By Emma Alexander – Contributor
Stretching her body and warming her vocal chords, UNC Asheville senior Olivia Medoff chants her favorite tongue twister, “I wish for an Irish wrist watch,” as she steps out from behind the curtain, a different person.
“I’m very excited and also focused before a performance,” Medoff said. “I stay in character, sometimes even joking around in character, like method acting.”
A hyper child of only 6 years old, Medoff’s mother signed her up for a summer at Slayton House Camp of the Arts in Columbia, Maryland. Singing and dancing was the start of a journey that would influence her into the world of theater.
“I went to that camp for nine summers and worked there three years after that.” Medoff said. “It made me want to act during high school and major in drama in college.”
Influenced by performers like Lucille Ball and The Three Stooges, Medoff had a natural comical style. Now she has begun working as a director for the first time on the upcoming play, “The Muckle Man.”
With only one week to go before opening night, the cast and crew gather in the Carol Belk Theatre to practice specific scenes they hadn’t mastered yet.
Before starting warm-ups, Medoff gave the actors and actresses a short pep talk. She reminds them of the emotions their characters must feel and not to lose sight of that. They gather around to stretch in the center of the theater. Moving their necks, squishing their faces and shaking their arms to a quick chant, they prepare to begin scene one.
“Lights up,” Medoff shouts so they can hear her backstage. As they play out the first scene, she intently watches and interrupts them with, “I’m gonna stop you right there.” She gives them suggestions on how to move more smoothly, their facial expressions, and giving their characters the right mood and attitude.
“You have to tow the line between being a friends and being an authority figure,” Medoff said. “Some actors are more open than others. One of my favorite things is getting people out of their comfort zones and getting them to do something they thought they didn’t want to do and giving them a different experience.”
Medoff clearly achieves this when she stops the cast mid-scene. She makes her suggestion, and will follow up afterward with, “How did that feel?” The cast responded positively, even thanking her for giving them a new approach or idea.
“Olivia is dedicated, gets in touch with characters and always comes up with a back story,” said Kayla Russell, UNCA senior and the stage manager for the play. “The other students and I find it challenging to have a student director, but it’s a learning experience that we all find helpful. She knows we aren’t perfect and it’s our first time putting on a show with as much help from the faculty.”
Medoff asks the actors to come up with “secrets” for their characters. She tells them whether she can read the secrets on their faces and through their bodies. She is bubbly and comical during breaks of rehearsal, letting the actors have a good laugh, and setting the dark themes of the play aside.
“I would describe her on stage as charming,” said Laura Bond, professor of drama. “In a classroom, in meetings and in rehearsals she has an energetically, enthusiastic personality. I’ve been mentoring her on the direction of this piece. She’s like wildfire; she ignites with the excitement of the shows and all she can do.”
Before the start of a new scene, she prepares the actors and actresses. If their character feels mad or upset, she will remind them why, and how to express that.
“I’ll walk on stage and walk all around the theater and sections,” Medoff said. “If they’re having trouble with volume, I’ll sit in the back. If I want to see an emotional response, I’ll walk around on stage with them and be standing there. It energizes some actors.”
“The Muckle Man”, an abstract piece, contains multiple locations and surreal elements. Medoff, Russell and student designers have to work together and communicate well to decide what the play needs. When communication comes across unclear, Medoff asks for clarification, or for them to show her in a different way, according to Bond.
“Conflicts are not easy, and her problem solving skills are good,” Bond said. “She tries to handle them right away, face-to-face.”
As deadlines slipped, the cast appeared to be a little behind on their established timeline. Even with those pressures, Medoff reacted well, according to Robert Bowen, professor of drama.
“We talked a lot about the process and the analysis of the play. We discussed some of the pre-rehearsal process logistics, like director’s book, auditions and the look and feel of the play,” Bowen said.
Medoff described the conclusion of her being the director as a symbiotic relationship between her and the cast and crew. It was briefly discussed, and as she expressed more interest, they responded well to that.
“I think it’s kind of like parenting a child,” Medoff said. “The show is your baby and the actors are your children, and you’re just hoping it comes out OK.”