Special to The Herald
BERLIN - Fifteen-year-old Killian Meehan of Shelton knows he has big shoes to fill when he takes the stage in June as Romeo in the New Britain Youth Theater’s presentation of “Romeo and Juliet.”
The production is set for June at the New Britain Museum of American Art and the Berlin Congregational Church.
In 1996, Leonard DiCaprio drew rave reviews with his conception of Shakespeare’s star-crossed protagonist. The film scenario, with co-star Claire Danes as Juliet, was updated to reflect a contemporary suburb of Verona, yet retaining the original dialogue.
NBYT Executive Director Darren Farrington is taking a similar approach by setting the classic teen tragedy in San Francisco during “the summer of love,” 1967.
Meehan has appeared before in “Romeo and Juliet,” also Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” with the Penny Lane Players of Fairfield where he played Sir Toby Belch. He praises Shakespeare’s language and “how advanced a writer” he was.
“When you study his characters you’re impressed with how in depth you can go,” Meehan said.
In its first six seasons, NBYT has served more than 5,000 children and teens, many like Meehan, in after-school, in-school and home-school programs, drama classes and productions. Participants from over 50 Connecticut communities have performed before more than 20,000 theatergoers.
Farrington said the theater is still growing. Between Christmas and New Year’s, the theater relocated from the New Britain YMCA to the Berlin YMCA on Main Street. In December, the New Britain Y needed to utilize the rehearsal area so it offered NBYT space in the Berlin Y on a month-to-month basis. The youth theater will return to New Britain occupying a larger facility, Farrington hopes, in the next few months.
“I’m not ready to say where,” Farrington told The Herald. “We’re still in negotiations. But, when it happens I’m sure people who follow the theater and know about us, will be both pleased and impressed.”
Farrington said because the Berlin Y is smaller than previous spaces, he has had to cut back on classes.
“We can only fit a few seats in here,” he said. However, on a recent evening cast members of “Romeo and Juliet” gathered in a back room of the Y to rehearse the Bard’s time-honored drama.
Jared Calandrea, 17, of Cromwell plays Father Laurence in “Romeo and Juliet.” A student at Middletown’s Xavier High School, he praised the NBYT environment.
“I like the people I’ve met here,” he said, “and the encouragement I get.”
An earlier experience, acting in Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible,” was, he said, “a blast. I wanted to do more and more plays.”
Eva-LaRue Barber, 15, of North Haven, is looking forward to rehearsing in a larger venue. Barber, who plays the nurse in “Romeo and Juliet,” has been acting since she was six years old. Recently, she appeared in a local production of “The Tempest.”
“The language of Shakespeare elevates your thinking to a different level,” she said. “As an actor, you connect more with the character you’re playing.”
NBYT has taken a cue from Shakespeare. Its school programs include playwriting, sometimes original plays or adapting published books.
Kids who want to design, make sets or costumes are also welcome.
“This fall, we we’re having a short play festival,” Farrington said. “Kids from ages 10 to 20 are encouraged to submit their work. We want to involve them as writers and directors.”
Currently, NBYT is also rehearsing for “Mark Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper,” a play Farrington found and playwright Rae Johnson is directing. The drama is set in 1908 in Twain’s attic in Connecticut. Twain - Samuel Clemens’ pen name - would invite neighborhood kids to his home where he would tell them stories they would act out. Johnny Peifer, an actor familiar to New Britain’s Hole in the in Wall Theater audiences, plays Twain.
Mark Twain’s “The Prince and the Pauper” will be presented May 5, 6 and 7 at Holmes Elementary School, 2150 Stanley St., New Britain.
For times, tickets or further information call 860-515-8115 or visit www.nbyt.org .
New Britain Youth Theater programs include “Kids on Stage!” and “Little Kids on Stage!” productions, the NBYT Teen Company, Stage Performance classes, community outreach programs and more. According to Connecticut Kids & Family, NBYT is dedicated to enriching the lives of children and young adults by encouraging creative thinking, fostering self-confidence and self-esteem, and developing general life skills through involvement in high-quality, low-cost programs in the performing arts.
“At NBYT we’ve been inspired by the children and teens we work with,” said Farrington. “For example, we’re motivated by a once quiet and solitary child on the autism spectrum who initiated conversations and collaborated with his classmates to create characters, stories, and performances.”
Farrington said he is “beaming from reports by teachers that children in theater programs are less disruptive, participate more in class, and are more likely to improve their reading levels and grades. We’re proud to offer programs in which a diverse group of children from cities and towns come together to have fun, work hard, and feel that amazing sense of accomplishment when they take their final bows.”
As executive director, Farrington, 48, is the only full-time staff member. Eight other staff members work as directors, teaching artists or assistants. Farrington, who has trained and worked in both nonprofit and commercial companies on Broadway, off-Broadway and in community theaters, has acted, directed, designed and stage-managed shows for preschool, elementary and middle school children.
A former attorney with a degree from Fordham University School of Law, Farrington earned his undergraduate degree from the College of Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass. While in college he was president of an extracurricular theater group and a bilingual mentor for inner-city children.