Center Player Caleb Griffin (center) performs as Lumier in the musical number “Be Our Guest,” from “Beauty and the Beast” last Thursday.
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Robert Kelly-Goss

Center Player Caleb Griffin (center) performs as Lumier in the musical number “Be Our Guest,” from “Beauty and the Beast” last Thursday.

These Kids Are All Right: Center Players prepare for national theatrical competition

By Robert Kelly - Goss

The Daily Advance

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The floor of the second-story rehearsal hall in downtown Elizabeth City bounces and the noise reverberates loudly in the downstairs space occupied by Port Discover.

It’s been busy in the old Main Street Theater lately. That’s because the kids from The Center Players are preparing for a competition later this month. It’s a children’s musical theater competition in Atlanta and its stringent requirements are challenging these veteran performers like they’ve never been challenged before.

“You had to … tell a story in 15 minutes,” explains Center Players dramatic director and instructor Laurie Hull. “The challenge is to tell this in 15 minutes with a story arc.”

The story they chose is “Beauty and the Beast,” a musical they performed last year. Hull was challenged with paring it down, complete with musical numbers, while keeping the entire story intact.

Hull sits back and takes notes while Holly Wright, program director and choreographer, directs the iconic number, “Be Our Guest.” She’s running the number over and over, adding and subtracting from the choreography, tweaking their moves each step at a time.

“OK everybody, from the top,” Wright says, and the kids take their places.

The competition is only open to musical theater groups who have performed at least five “junior” musicals. Junior is a designation given to these staged musicals, meaning they’re scaled back for time.

The Junior Theater Festival will host 90 groups like The Center Players from all over the country. Each one has 15 minutes to perform in front of musical theater professionals.

The 15 minute performance must tell the entire story in that short amount of time, explains Hull. It must also use a 20-foot-by-25-foot performance space.

There are no costumes or make-up. That’s especially challenging for these young performers, explains Hull, because it pushes them to achieve a deeper level of performance. Because they do not have costumes to transform them into characters such as Belle or the Beast, they must use their imagination and dig deeper into their psyche to become those characters.

The Center Players kids will be judged based on a number of criteria and then they will have the advantage of being critiqued by the theater professionals.

They will also be able to meet other kids just like them, from all over the country.

“Alongside of this they have classes in theater, dance and voice throughout the weekend,” said Wright.

Hull says that even the instructors such as herself, Wright and music director Billy Caudle have the opportunity to attend workshops, something that will go a long way toward giving someone like Hull the ability to further enhance the theater experience for these kids.

The Center Players have been around since 2009. They began with a handful of kids and have grown to nearly 50 students.

Over the years these kids have grown up in the program and some are on their way toward bigger things in theater.

Original Center Player Tyler Campbell is spending his senior year of high school at the North Carolina School of the Arts in Winston-Salem, studying theater. Northeastern High School junior Lindsey Orton says she intends on spending her senior year there as well. Her goal is to make a career out of theater.

“Get a BFA (bachelor’s of fine arts) in theater and then go onto Broadway,” says Orton, 18.

The kids will head to Atlanta on Jan. 16 and return on Jan. 19. They have been preparing for this trip through fundraisers around the area, and Wright says the “community has really rallied” behind these kids and this trip.

But more importantly, these kids have rallied and the fruits of their labor have been evident in performances like the most recent Tribute to the Tony Awards.

For now, however, they are focusing on this competition. They concentrate their gazes upon Wright as she goes back and forth, starting from the top, instructing one and two and all of them to do cartwheels, flips, step here and there; all of them are executing their instructions with ease and smiles.

Their performance later this month, regardless of awards and accolades, will be a result of hard work. And it’s work – if you really want to call it that – which these kids enjoy.

“I think it’s going to be excellent,” says Orton of their looming Atlanta trip.