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Mystic Seaport Museum auditions are just the beginning of a rewarding play season

September 7, 2018

It happens every year over four days — dozens of enthusiastic actors come out to audition for Mystic Seaport Museum’s annual traveling plays: the Halloween-inspired “Nautical Nightmares” and the Christmas-inspired “Lantern Light Tours.”

Over this allotted time, play co-directors Denise Kegler and Emma Palzere-Rae watch as experienced thespians and new hopefuls, young and old, come through the audition room doors in the Seaport’s Olin J. Stephens reading room. Some are merely eager Seaport employees willing to take part in what’s considered a popular annual tradition while others are more seasoned actors, looking to add roles to resumes. Theater majors fresh out of college also audition, as well as children already passionate about Shakespeare — an exciting combination that will makes for a diverse cast through a season with many logistical and mental challenges, especailly as both holiday plays, which have been staged at the museum for decades now, take audiences through various forms of terrain throughout the Seaport in nearly any weather condition.

An essential requirement for the audition is a prepared monologue. While some actors choose to read lines from Shakespeare, others memorize poems or famous speeches from popular films. Some take more considerable risks, showing off their acting chops by displaying emotions that can be recalled on cue, or perfected foreign accents, while others play it safe by reading lines from a role they’ve played in the past. And though these try-outs are a lot to sift through, the choice of audition material helps directors determine where to cast each person.

Take, as an example, the “Macbeth” monologue read by Groton resident Ricardo Ocasio, an experienced actor who has taken part in the Seaport’s annual plays for many years now. He specifically chose lines from Act 5 Scene 5, the dramatic moment when Macbeth realizes his wife has committed suicide and enemy troops are advancing. With sweat drops pouring from his face, the actor delivers the lines while kneeling, shaking and impassioned.

From this, Kegler and Palzere-Rae think Ocasio might work best in the role of a murderer as part of the “Nautical Nightmares” play, or maybe as the freed slave trying to find his individual path in the “Lantern Light Tours” special. The next step? Test Ocasio in those roles by assigning him to read lines from those parts.

Sound easy enough? Not quite. The two directors may audition different actors for the same roles, creating an intriguing compare/contrast situation on how one actor may interpret lines of text from another.

Just some hours prior, Seaport employee Nate Rumney is also tasked with reading lines as the same murderous character — a decision based on his poem monologue, which Rumney performed with displayed semblances of madness and intensity.

“The goal is always to put the best actor into the right role,” says Kegler between auditions. “It’s about seeing how they take direction while in the audition and seeing, based on their initial monologue, which parts might fit them best … You want to see the actor on their feet.”

Reimagining each year

Starting in early August with auditions and running through late December, the Seaport’s annual production process is a sizable one. It includes the help of a large costume department, hours of rehearsals and even more hours of production time. To keep the two shows fresh, however, new scripts, characters and themes are rewritten each year, pushing both Kegler and Palzere-Rae to approach each play with creativity and some degree of flexibility.

This year’s “Lantern Light Tours,” for example, was crafted with the theme of “finding our place.” Set on Christmas Eve in the year 1876, the story offers a “small window into the lives of people on the verge of great change, both personal and cultural,” according to the Seaport’s description.

As for “Nautical Nightmares,” it’s based on H.P. Lovecraft, the famous Providence horror writer who penned novels such as “The Call of Cthulhu” and “At the Mountains of Madness.”

In addition to the character roles that are a part of the plays, there are auditions for tour guides, or leaders who will travel and socialize with audiences between various scenes around the Seaport — making for a total of 40 available roles.

“We also have to gauge through these first impressions who will be able to perform their roles on point each and every time,” says Kegler. “We are doing multiple productions in one night, and that can be tiring for someone who isn’t used to that. You’ll often see with newer actors that the way in which they deliver their lines will change over the course of a night.

“I think the realities of the production don’t always settle in until the actors are in the first night of performances,” Kegler continues. “It’s like sink or swim where people realize the realities. There are a lot of working parts … because it is an outdoor experience where people are walking in all sorts of terrain in all weather conditions.”

Worth the challenge

Despite the difficulties involved, both Kegler and Palzere-Rae agree on the points that make it all worth it.

“It’s always exciting to work with actors who are excited about making the productions come alive each year,” says Kegler, as just one example. “Especially young, up-and-coming actors who show a lot of promise.”

Such talent might come in the form of the 11- and 12-year-old sisters, Felicity and Veronica Kushner, from Bradford, R.I. The two are already passionate about Shakespeare and theater and have been welcome additions to previous “Lantern Light” and “Nautical Nightmares” productions over the last couple years.

On the night of their auditions, Felicity and Veronica show up bright-eyed and cheery, well prepared to read their lines from individual monologues, as well as shared lines from “Romeo and Juliet.”

As Felicity sits with her arms crossed over the back of a chair, staring dreamily out a make-believe window, her older sister reads as Romeo. Both display incredible confidence, even as Kegler and Palzere-Rae give them back-and-forth lines to read from the “Lantern Light Tours” script.

“Both are good at learning their lines, and both are good at direction,” says Palzere-Rae later.

“They are perfect examples of someone who would make for a good understudy,” Kegler continues. “The first year Veronica performed with us, Felicity had to jump into a role last minute because someone was out sick, and she already knew all the lines because she had been helping her sister practice them. ... It’s that sort of talent that’s exciting to work with.”

m.biekert@theday.com

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