East Theatre prepares a potion with winter production ‘Secret Garden’

Junior Alexis Nielsen and sophomore Brenden Keller review lines before rehearsal. “It’s my first time having a lead role, so definitely just the fact that I had to memorize an entire show rather than a scene or two [is challenging],” Nielsen said. Photo by Kennedy Keaton.

Their eyes flit back and forth nervously as they recite lines. Their voices crescendo and fade away as they remember the words their characters exchange. They’re off book now, and the show is just a matter of days away. They are the cast and crew of The Secret Garden and are working tirelessly on the upcoming production which will open to the public on January 23rd at 7 p.m. in East’s Performing Arts Center. 

Planting the seeds

East Theatre’s latest drama takes place in the early 1900s and tells the story of orphan Mary Lennox’s journey at her uncle’s Misselthwaite Manor — and its secret garden. Over the course of her seasons-long stay, she develops new friendships and experiences the magical power that lies in nature. 

Sophomore Matthew Gutzwiller plays Ben Weatherstaff, a gardener at the Manor who Mary befriends. 

“It’s about finding hope when things don’t always look the best, and I think that’s always a relevant message,” Gutzwiller said.

The role of Mary is played by junior Alexis Nielsen. She said it was exciting to be cast in the play, especially to portray Mary. 

The Secret Garden was actually my favorite book growing up, I read it three million times,” Nielsen said. “And then I saw that there were auditions for it and so I decided that since I’ve read the books so many times I might as well just try out.”

Director Kathleen Belovsky said that much of the rehearsal process involved developing each of the characters. 

Promotional artwork for ‘The Secret Garden’ designed by seniors Aleigh McDermott and Presley Borvan.

“We have a lot of new actors, so getting them used to the rehearsal process and character choices and being confident and following their instinct, that’s something — even for our veteran actors — that’s something that we have to continue to teach and work with in the rehearsal process,” Belovsky said. 

Junior Cameron Andrea plays Colin Craven, Mary’s cousin who also lives at the Manor. He said it was challenging to develop his character, as Colin has been sick and bedridden for most of his life. 

“I’m trying my best to do it justice,” Andrea said. “And so it’s been portraying development and making the audience believe that I don’t know how to walk and that I’m learning to walk. But I definitely think it’s a good fit … I’ve definitely become a better actor from it.”

Sophomore Brenden Keller plays Dickon, a boy that grows close to Mary as they explore and play together. He said that he learned more about confidence throughout working on the show. 

“I think I honestly grew mentally. On the first rehearsal off book I most definitely was not expecting to do as well as I did on memorization, which taught me that I need to just trust myself during rehearsals,” Keller said. 

Before Mary moves to Misselthwaite Manor, the character Ayah acts as a servant and mother figure for her. Junior Akshara Gunda plays Ayah, and said she had to work at portraying emotions she wasn’t normally used to showing. 

“There’s a scene that was kind of hard for me to act the way I was supposed to because I have to act mad, and that’s not one of my strong suits,” Gunda said. “We just kept running it over until it felt right and got the blocking perfected so the emotion would feel more real.”

“It’s about finding hope when things don’t always look the best, and I think that’s always a relevant message.”

— sophomore Matthew Gutzwiller

Sophomore Brenden Keller runs lines before rehearsal. “I resonate with the overall optimism of my character, he seems to try to look on the bright side of most things and he’s very involved within nature,” Keller said. Photo by Kennedy Keaton.

With the show’s elements of magic, there are also animals brought to life via puppeteers who act alongside the actors that are portraying human characters. 

Senior Anna Cappas plays the raccoon and said she was surprised by how much she enjoyed working with the puppet. 

“I’m so used to running through lines and using my face to portray things. But since I’m showing it through a little stuffed animal, you have to really try to bring it to life. And I’ve grown to get used to that,” Cappas said.

Senior Sheila Erramilli plays the robin and said she struggled with embodying a completely different kind of character. 

“I have to be more elegant and kind of symbolize the character,” Erramilli said. 

However, Erramilli also said developing confidence helped her better execute what the role and its performance required. 

“If you go without confidence you’ll just feel awkward, like everyone’s watching you,” Erramilli said. “Theatre is such an open environment where no one really judges you, and if you make mistakes, we just laugh it off.”

Each of the actors are contributing to the story of Mary’s development as a whole, no matter the nature of their roles. Gunda said she hopes the audience connects with Mary. 

