When Gavin Kramar begins teaching chemistry at Wheaton High School this fall, he will be able to write a somewhat unlikely essay about how he spent his summer vacation. Equipped with a degree in chemical and biochemical engineering from Brown University as well as a master’s in education from University of Maryland, the 25-year-old is directing Wildwood Summer Theatre’s (WST) production of the musical “Little Women,” on stage from July 27 to Aug. 4 at the Arts Barn in Gaithersburg.
The musical – with a book by Allan Knee, lyrics by Mindi Dickstein and music by Jason Howland – is based on Louisa May Alcott’s 1869 semi-autobiographical novel about the four March sisters and their mother during the Civil War.
For Kramar, his principal interests — science and theater — have proven compatible. He traces an “un-kickable” affinity for theater to his first play – an adaptation of Shakespeare’s “The Merry Wives of Windsor” – when he was a student at Cold Spring Elementary School in Potomac. During high school, he participated in Thomas S. Wootton’s theater program and at age 16, joined his then-girlfriend in WST’s production of Stephen Sondheim’s “Merrily We Roll Along.”
In subsequent summers with Wildwood, Kramar acted in “Into the Woods,” “City of Angels” and “A Chorus Line.” For two years, he served on the company’s board of directors. “From that,” he said, “I got to experience a lot of the challenge of running a theater company and particularly the joy of grant-writing and budgeting for a small nonprofit.
“I explain WST to most people as like a student theater group at a university, but with a wider 15 to 25 age range and none of the financial support.”
As a result of his experiences with the all-youth community musical theater company Walter Johnson High School students founded in 1965, Kramar said, “I fell in love with the high energy and passion that comes from having a youth-run theater company. Without any ‘real’ adults in the room, young people get the chance to try on a lot of different hats without the safety net of handing it off to someone more responsible if things get tough.”
During his undergraduate years at Brown, Kramar noted, “the program there allowed me to dedicate entirely too much time to theater.” In addition to training and acting, he co-directed a production based on Lewis Carroll’s “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” in an improvisational style, which, he said, “has colored my approach in directing ‘Little Women.’”
“Improvised or devised theater stems first and foremost from the characters,” he explained. “As opposed to just reading lines and practicing moments outlined in a script, devised theater would begin the process by developing identities of the characters and how they fit into an overarching story, before allowing the actors themselves to generate authentic moments through an array of improvisation exercises.
“The best things to come out of that are nurtured a bit and written into something that fits the story and can be shown on stage.”
Kramar and Wildwood’s board of directors jointly chose “Little Women” as the 2018 summer show. “I brought six proposals before the board and went through what I liked about each of them and the challenges I anticipated making them all work, and then the board voted on which they felt was the best fit for the slot,” he said. It was perfect for WST and the Arts Barn, he said, “since it is a story of family and growing up, and it is told through the lens of ambitious young people, which is what we all are. Practically, the show benefits from being done in such a cozy space as it lets the audience close to the personal lives of the March family.”
Last year, Wildwood staged “Spring Awakening” at the Arts Barn. “I think the focus and thematic material contrast vastly, but there is a connection in the way that both are stories about youth being told by youth. In many ways, that’s how I view Wildwood’s role in the community and why I think we’ve been successful for our 50-plus year history.” Ben Simon, who plays Laurie in “Little Women” is the only returning cast member. “Keep an eye out for him,” advised Kramar.
Coincidentally, Kramar recently played Laurie in a Ludlow, Massachusetts community theater production of “Little Women.” “Though this was not a youth theater company, they did cast a number of young people to feature in the show. That sense of working alongside a cast of young talent made me long for my days with Wildwood.”
“The show has a cast of 10 incredibly talented actors,” the director said. Among them, he has worked previously with the youngest, Alyssa Herman, 15, and Noah Beye, who was a fellow cast member in 2014’s “Into the Woods.”
This is the first WST production for Emily Alvarado, 22, who plays Jo March. Her adventurous family moved frequently between Maryland, Puerto Rico and Florida, but she was born at Shady Grove Adventist Hospital and part of her education was at Wood Middle School and Rockville High School. In Florida, she attended a performing arts high school, focusing on voice and musical theater, and since, has done community theater “on and off.”
“Jo is very different from other roles I have played, and it has been so cool getting to play a character from a book that I love so much,” said Alvarado. “I am a huge bookworm and love to write, and I also have a very bold personality, so I can relate to Jo on so many levels.”
And, she added, “Gavin has been wonderful to work with! It’s nice to work with a director who is also an experienced and talented actor because they understand the perspective you are working from, and they also know when it’s appropriate to push or challenge you. He is very good at balancing the two.”
Kramar agreed that being both actor and director serves him well. “I couldn’t tell you which I enjoy more,” he said, noting that “Others have said that even when I’m in the rehearsal room as an actor, I pretend I’m the director. There was an ongoing joke in high school that I was the one directing all the shows, and that our theater teacher was just my assistant!
“But given that most of my theater history has been as a performer, I feel empathetic towards the difficulties of being an actor and I think that helps foster some camaraderie during the rehearsal process.”
Despite the fact that this is Kramar’s last hurrah with WST – by next summer, he will have “aged out,” he hopes “to continue to pursue theater as a hobby while I develop as a science teacher. The summer off has made getting back to working with Wildwood possible and given me hope that I can make it work at other times during the year.”
Wildwood Summer Theatre presents “Little Women” from July 27 to Aug. 4 at the Arts Barn, 311 Kent Square Road, Gaithersburg. Shows start at 8 p.m. Fridays, Saturdays and Thursday, Aug. 2, and 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Tickets are $22, $18 for students, ages 15 to 21, with valid ID and $12 for 14 and younger. The show is recommended for ages 12 and older. Call 301-258-6394.