Acting naturals

From Banner Elk to Pigeon Forge, these Bobcats are taking their in-class skills into the professional realm with summer acting gigs

As the thick velvet curtains are drawn aside and the warmth of the beaming overhead lights hits the stage, Tanner Funderburk ‘22 can feel the culmination of his last four years in the Theatre Arts department at Lees-McRae coming to fruition at last.

“This is going to be my first professional theatre experience,” Funderburk said. “I think I’m most looking forward to seeing how the professional theatre world is compared to college theatre. I’m really excited to put all the skills I learned this past year immediately into a job.”

Funderburk, who will be serving at the production stage manager for "Horn in the West" this season, is just one of a group of current and recently graduated Bobcats who are getting their start in the world of professional theater this summer.

Tanner Funderburk during dress rehearsal at Horn in the West

He will be joined by rising junior Theatre Arts major Allison Dion, and recent graduates Lillian North ’22 and Jesse Morris ’22 at the immersive historical experience that is “Horn and the West.” Set in the High Country before and during the Revolutionary War, the show is performed nightly from July 1 to August 13 at a specially designated theatre in Boone, North Carolina.

According to the “Horn in the West” website, the play, “brings to life the famous frontiersman Daniel Boone and the hardy mountain settlers of the Blue Ridge Mountains in their struggle to preserve their freedom during the years before and during the War for Independence.”

As the production stage manager, Funderburk helps maintain communication between the actors and tech operators throughout the show and keeps the play running from behind the scenes.

North will be playing the role of Martha Stuart, a doctor’s wife who is one of three main female characters in the production, for the second year in a row. Dion will return to her position as props master and play the character Mary—a role she was the understudy for last year. Morris will join the cast as a dancer, and play as the understudy for the show's primary antagonist Captain Mackenzie.

“For me I’ll be able to explore the character a lot deeper than I have before. I get to look more into who Mary is as a person, and her relationship with the other characters in the show,” Dion said. “Meanwhile, as props master, I’m excited to go back in and reorganize everything in the best way possible. Every item a character or ensemble member interacts with onstage—so that would be plates, flowers, food—all that stuff is created and organized by me, which has been super fun. ‘Horn in the West’ has a lot of unique props because of the period, so it means that a lot of things have to be cross-referenced with the history museum just to make sure that nothing is crazy out of the ordinary.”

Lillian North and Allison Dion during dress rehearsal at Horn in the West
Jesse Morris during dress rehearsal at Horn in the West

While Funderburk, North, Dion, and Morris opted to head down the mountain a bit for their summer theatre experience, several other Bobcats are staying on campus to participate in the 37th season of Lees-McRae Summer Theatre.

Rising sophomore Theatre Arts major Turner Henline and rising senior Theatre Arts Administration major Bethaney Greene will be taking on behind-the-scenes duties in tech and administrative positions, respectively.

“I will be a company management intern. I’ll basically be helping with housing, different financial things, making sure actors and crew can get where they need to be, things like that,” Greene, one of three interns working under Managing Director Gabe Vanover this season, said. “I think this experience is going to give me a lot of skills and help me improve in areas that I need to work in. Gabe was telling me that we’ll be able to work on financial skills, which is not something that I have a lot of experience in, so it’s exciting for me to be able to grow these skills that I can use in later jobs.”

Henline will also be expanding upon the skills he gained in the classroom in his first year at Lees-McRae in his position as a sound tech. While he has had some prior experience working with professional theatre companies in his hometown, Henline says he is usually on the stage, and now seeks to develop his technical theater skills.

“I’ll be in an A2 position, so I’ll be the middleman between the sound designer and the actors. I’ll be helping the actors get their mics on, and I’ll be backstage if there’s an issue with the mics,” Henline said. “I’ve never had a sound position before, but it’s always really informative when you do a different role, because it helps you understand what they’re going through when you’re an actor or when you’re a stage manager or whatever.”

Bethaney Greene working at Lees-McRae Summer Theater

Helping students become more well-rounded theatre professionals is one of the biggest priorities in the Lees-McRae Theatre Arts department. Participating in professional theatre is a great way to gain a more in-depth view of all the different components that must move in harmony to make these productions successful.

With previous experience as an actor, Henline hopes to be able to better serve the actors participating in Summer Theatre this season, like fellow Bobcats and rising seniors JoBeth Hilton and Brooks Jackson.

Both Hilton and Jackson will play ensemble roles in Summer Theater’s production of “The Drowsy Chaperone,” and supporting roles in “Matilda: The Musical.” Hilton, a Musical Theatre major, signed an initial contract with Summer Theatre her freshman year for “America’s Artist: The Norman Rockwell Story” and “Matilda: The Musical,” but due to COVID-19 related postponements she will finally complete that contract leading into her last year at Lees-McRae.

In many ways, this season represents a full-circle moment for Hilton, as she will be playing Matilda’s mother Mrs. Wormwood in “Matilda: The Musical,” a role the actress has aspired to since she first saw Lesli Margherita play the role on Broadway as a child.

“Her type of character is fun because she is crazy. I’m really excited to bring some of my craziness into her crazy. I think our craziness will mix very well,” Hilton said, laughing. “It was one of my first dream roles and now I’m getting to play it going into my senior year.”

