A 51-year tradition is making its debut at the Arts Barn this summer. Wildwood Summer Theatre, a group run exclusively by young people, ages 14 to 25, will present two Broadway musicals: Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey’s “Grease” in July and Maury Yeston’s “Nine” in August.
Producer Mattia D’Affuso, 25, said the company has not produced two musicals in one summer since 1991. And the Arts Barn will be a very different experience, its intimacy an upgrade from the large high school auditoriums in which Wildwood typically performs. “Further fueling the energy, the cast of 30 in ‘Grease’ and 12 in ‘Nine’ will be sharing the stage with live pit bands,” said Laurie Levy-Page, Arts on the Green’s Performing Arts Program Coordinator.
Why two shows? “We have wanted to do a smaller cast show for a while; however, doing a small-cast show means we would have had to reject a lot of the people that audition for us as there aren’t enough roles,” said D’Affuso. “We decided to do ‘Nine,’ a smaller cast show, and ‘Grease’ to compensate. In addition, ‘Nine’ is a cast of all girls and one guy, so we needed a show that would allow roles for girls!”
As relayed on the nonprofit’s website, Walter Johnson High School students who wanted to continue their high school musical experience into the summer founded Wildwood in 1965. When they were unable to find an adult sponsor, they decided to do it themselves. That summer, “on a shoestring budget, and with little in the way of material supplies or support,” they staged “Bye, Bye Birdie.” Since then, Wildwood has presented at least one, and sometimes two musicals, each summer. “It’s surprising that Wildwood has gone for so long without failing,” D’Affuso said. “We reinvent the wheel each year.”
This is the seventh, and final, Wildwood season for D’Affuso, who will have “aged out” of the company by next summer. The Thomas S. Wootton High School alumnus is multi-credentialed, with a bachelor of music in voice performance and a bachelor of arts in Italian language and literature from James Madison University, and a master of music in vocal performance at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. Active in theater since high school, he has been involved with Wildwood since 2010, when he joined friends participating in Stephen Sondheim’s “Merrily We Roll Along.” The next summer, he was cast in Wildwood’s production of Larry Gelbart’s “City of Angels.”
The 2012 season marked D’Affuso’s shift into administration; he has done fundraising and publicity, and has worked as associate producer and producer. He earns his living by teaching 20 private students a week at The Cardon Studios in D.C. and as a real estate firm’s director of marketing and operations.
“The cool thing” about Wildwood, observed D’Affuso, “is working with people who are in the same age group, your peers. It’s different from high school, where we were always supervised by adults. The older members are in charge (at Wildwood), and peer-to-peer learning is a safe, comfortable environment for learning and exploring.”
Every year, a new board of directors is chosen to plan, recruit, interview, audition and hire a brand-new group of artistic staff, D’Affuso, said. As producer, responsible for finances, he worked with directors Jake Young and Rocky Nunzio, in charge of the artistic vision, to submit five to six potential shows to the board in November. “The rule is that no show from the past 12 years can be done,” D’Affuso noted. Because of the season’s two shows, the process occurred twice, with the board debating pros and cons, evaluating venues, looking at what other area groups are doing, then voting.
Production staff members are recruited from local high schools and colleges and other community places, said D’Affuso, and by the end of February, the board filled all positions. “This year, they were able to fill two pools. A lot of people were interested, mostly college students pursuing theater degrees.” In March, about 100 individuals auditioned for the two casts; each had to perform a 16- to 32-bar musical piece and a one-minute memorized monologue.
The commitment for participants is substantial: Prior to the shows’ runs, there are six weeks of rehearsals, 90 percent of which are at the Arts Barn, Monday through Friday 6:30 to 10 p.m. And nobody gets paid.
Sanjana Taskar, 19, is the only actor with roles in both musicals. “I am lucky enough to be cast in both shows with my very talented best friends, both in real life and in theater,” she said. “With the support of both casts and production teams–paired with lots of tea with lemon and honey–I know both shows will excel in their respective ways and tell the stories they’re meant to share.”
A sociology major and theater minor at University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC), Taskar has “been interested in theater ever since middle school (when I was) cast as one of Gaston’s Silly Girls (‘Beauty and the Beast).” At Quince Orchard High School, she was an Oompa Loompa in “Willy Wonka and The Chocolate Factory.” Her roles have included “opposite ends of the spectrum,” she said, including Enid Hoopes in “Legally Blonde,” Snoopy in “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown,” and Rosie Alvarez in “Bye Bye Birdie.”
Last year, her first with Wildwood, Taskar took on the role of Joanne Jefferson in “Rent.” “What made this experience great was meeting so many wonderful people, both on the production staff as well as the cast. The part of Joanne was vocally challenging, but it proved to be an experience that allowed to me to soar past my limits and meet some amazing people along the way,” she said. And now, she added, “I’ve finally come to Betty Rizzo and Serraghina in two of the most beloved musicals of all time.”
Taskar, who is on an improv comedy team at UMBC, said she wants “to continue learning about the essentials of comedy as well as continuing musical theater and classical training for as long as I can. I can’t imagine ever stopping, nor do I ever plan to. My next role I want to nab is Ursula in ‘The Little Mermaid.’”
Wildwood will present 10 performances of “Grease” from July 15 to 23, and seven of “Nine” from Aug. 5 to 14 at the Arts Barn in the Kentlands. Tickets are $22, $18 for students, ages 15-22, with ID, and for “Grease” only, $12 for ages 14 and younger. Call 301-258-6394.