When the character you portray on stage is in every scene, it helps if you’re the kind of actor that doesn’t mind being the focus of sustained attention.
That’s the case for Chance McFarland, a South Fork High School sophomore who’s playing the lead character — Inspector Ruffing — in “Widdershins,” this year’s version of the annual spring play put on by the school’s Performing Arts Department. The play, an atmospheric murder mystery set in 1902 Great Britain, opens Thursday, May 19 at the Mateel Community Center.
“I love performing in front of people. I like to make people laugh or keep people interested in what’s happening,” McFarland confided last week.
“I definitely enjoy getting to be someone else for a little while and get into [their] mindset and see things from a different point of view,” he added.
That said, since Inspector Ruffing literally never leaves the stage throughout the play, McFarland is well aware that he has a bit of a challenge on his hands.
“It’s stressful and a bit nerve-wracking,” he allowed. “But it’s also fun.”
Providing guidance has been director Saundra Stephenson, whose emphasis on character development McFarland has found particularly helpful.
“She gets really in-depth with the characters. She helps you develop the kind of person they are,” he explained, adding that he also “likes getting input from [the other] actors and working with them to figure out what works best for the play.”
Back in January, when Stephenson began working on the question of what spring play to do this year, she started out by “touching base with my senior actors, especially the ones who’ve dedicated lots of time to the program.”
“We tossed around ideas about what to do and it seemed like a mystery would be fun.” Initially, the idea was to do a play based on a Sherlock Holmes tale, “but we couldn’t find the right gender ratio.”
“I have more girls than guys,” Stephenson said, explaining that six of her 10 actors are female.
That’s not to say that when it comes to casting Stephenson is opposed to gender-bending. After all, in the rock opera “Tommy,” the spring play three years ago, the pinball wizard was played by a girl. And in “Hades: A Retelling of the Persephone Myth,” the 2014 spring play, it was a female who took on the role of the crotchety Charon, who ferries souls to the underworld.
“But with Sherlock Holmes that wouldn’t have worked. And I didn’t want to turn away girls who wanted to be involved,” Stephenson said.
After scanning online catalogues put out by publishers that contain short descriptions of plays along with brief bios of playwrights, Stephenson started zeroing in on the work of the American playwright Don Nigro — and in particular on “Widdershins,” which came out in 2007 and was something of a hit at an event called the First International Mystery Festival, held that year in Kentucky.
Describing the play as “creepy and fun” and laced with dark humor, Stephenson said it also promised to be a good fit cast-wise.
“The play worked with the group of students I have. It suited our talent pool.”
“At bigger schools,” she continued, “the director would choose a play and then hold auditions. But I need to find out who’s interested in doing the spring play and I take it from there.”
As for what the play is about, it has to do with the sudden disappearance one evening of an entire family from their peaceful house near the Welsh border. With no signs of violence and with the family’s supper still on the table, Inspector Ruffing has only one clue to go by: a scrap of paper left on a desk with the word “Widdershins” written on it.
The literal definition of Widdershins, a term used by lowland Scots, means to go in a direction opposite to the course of the sun. These days it means counterclockwise, but as Stephenson pointed out, the word predates clocks.
“Pre-Christians thought it to be bad luck, but it’s also a magical thing related to fairies. If you walk widdershins three times around a church or a special tree, then the veils between worlds lifts and you go into the fairy realm.”
If you’re getting the idea that this year’s spring play is a little on the spooky side, you’re on the right track. The character played by senior Cody Bowen, a Spring Play veteran, is a case in point.
“I’m a ghost during the play,” he revealed, referring to Dr. James English, who, along with his wife and three stepchildren, are the ones who have so mysteriously vanished. “It’s like a paranormal murder mystery. There are some scenes when I’m on the stage where I’m talking to the inspector. It leaves you guessing.”
Stephenson said that it’s not just English but other members of the missing family as well “who come up on stage and act out what people are telling the inspector” as he conducts his interviews of those who knew the family.