While in a way the role of Mrs. Wormwood is one that she has been preparing for all her life, Hilton said much of what has helped her succeed in this role has come from the lessons she has learned in her theater classes at Lees-McRae over the last three years.

Brooks Jackson and JoBeth Hilton rehearsing for the Lees-McRae Summer Theater production of "The Drowsy Chaperone"

“Josh Yoder has mainly been my acting teacher, and he is always about the discoveries,” Hilton said. “Your character is experiencing whatever it is for the first time. I am keeping that in mind, especially for ‘Matilda,’ because maybe I am tired of doing a split, maybe I don’t want to do the split anymore, but for her it’s her first time doing it, and she wants to do it, and dancing is her thing.”

Lessons from the classroom have also formed a strong foundation for success in rising senior Abby Paulson, a Theatre Arts major and Technical Theatre minor who is a “floor tech” at “Dolly’s Stampede" this summer. “Dolly’s Stampede” is a family-friendly dinner and show in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, home of the iconic Dollywood theme park.

“In the theatre department at Lees-McRae they really try to make sure we’re all pretty varied in our skills,” Paulson said. “We can study one specific thing and major in one specific thing, but you’re getting such a diverse set of knowledge, in a really good way. We’re walking out knowing more than one thing, and having more than one strength, and that has really helped prepare me.”

As floor techs for the show Paulson and fellow student Hannah Wilcox help the show run smoothly by opening doors, running props, handling live animals, and performing other backstage duties to ensure “Dolly’s Stampede” goes off without a hitch.

Although Paulson has done some professional theatre work in the past for Ensemble Stage and Lees-McRae Summer Theatre, she said there is always something new to learn when you begin working with a new company. She said gaining this real-world experience while still in college makes her feel more confident and capable of success in the post-grad job market.

“Every time I get a new job in theater it makes me see more and learn more about the industry that I hadn’t really thought of before. Being able to try, in my experience, three different companies shows me three different ways of leadership, and three different ways to run a company. I learn that there’s more than one way to do things,” Paulson said. “It helps just knowing I can do it because it’s less walking in blind to something. Once you’ve done it once you feel more comfortable to do it again.”

While these professional theater experiences continue to expand upon the rich education that Theatre Arts students get in the classroom, allowing them to truly home in on and develop their skills and craft, the confidence gained from experiential learning is just as important and impactful.

“Because this is my first time doing professional theater, I want to prove to myself that I made the right choice and that this is what I want to do with my life,” Funderburk said. “I’m really proud of how this past year at Lees-McRae went in particular. I got to really learn a lot more and I got to hone so many different skills because I worked in the tech shop, and then I did scenic painting, and then I learned how to do lights, and I did a lot more tech opportunities than I had done before. It’s really great being able to immediately do all of this and be able to produce that work and say, ‘I’m hirable.’”

Translating in-college experience to the post-grad job market is something that Morris has also been tackling since his recent graduation as a Theatre Arts major this past May, but thanks to a relationship with local theme park Tweetsie Railroad that he built in undergrad, that transition may be smoother than he thought.

This summer, in addition to his role at Horn in the West, Morris is participating in his second full season at Tweetsie, where he currently plays one of the park’s iconic cowboy characters. This role is unlike many other professional theatre positions, as the cowboys walk around the park, interacting with guests individually and organically rather than with a script on a stage.

Jesse Morris in his cowboy costume at Tweetsie Railroad

“As someone who came here as a kid, the big attraction is always the train and of course the cowboys that come along with it. We get to be front and center the entire time, kind of as the face of what Tweetsie Railroad is,” Morris said. “Our role makes the park come alive and makes it larger than just a theme park—there is actual interaction, and there's something special there.”

Like Hilton, Morris’ childhood connection to his current position represents a full-circle moment for him. He remembers the awe and wonder of the park and interacting with the cowboys as a child, and now hopes that he can inspire the same sense of wonder for the next generation.

“Families come in, and the kids don’t believe there are cowboys walking around until they get there, and it’s always a great experience to see their faces light up,” Morris said. “The aspect of theatre I love the most is theatre for youths, and I think it’s a crucial part of a child’s experience growing up to have some involvement with the arts. When I learned as a sophomore there was a place right down the road from where I went to school where I could do children’s theatre and influence and interact with children all day, I knew I wanted to do that.”

Like his peers, Morris felt well prepared by his professors and the in-class experiences he had during his time at Lees-McRae. These professional theatre experiences tie all these Bobcats together in another way too, making them even more well-rounded, experienced, and confident theatre professionals.

“The more areas of theatre I experience, the more I realize that I’m really open to anything within the world itself,” Dion said. “Every time you get on stage you learn something new about yourself as an actor and a performer, and I’m hoping to discover some things. I’m hoping to find something that surprises me that I can carry on into the future.”

Breaking into the industry as students also gives these Bobcats a leg up when it comes to establishing themselves as a name in the theatre industry. When the summer comes to an end and the curtain closes on each stage for the last time, the connections with their fellow actors and industry professionals are what will remain for years to come.

“There are some phenomenal humans in these shows that I have just enjoyed observing,” Hilton said referencing her work alongside Lees-McRae Summer Theatre legends like long-time Director of Summer Theatre Janet Speer. “Watching all of them work has been amazing. I just sit back, watch, learn, and take notes.”

By Maya JarrellJune 30, 2022