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"The Miracle Worker" challenges actors and teaches compassion

These are the most challenging roles our Theatre Conservatory students said they have ever played.

Helen Keller, blind and mute. No lines. All expression.

Annie, Helen’s passionate and determined teacher. Energized spirit. Heart and mind on fire.
When the Mayfield revival of the Tony-award winning play The Miracle Worker opens next Thursday, the show will reveal the dramatic and technical theatre skills of our students, capping months of learning not only about their craft, but about life.

The Miracle Worker is the iconic story of Helen Keller and Annie Sullivan, her extraordinary teacher for whom the play is named. It’s a story of overcoming seemingly insurmountable obstacles. The late-1800s setting reveals the discriminatory, often cruel, treatment of those with disabilities. Yet ultimately this is an inspirational story about perseverance, light and the human longing for connections. 

For Rory Burke ’20 and Anika Ash ’19, who play Helen, their training began with at-home practice for the demands of the role. They would blindfold themselves and wear noise-canceling headphones to help them understand Helen’s dark and silent world.

As Helen, “you can’t look at someone when they talk to you. You have to have stone eyes,” said Anika. “Helen is not a happy person and you have to portray her feelings only through action.”

Both Anika and Rory said they are relieved to be double cast for the role, which they said can be draining. Also, they are learning from each other.

“We’ve had to learn to have very big movements, yet never make eye contact with others,” Rory said. “Getting into character has been so important.”

Emma Gilliland ’19, who plays Annie, said the intense physicality of her role is a challenge and calls on her to develop new stage skills, like conveying frustration and power. Her past Mayfield productions have largely included comedic roles.

“There was something incredibly appealing to me about Annie’s spirit and it’s unlike anything I’ve ever done before,” she said. “Annie is powerful character.”

Theatre Conservatory teacher and Mayfield alumna Andrea Sweeney ’12 prepared her students for the role through studies and research, requiring each cast member to present a character analysis and historical review of the play.

"It really helped me understand Annie and her motivations when I studied and had to present on her real-life hardships,” Emma said. “It’s been an awesome experience. Ms. Sweeney treats us like professionals.”

Backstage, the Technical Theatre Conservatory has been working nearly non-stop these past weeks building a late 1800s-style cabin, living room, dining room and bedroom under the guidance of teacher Phil Velasco.

Mayfield offers an extraordinary experience for our crew members, who built 4’x8’ flats, walls, and a rolling wagon. In their on-campus “scene shop,” in a converted garage, our girls are adept with power tools including chop saws, circular saws and pneumatic staplers.

The set’s working antique water pump, which plays a critical role in the show, is their crowning achievement!

The actors said studying and performing in this show has given them deep empathy for the obstacles that confront those with disabilities.

“This show has brought us all so much more awareness of the subject and how treatment has improved over the years,” Anika said.

In her director’s note for the show, Ms. Sweeney beautifully summed up her wishes for the young actors in this show:

“Mayfield is a place that fosters an education of the whole person, in mind and spirit,” she wrote. “Like Helen, the young women in this show have a deep curiosity, a passion for learning and a profound ability of self-expression.”
 
Showtimes are Nov. 8 at 7 p.m., Nov. 9 at 7:30 p.m., Nov. 10 at 7 p.m. and Nov. 8 at 2:30 p.m. Tickets ($10/$5) are available at the door.
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Established in 1931, Mayfield Senior School in Pasadena, CA is a Catholic, independent, college preparatory school for young women grades 9-12. Noted for its rigorous academic program, which includes 21 Advanced Placement and Honors courses, Mayfield’s curriculum is underscored by a philosophy of educating the “whole child,” which also encourages commitment to and excellence in the arts, athletics, community service and spiritual growth. The nurturing environment at Mayfield Senior School allows each student to flourish in an atmosphere of personal attention.