knowing she was being evaluated — she had been working on Brighton Beach Memoirs since the fall of 2013.

Before her studies began, she had to select a play with enough depth to study throughout the masters program.

It wasn't easy finding one that could serve as the basis for study, she said.

"A lot of scripts the panel of professors said 'no – too fluffy, no depth,'" she said. "So I started looking into harder material. I had always wanted to do (Brighton Beach Memoirs), but it is not a high-school level show."

Brighton Beach Memoirs is a humorous autobiographical play written by Neil Simon, focusing on a Jewish family in Brooklyn in the 1930s. The lead character's pubescent frustrations are exacerbated when his attractive cousin moves into the family home.

Some schools are hesitant to perform it because the play portrays teens talking about sex.

"It's just saying all the things you never wanted to say in front of people, in front of people," said McNabb.

"As a director you have to handle that really delicately," McCorry said.

But besides the mature content, the play also required students to speak convincingly in Brooklyn accents and deal with complex emotions.

Immersed in the production

For three years, McCorry spent her summers in Chicago, studying every aspect of directing, including classes on set design, lighting, costuming and stage combat. Everything she learned, she applied to Brighton Beach Memoirs, even going so far as to study the history of what was happening in the world in 1937 so the students would have historical context.

"I never delved as deeply into any production as I have this show," she said. "Everything was revolving around Brighton Beach Memoirs for me."

The student actors said working with McCorry on this production was unique because she knew the play inside and out.

"It was really nice because she knew exactly what she wanted," said Jacob Schumacher, who played the role of Jack Jerome. "She had a very solid idea of how she wanted the play to look."

The set for the Lafayette production is the cross section of a 1930s Brooklyn brownstone, complete with different levels, a slamming screen door, bedrooms and a bathroom. Pictures of 1930s movie stars hang on the walls, and even the doilies gracing the backs of the couch and armchair were period appropriate.

Proffitt said he walked away especially impressed with the intricate set.

"There was a good sense of period about it. It was very good as far as costuming and the props to create that feel of a 1930s household," Proffitt said. "The actors were able to step into that time and give it that flavor without giving it too much of a contemporary feel."

The student have torn down the set now that the play is done, and McCorry has set her sights on December, when she hopes she will be graduating with her Master's.

She said she is already looking forward to applying what she has learned during her studies to the musical in the spring, most importantly helping students understand the bigger motivation behind their characters and the play as a whole.

"Discussing in great length how this show is relevant in these current times ... that made us all aware of answering the why of producing this show," McCorry said. "What I learned is to ask your actors and have a serious discussion before stepping onto the stage under the lights. Why this show? Why now?"

McKinnon can be reached by phone at 757-345-2341.

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