“I think the response will be an emotional one, but a good kind,” Gunda said. “The audience kind of grows with Mary as she goes through her life at her uncle’s house. They build a connection with her, and when you watch someone grow you feel more connected to them.”

Nielsen also said she hopes that audiences will relate to Mary as she grows throughout the story. 

“She’s just a very relatable character in her nature because of all the things that she goes through. You might not be able to relate to the situation, but you can relate to the emotions that she’s feeling,” Nielsen said. 

During her stay at the Manor, Mary grows close to a servant, Martha. Senior Carson Bierman plays Martha and she said the show teaches audiences about how we grow and develop as people. 

“Other people can affect your character, and your character can affect other people,” Bierman said. 

Overall, the cast is working to bring magic to the stage. 

“Its message that you should always look for magic and hope is something that a lot of people today need to hear, because sometimes it seems like there’s none,” Gutzwiller said.


Growing the garden

While the actors work on lines and performance in B160, the tech crew toils away just down the hall. This show’s set will consist of an island on either side of the stage acting as Colin and Mary’s rooms with the middle section of the stage being the garden itself, according to sophomore stage manager Caleb Bierman. 

“I think we’ve been attacking it pretty well. We’ve had a little checklist and we’re way more than halfway [done]. We’re very prepared,” Bierman said. 

Sophomore Grace Adler said she was not sure if she would join the crew initially.  

“I just really fell in love with everything we do,” Adler said. “It’s really nice to end your day feeling accomplished by working hard and just having a good time while you do it.”

Crew members said there is always something to work on when they come to a meeting. Projects range from carpentry and construction of the set pieces to painting them and adding the finishing touches. Freshman crew member Concetta Anemone said that the work can be challenging, but communicating as a team helps them finish tasks.

“I’m a really patient person, but it can be frustrating sometimes. But we just power through it and we get it done,” Anemone said. 

According to Adler, crew meetings are hands-on in nature, and require members to insert themselves to help out on a project. 

“The first couple of days I [was] really challenged with that because everyone started doing something and I didn’t know what to do. But then you just have to take action and find something, or work with someone,” Adler said. 

The work that tech crew puts in is done to help the audience understand the show better, according to Bierman. 

“They can understand what time frame we’re in, and where they’re actually placed, instead of in an auditorium in this day and age,” Bierman said. “They can have that background information without them actually saying it in the actual show.”

Freshman Meghan Hartigan said the set pieces also help bring the show to life. 

“Us really creating the background to everything does set the picture more, and just makes it more entertaining to watch,” Hartigan said. 

Hartigan also said she felt she grew in her skills with carpentry through working on this show by working with a power drill for the first time. 

“That was pretty intense and kind of nerve wracking because I didn’t want to mess anything up, because I want to make sure everything lives up to its expectations,” Hartigan said. 

As the tech crew finishes larger projects and last-minute details for the approaching shows, the main focus continues to be combining the set pieces with the actors’ performances to tell the story of The Secret Garden.

“We’ve worked so hard on it. I’m so excited for everyone to see it because it really is going to make the show so much more lively and really just bring out the spirit of the cast,” Adler said. 


As rehearsal comes to a close, the props are stowed away and the scripts are closed. The actors come together with their director who asks for two things that went well and two things to improve. They celebrate successes in vocal delivery and movements across the stage. But, they will be sure to work on acting with their upper body and maintaining eye contact with other characters. After all, the show is just days away, and no detail is too small to improve upon if the magic of the story is to be portrayed. 

“I hope the audience buys into it and fully believes it as they go on telling the story,” Andrea said. 

Senior Madison Baitler plays one of the inspectors in the show and said that she hopes audiences can see the important messages conveyed throughout the story. 

“I want them to take away the fact that magic is in everything, in every situation,” Baitler said. “The differences of characters are coming together, and that’s what we need to see in our world right now as well, how a person’s a person.”

The cast and crew have grown a beautiful garden through their preparation for the upcoming performances. It is only a matter of time until audiences will be able to experience that beauty for themselves.  

“I think that everyone needs a little magic in their life. And I think that’s what this show is all about,” Andrea said. 

The Secret Garden will show in the Performing Arts Center from January 23rd through the 26th at 7 p.m.

Elizabeth Dyer is a staff writer for Oswego East High School’s online news magazine the Howl

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