Pico Alexander graduated from Rutgers last May with an acting degree in hand, set on making it in New York City. Little did he know that he’d soon have the opportunity to work with a Tony Award-winner or that his big time stage debut would happen in New Brunswick.
As one of the leading cast members of Our Town, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Thornton Wilder classic that opens April 22, Alexander is involved in the kick off of a landmark collaboration between the George Street Playhouse and Mason Gross School of the Arts. As he prepares for the debut, Alexander has found himself surrounded onstage by theater pros – including Tony award-winner Boyd Gaines – who are helping him use the tools he picked up in productions at Rutgers.
“When I’m watching all these other actors work, I’m honing my own technique instead of studying one for four years,” says Alexander. “All the way from the auditions onward, it’s like I’ve been getting master classes.”
Alexander and Mason Gross alumni Aaron Ballard, Mary McLain and Christian Navarro, along with current students Dalton Gray, Shazi Raja and Brandon Rubin, join Gaines and other seasoned actors in the show, which is directed by theater department chair David Esbjornson.
Ballard, who graduated in 2010, says that the George Street experience has allowed her to focus on acting in way that eluded her as a busy student. “One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned is to take my time,” Ballard says. “I have to remember that I’m not doing this for a grade.”
Through their roles as George Gibbs and Emily Webb, Alexander and Ballard have found themselves in the small town of Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire, a place where “there are no distractions,” says Alexander.
Connecting to that kind of turn-of-the-century rural life has been a challenge for Alexander. “I’m a city kid,” he says. “I went to a high school that had more people than this small town.” But he’s quick to point out that Esbjornson isn’t going for “the picture-perfect Our Town that everyone’s seen before.”
“We’re going into edgier territory with this one,” Alexander continues. “While it’s an American classic and we relate it to Americana, it’s more than that – these people are real and go through the same troubles that we do in the 21st century.”
And who better to accompany the actors on that journey than Gaines, a theater veteran returning to New Brunswick to work again with Esbjornson, who directed Gaines in Driving Miss Daisy on Broadway, as well as David Saint, artistic director of George Street Playhouse, where Gaines starred in Sylvia in 2010.Gaines finds “insight into humanity” embedded beneath the aw-shucks surface of Our Town and says that Esbjornson’s avoidance of a superficial “Hallmark sentimentality” is key to making the story meaningful.
“This play has so many human moments in it that an audience will recognize,” says Gaines, who plays the role of the stage manager. “They will leave the play having lived through something as opposed to having just observed it.”
In interacting with Gaines and the other pros during rehearsal time, Alexander and Ballard have found guidance in sharpening their skills onstage – a space that Ballard describes as “a room where we can explore.”
Alexander says his fellow actors have helped him realize the shared responsibility of “bringing this story to life with as much specificity, truth and nuance as possible.”
Gaines, who starred opposite James Earl Jones and Vanessa Redgrave in Driving Miss Daisy, has discovered serious theatrical insight from his younger co-stars as well.
“I will learn much more from them than they will from me,” Gaines says. “Not unlike in the play, they offer a youthful perspective – it’s great to be invigorated by the presence of youthful enthusiasm and fearlessness.”
Besides an impressive addition to their professional résumés, Alexander and Ballard– who Saint describes as “young stars in the making” – have gained a coveted promotion: membership in the Actors’ Equity Association, which carries perks including health and retirement benefits and access to more open calls.
Ballard sees the collaboration between Mason Gross and George Street as a natural partnership between the neighboring organizations. “This great professional theater is just right down the road,” says Ballard. “We should be collaborating. It would be great if this could be a home for alumni in future productions.”
For Alexander, the return to New Brunswick has helped him realize that theater is about community. “We’re a big family at Rutgers,” Alexander says, “and you can trust that you won’t be abandoned and left to drown in the big bad world as soon as your foot leaves the door.”
George Street Playhouse has extended two special ticket offers to the Rutgers community for the run of Thornton Wilder's Our Town. The show will run at George Street Playhouse April 22-May 25, 2014.