“He had already done it, and he told me I had to do it because it would change my life,” recalls Lisa K. Bryant of Flat Rock Playhouse. It wasn’t an official mentor, but rather an “awesome senior boy” who advised her to become an apprentice, and so, at age 18, following her freshman year at Elon University in 1994, Bryant arrived at the Playhouse — the state theater of North Carolina.
“If that conversation had not taken place, I may not have done it, and the whole rest of my life would have been different,” she muses. “I became an actor, a director, a teacher, and now the artistic director of this amazing theater. ‘Life changing’ was not hyperbole for me and [for] so many others.”
Each summer, Flat Rock Playhouse’s apprentice class of 16 college students is culled from hundreds of auditions conducted in February via the Southeastern Theatre Conference and winnowed down through several stages. “We also accept videos and go directly to colleges when possible,” says Bryant.
Once they’re chosen and accept the apprenticeship, which comes with a stipend, they are turned over to Apprentice Director Maddie Franke, a 2008/’09 apprentice turned equity actor with the company. “I start chatting with them about three months before they arrive,” she says. “It’s a nerve-wracking thing to come somewhere you’ve never been and move into a house for 13 weeks with 15 people you don’t know.” (Apprentices stay in a remodeled house on the Playhouse property; the theater’s volunteer organization The Supporting Players helps with meals.)
Since the inception of the apprenticeship program in 1952, hundreds of students, typically age 18 to 23, have spent a summer at the Playhouse. They arrive with distinct aspirations and anxieties, but they are quickly immersed in a collective — and exhausting — schedule from the minute their feet hit the ground in Flat Rock.
The Class of 2019 arrived May 19th, greeted by staff and four second-year apprentices who serve as mentors in addition to honing their own craft. The next day, they receive tours of the theater and introduction to the shops. A historic overview of the Playhouse is presented by Dennis Maulden, resident scene designer and a summer of ’67 apprentice.
“When I first came here, I knew I wanted to be in theater but I didn’t know what I wanted to do,” he remembers. “I was from a small town and scared to death. I really wasn’t a very good actor, but I discovered that summer that I could design, draw, and paint, and that gave me confidence I had always lacked. I went on to have a successful career I don’t think I would have had otherwise, as a scenic designer in New York City and at universities.”
The second full day is devoted to auditions for roles in the two Leiman Mainstage musicals — this season it’s South Pacific and All Shook Up. For most, it is their first exposure to professional theater.
“Prior to the Playhouse, my experience was [high] school, college, and community theater,” says Bryant. “I had never worked alongside professional actors.” She observed equity actors who were the lead in one musical go on to play “the third banana from the left” in the next show and “treat both roles with the same professionalism, with grace and no ego — it made a huge and lasting impression on me at 18.
“What also opened my eyes,” she adds, “was [realizing] all the people it takes to put on a show. It was humbling to see that as an actor, I might be the least important person in the room.”
Along with the two musicals, the apprentices present children’s plays four mornings a week at the Carl Sandburg Home and perform in two off-site fundraising events. Every Friday night is Midnight Studio, an in-house cabaret for anyone working on the lot who has a burning desire to stand up before their peers and sing, dance, and do a bit of improv or stand-up comedy. Out of the spotlight, the apprentices take master-skills classes and spend time in different departments such as costume or scene construction.
“They have very full schedules,” understates Franke. “But every single person you meet at this Playhouse has something they can teach you. Students can sit down and talk with an equity actor who was once an apprentice here and now lives in New York City, and ask questions about how they got there.”
Recent success stories include Michael Luwoye, an apprentice in 2011 who went on to play the title role in the record-breaking Broadway musical Hamilton, finishing in February 2019.
Cody Marshall, a second-year apprentice who has his own sights set on Broadway, hopes to be one of those actors. For now, he would offer this advice to the newbies: “Be present in the moment and soak it in, learn all you can. Here you don’t have to worry about proving yourself all the time. You have the option to try, fail, and learn. It’s a lot of work, but after this, you’ll feel like you can do anything.”
Flat Rock Playhouse, 2661 Greenville Hwy., Flat Rock, 828-693-0731, flatrockplayhouse.org. Summer productions on the Leiman Mainstage include Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific (through July 6), comedy debut Separate Beds (July 11-20), and Elvis musical All Shook Up (July 26-August 18). For more information about the apprenticeship program, check out the website or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.