National Players has kicked off its 71st tour with pay-what-you-can preview performances at their home base — Olney Theatre Center. Formed in 1949, and at Olney since 1953, it is the country’s longest-running touring company.
Ten early-career theater artists are spending 10 months as part of a self-sufficient troupe in which they not only play roles in three plays, but also fulfill all the support roles — including loading in and building their own sets, hanging lights and maintaining costumes. This tour’s productions are “Walk Two Moons,” “As You Like It” and “The Diary of Anne Frank,” each of which revolves around an extraordinary young woman’s journey of discovery and identity.
From Olney, the ensemble will travel around the country performing their repertory at arts centers, universities, schools, rural community centers, penitentiaries and other areas that have limited access to the arts. “Last season, we shifted to performing not just our Shakespeare production, but our entire repertory for the community on a pay-what-you-can basis” said Jason King Jones, National Players Artistic Director and Olney’s Senior Associate Artistic Director. “The response was overwhelmingly positive, so we’re doing it again! To make these shows as accessible as possible is so important, because community-building is a big part of National Players’ mission.”
Miranda Pepin (left) and Lisa Danielle Buch in “Walk Two Moons.”
Photo credit: C Stanley Photography
Choosing the group for each season is challenging, said Associate Artistic Director and Casting Director Jenna Duncan. “Casting the National Players is unlike any other casting process,” she explained, “because you’re looking not only for great actors who can fit into all three shows somehow, but also for members of the company who can take on the technical and administrative responsibilities the Players have to handle, who have the skills to navigate living, working and playing with the same 10 people for a year in close quarters and who deeply care about the mission of the company and bringing art to communities.”
Duncan likened the process to a puzzle. “Asking 10 people to work for three shows is incredibly tricky, but the personality puzzle and building a solid company is the harder part on our end and the part that auditions show the least of. That all said, while we begin with somewhere near 1,000 initial auditions that look like a more traditional audition process, we then have video callbacks and video interviews where we want to get to know these potential Players more than we would have to for a more typical month-long process.”
Among the actors selected for this year’s tour is 22-year old Bay Area native Saira Grewal, whose parents, she said, “are big supporters of the arts and encouraged me to explore my love for the performing arts from an early age.” At the “many” theatre summer camps she attended, she was primarily a dancer; she became “more involved” in theatre during high school.
Although Grewal studied musical theatre at American University, her resolve to pursue the performing arts professionally occurred during the first semester of her senior year. “I love theatre and really enjoy performing,” she said. “I decided it was something I couldn’t abandon after graduation.” As such, she has lived in the metropolitan for the four years since then. She learned about the National Players at “school and knew a few people who’ve been on the tour in the past,” she said.
Grewal has four acting parts in both “As You Like It,” five in “Walk Two Moons” and plays Margot Frank in “The Diary of Anne Frank.” “All 10 roles seem to be vastly different, with the exception of the doctor and nurse (in ‘Walk Two Moons’),” she said. “I struggled with this, especially in ‘Walk Two Moons,’ where there wasn’t much background information given on the characters.” She confronted the challenge by “coming up with more backstories for every character to make them individualistic.”
So far, all is going well for Grewal. “Although it has only been two months, I feel very grateful to be working with such a talented and kind ensemble that I immediately clicked with. I have learned so much from my fellow castmates, as we all have very different experiences in theatre,” she said. “Unlike my fellow National Players, most of my theatre experience is in musicals. I think my musical theatre education gives me a unique skillset.” Post-tour, Grewal “hopes to continue working as a professional actor in D.C., and eventually move back to California and continue acting.”
Also part of Tour 71 is Liz Monasky, 23, who grew up in Phoenix. She has no family members in theatre, but her father is a musician and “arts and creativity were always encouraged in our household … so from the minute I started doing theatre [in high school], I felt incredibly supported.”
At Northern Arizona University, she majored in theatre, with an emphasis on design and technology; she has worked with theatre groups around the country since her 2017 graduation. Monasky’s passion for the theatre, she said, is rooted in her conviction “that one of the main purposes of theatre is to remind us what it means to be human.”
Since the tours “don’t go as far west as Arizona,” Monasky learned about National Players from a job posting. “I was instantly drawn to everything about the Players and knew I wanted to be a part of Tour 71,” she said. “And being a part of a team that puts on productions that are so true to that purpose is what keeps me passionate about theatre.”
Monasky has two new-to-the-National Players roles. As stage manager and audio engineer, she said, “I do not act at all. I call the cues, and mix the actor’s voices to make sure they can be heard and there is no feedback,” noting that “this is the first year National Players has used microphones.”
“It’s been an exhilarating process figuring out how to juggle those two roles,” Monasky said. Her stage manager duties “shift quite a bit” from rehearsals to performances. “In rehearsals, I keep track of time to make sure we’re staying on track and taking breaks when we need to, I take notes on staging and choreography, I help create schedules and I distribute relevant information to the production team.” During shows, she keeps track of time and distributes information, too, but also calls the lighting cues. As audio engineer, Monasky focuses on “making sure everyone who is speaking can be heard clearly.”
At this point, the National Players “haven’t been on the road together yet, but we do still live with each other, and it has been a great experience so far. We cook with each other, watch TV shows together and really just enjoy one another’s company,” Monasky said. “We’ve learned very quickly how to separate work life from our personal life, and that’s a big part of how we maintain such positive relationships on stage and at home.
For the future, Monasky aspires “to work on a stage management team for more theatres on the East Coast, as well as continue touring.”
Duncan said that National Players audiences “can expect a company of professional actors — some out of grad school, some out of college, some doing this tour in the midst of a professional career at wherever their home base is — who want to tell great stories that initiate important conversation.”
“So, were to ask audiences to expect anything,” Duncan continued, “it would likely be to be engaged and hopefully carry the discussion of the show and impact of the show on longer than when you leave the theater.
“That’s the hope of most of our shows here, but in these, you have a company of 10 actors who are all eager to discuss it with you — there’s a talkback after every performance — and for whom your conversation is the goal. That’s usually a big part of why they chose to be National Players.”
National Players Tour 71 will perform Shakespeare’s “As You Like It” at 7:30 p.m. Aug. 16 and 17, and 1:30 p.m. Aug. 18 and “The Diary of Anne Frank” at 7:30 p.m. Sept. 17 and 18 on the stage of Olney Theatre Center’s Historic Theatre, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, Olney. Tickets may be purchased only on the day-of performance at the Olney Theatre Center Box Office. The Box Office opens for Pay-What-You-Can sales at 5 p.m. All purchases must be in-person and in cash. No phone or internet sales. For information, call 301-924-3400 or visit olneytheatre.org or nationalplayers.org.