“Some [members of the family] will stay on stage even after [the person being interviewed] has finished telling that portion of the story. Sometimes [the family members] will wander on the stage and mess with different characters without the characters’ responding.”
At other times, such as when Ruffing is alone on stage with one of the missing family members, an actual interaction will take place. “So you don’t know,” Stephenson said, “if the inspector is haunted.”
“It’ll be interesting to see how that translates to the audience. It’s been kind of a challenge,” she added.
Also a challenge, for Bowen and for the other actors as well, is that since the play is a period piece, the language spoken by the characters is a tad different than what would qualify as conversational language today.
Explaining that English is a “well-read, very intelligent scholar who uses flowery, high-minded language,” Bowen said that “some of the stuff I have to say is a mouthful.”
“There’s a charm and mystical quality to his speech, but he’s also very childlike and priggish,” Bowen added.
Sophomore Emaya Young’s character, Old Betty, is distinctive in another way: She can see what’s invisible to the other characters.
“She’s a kooky old woman who’s definitely off her rocker. She’s into herbal remedies. She reads palms. And she communicates with the dead. She sees the missing family when the others simply can’t.”
Old Betty is adept at something else: Getting into people’s space. “I get very close physically to the characters. I make them uncomfortable.”
While practice can make perfect, it can also be a grind. Rehearsals for this year’s version of the spring play began in the third week of February and took place at the relatively undemanding frequency of twice a week.
By last week things had been ramped up considerably, with rehearsals at the South Fork library taking place every day after school followed by an all-day rehearsal this past Saturday.
The time commitment is “very big. It’s been like hell month,” commented McFarland, who said that so far at least he’s been able to keep up with his studies. “I get most of my work done in class,” he explained.
Young said she has had to curtail her involvement in after-school activities, such as a writing club and a computer club. “It’s worth it,” she said. “It’s an opportunity I’ve been given to take a character and bring them to life.”
This week things will get even more intense as rehearsals start lasting into the evening. And once the cast and crew finally get into the Mateel on Sunday, things will really get serious.
“We’ll be [there] all day Sunday and [next] Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday we’ll be rehearsing until 9 or 10 p.m.”
“One of the hardest parts about this is that we don’t have our own [performance] venue,” Stephenson went on. “Most theater companies rehearse from the start on the stage where the performance will take place. We rehearse in the library trying to approximate the stage [at the Mateel].”
“So when we get to the Mateel it’s all-out balls-to-the-walls ‘We need to figure this out now!’”
One thing that’s already been dealt with is costumes. After striking out with finding suitable period clothing in Humboldt County, Stephenson learned of Hot Couture, a vintage clothing outlet in Santa Rosa.
It had what she was looking for, and so about a month ago, at the crack-of-dawn on a Sunday, she and her 10 actors piled into two school vans and headed south, arriving as had been agreed upon before the store opened.
Costume fittings took place followed by a photo shoot. And when the crew returned north, Stephenson had the added satisfaction of knowing that she had gotten a good deal from the store’s proprietor.
“She said that normally if someone were to rent a vintage outfit for a day or two, the cost would be $80 [or more] per day. And for us she did all 10 costumes for nine days for $450 total.”
“The costumes will be awesome,” was what Bowen had to say about it.
Asked for the total cost of the entire production — in other words, the cost of such things as producing scripts, providing make-up, buying costumes and feeding the actors — Stephenson said: “We’re probably easily pushing $2,000.”
“It’s the only theatrical production the school does,” she added.
Last year’s production, a Dungeons & Dragons fantasy called “She Kills Monsters,” came close to breaking even. “Typically, Friday and Saturday nights are the biggest draws,” Stephenson said.
As usual, Paul Schmollinger, Stephenson’s husband and the head of South Fork’s Performing Arts Department, is handling the musical end of things for the production.
The performances on Thursday, May 19; Friday, May 20; and Saturday, May 21 all begin at 8 p.m. with doors opening at 7:30 p.m. The Sunday matinee on May 22 is scheduled for 2 p.m. with doors opening at 1:30 p.m.
Tickets, available at the door, cost $15 for adults and $8 for students and seniors.