In the costume shop of the Jacksonville State University drama department on Wednesday, three young students were hard at work “distressing” costumes, fraying and tearing fabric using a serrated saw, a piece of sandpaper and a cheese grater.
The students are working as high-school apprentices for an upcoming production of Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar,” set in post-apocalyptic Rome.
“It’s cool. You can’t do anything wrong. It’s supposed to be wrong,” said Becca Hearn, who graduated from Jacksonville High School in May.
“I need to come in here and distress some jeans,” said Akira Dark, a senior at Wellborn High School.
“Julius Caesar” is a production of the Shakespeare Project, a Calhoun County Chamber of Commerce Foundation initiative in collaboration with JSU and local arts groups. The project aims to “bring back the Bard” to Anniston, the birthplace of the Alabama Shakespeare Festival.
A cast of professional actors will perform the play for local high-school students Aug. 15-17, followed by performances for the general public Aug. 17-19. Admission is free, with tickets available either at the door or the chamber office at 14th and Quintard.
The high-school apprentices are employed through an Anniston Parks and Recreation Department program called YES — Youth Empowered for Success — which works with local businesses to provide summer jobs for teens to introduce them to the workforce.
Hearn is one of two acting apprentices, along with Stuart Henderson, who also graduated from Jacksonville High School in May. Both participated in their high-school theater program, and now they are playing roles in “Julius Caesar” alongside professional actors.
“But we basically do anything,” Henderson said. “If we’re not on the stage, we’ll go to the shop, do painting.”
Dark is apprenticing as assistant stage manager. It’s her first experience with live theater. “I’ve thought about acting, but didn’t know how to go about it. I thought this could be a good way to start,” she said. There is no theater program at Wellborn High.
“I help actors with their lines. I clean the stage. If the actors are on break, I call them back to work,” she said. She enjoys working backstage — “plus I get to boss everybody around.”
She said she already feels more confident about working in theater. “I learned a lot of stuff that goes on that people might not know about.”
Avery Gallahar, a sophomore at White Plains High School, is working as a costume apprentice. (In the language of the theater, she’s a “stitcher.”) There is no theater program at White Plains, Gallahar said, but she has performed often with children’s theater troupes in Anniston and Gadsden.
Catherine Copeland, a senior at Alexandria High School, is working as a carpentry apprentice.
In addition to the five high-school apprentices, there are six college students working as apprentices, half of them from JSU.
Most theaters have college apprenticeship programs, but it’s unusual to use high-school apprentices, said Carrie Colton, artistic director of the Shakespeare Project and an assistant drama professor at JSU.
“We did it because of YES, and because there are really good children’s theater programs in the area,” Colton said.
The apprentices have also written a 20-minute show they will present before each performance of “Julius Caesar.” Using song, dance and comedy — including a two-minute version of “Romeo and Juliet” — they make the case that Shakespeare isn’t as old and boring as you might think.