When Mary Fishburne moved from New York City to Charleston in 2011, she thought it would be temporary. "I was pretty successful in New York," she says. More than pretty successful, Fishburne had played the lead in productions as disparate as Drawn to You and The Little Mermaid during her brief time in New York. In fact, she'd had an agent, a steady stream of job offers that took her to regional theaters across the Northeast, and had just been offered an Actors Equity contract — a major milestone for any actor — when she decided to leave due to an illness in the family. "When I went back to New York after that, though," she remembers, "I just knew that I wanted to be back in Charleston. I prefer this life, and these kids, and the smaller scale."
The "kids" she refers to, often and with unmistakable pride, are the teenage members of Village Teen Troupe, an acting program Fishburne runs at Woolfe Street Playhouse through Village Repertory Theater.
The Village Teen Troupe has so far put on two shows, and the next one is the musical Urinetown. Not an obvious choice for a youth theater production, the show — which won Tony Awards for Best Book and Best Score in 2002 — couches pointed societal critiques in self-referential jokes, meta references, and potty humor. Taking place in a future where water scarcity has led to strict controls on urinating, and offering a decidedly mixed outlook on the prospects for the future of humankind, the material is dark, if also aburdist and irreverent.
And that's exactly why Fishburne chose it. "In high school, you do Guys and Dolls and Hello Dolly and Grease, and I think there's value to all of that, for sure. But we're doing the stuff not many high schoolers are doing," she says. The Village Teen Troupe is an independent program so Fishburne and her students have freedom that a high school production might not have. Regarding her more progressive play choices, she says that at a traditional high school, they "would require a lot of permission slips, a lot of waivers" to get such a show into production. Instead, the director of 13 and The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is used to answering questions about her choice of material. "I don't go out of my way to make sure it's adult content," she says. "But the three that we've done have been a little offbeat and a little different," she says. "I don't think of them as kids. I try to do shows on a professional level, and bring in what I've done professionally to the routine of the rehearsals and the curriculum."
High school senior Maddy Seabrook, who plays Josephine in Urinetown, is glad to have the option of tackling a more mature script. Seabrook's used the chance to develop more than just her acting and singing chops. "Since our show is a satire, it's important that we're aware of what our show is addressing," Seabrook says. "More than just calling attention to the issue we're addressing, in regards to capitalism and the way it's infiltrating even the slightest parts of our life." Plus, she adds, participating in Village Teens has given her the chance to serve as assistant director to Fishburne. "I've gotten to stage a song and a scene, so that was really exciting," she says. "I also just kind of keep things running, keep the kids attentive and focused. And I help run rehearsal when Mary's not here."
Avery Carhart, a 10th grader at Hanahan High School, also appreciates the challenge presented by the material. Her role, as precocious street urchin Little Sally, allows her to stretch her acting in ways she hadn't previously done. "She's part of the show," Carhart says, referring to the character. "But she's also one of the narrators. She literally questions everything. I love that about the show."
Elisha Black, who plays protagonist Bobby Strong, knew exactly what part he wanted to play when he found out Village Teens would be doing the show. "I was like, 'I have to do it.' Because I want to be Bobby. Bobby's a leader. I'm more of a team player, not the leader. So it's a stretch for me, but something that's a lot of fun to do," Black says.
Listening to the Village Teen Troupe members talk, it's clear that they take theater, their roles, and their reliance on one another seriously. Fishburne sees the cultivation of these traits as part of her role as the Village Rep's Director of Education. "I'm not telling all these kids to go on to be actors," she says. She knows, however, that the self-reliance, work ethic, and responsibility that are required for the show to be successful will serve them well, regardless of the direction they take after high school.
Many of her kids do want to work toward being professional actors, but are restricted financially. Seeing that need, Fishburne has been working to raise funds for two Village Teens scholarships that will help the selected participants go on to the next step in their education. The program also offers scholarships for participation in Village Teen Troupe productions.
Austin Jordan, who plays the roles of both Mr. McQueen and Old Man Strong in Urinetown, is one of the recipients. "I wouldn't be able to do any of the shows if it wasn't for the scholarships they provide," Jordan says. Having benefited from scholarships to participate in multiple Village Teens productions, Jordan knows he wants to pursue a career in performing arts. He graduated from high school last year, and considers himself lucky to have participated in a wide variety of plays over the course of his budding career and says plays like Urinetown are giving him the chance to grow as an actor. "It's different," he says. "It's not like everyone does jazz hands at the end."
Fishburne is proud of the young people she works with, and considers Village Teen Troupe productions as comparable to other area options in quality. "I think it's some of the best stuff in town, in general," she says. "People tend not to leave saying 'That was a good show for a kid's production.' I don't want to be held to that standard. And neither," she adds, speaking for her cast, "do they."