For the last few months, Sammi Brown has, in some ways, felt like she’s been tending a garden, although no soil has touched her hands.
Her flowerbed has been a bare staging area inside the Black Box Theater at the Out-of-Door Academy. And her plants, so to speak, have been the middle school student-actors with whom she has been working to develop their characters in the school’s most recent theater production, “Paper Candles.”
“I’ve helped them just by directing them, but they’re the ones who help to foster the vision and make (the play) their own,” says Brown, the play’s student director. “Seeing them get something out of it (is rewarding). That’s the greatest gift you can give as a director — for them to have that (acting) experience for themselves.”
A senior at ODA, Brown herself is a veteran of the theater, having started in acting classes and camps at Florida Studio Theatre in preschool and continuing with the art ever since. Each time she’s appeared on stage, Brown says she’s relished the excitement of the spotlight and turning a character on paper into a living, breathing personality others can experience, as well.
After serving as an assistant director to ODA’s production of “Rebel Without a Cause” last year, Brown says she was eager to try her hand, fully, at coaching the actors on stage.
“I always thought it would be interesting to see things from the other side,” Brown says. “You see things you wouldn’t see as an actor.”
And, indeed, the sentiment has proven true. Brown says she’s learned to step back and let the actors define their characters themselves, rather than forcing them to think as she does.
“It’s definitely taught me a lot,” Brown says of the experience. “As a director, you have to understand the actors have their own experience and how they choose to interpret that role.
“I’m a very meticulous person; I like things a certain way,” she says. “The most important thing I’ve learned is to know when to step back and let things be as they are. You plant these ideas and these concepts in people’s heads, but from then on, it’s their journey.”
Brown and ODA Director of Theater Arts L’Tanya Evans selected “Paper Candles” at the end of last school year, after gravitating toward the play’s message against intolerance and hate. They also wanted to select a play that would resonate strongly with the middle-school students performing it.
The play, written by playwright Janice Cohn, tells the true story of how a community in Billings, Mont., joined together one holiday season in 1993 to support minority families who were being bullied and persecuted by a group of skinheads who migrated to the town.
Evans and Brown also made sure the performance of the play coincided with middle-school students’ study of the Holocaust at ODA.
“We think it’s really important to expand their knowledge and education about hatred that still exists in the world today,” Brown says, noting she and Evans were shocked to learn about the events on which the play is based. “We really want to make kids aware.”
Contact Pam Eubanks at [email protected].