At first glance, the New York State Theatre Institute’s version of You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown doesn’t seem like a typical play.
There’s no central story line. Characters are essentially acting out strips from the beloved Peanuts comic strip, instead of following a plot with a clear beginning, climax and end.
But `You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown` packs more into those vignettes than it might appear at first glance, several of the people involved with the show say.
`It’s very cleverly put together,` director Robert Whiteman said. `It gives each character an arc.`
Take Charlie Brown. At the outset, the character is `a misfit, an outsider,` said Brian Sheldon, who plays the title character. But by show’s end, Charlie Brown is warmly accepted by the rest of the gang.
`He comes full circle,` Sheldon said.
Julia Franklin, who plays Lucy VanPelt, sees her character undergo a transformation, too ` although in Lucy’s case, it’s a little more humbling.
`Lucy learns about herself a lot,` Franklin said. `She learns she has some flaws.`
Whiteman believes the depth of a story is a testament to Peanuts creator Charles Schulz, whose strips were about a lot more than cute kids and sassy dogs. Whiteman calls himself a `huge fan` of the Peanuts, and he’s been intent on making sure the young cast members of `You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown` have an idea of just how much Schulz poured into the strip.
To that end, Whiteman looked for strips that captured the essence of each character. He assembled them into `research packets` that he handed out to the actors. He encouraged them to bring their own persona to the role, but `when in doubt, we would refer to the original,` he said.
Or, as Sheldon described it, `It’s got a lot of Brian in there, and then I put of lot of Charlie Brown in.`
Sheldon said he was somewhat of a natural fit for the part. `I have a round head, and I’m a bigger actor,` he said.
Unlike Charlie Brown, though, Sheldon has a niche. `I kind of just have been the funny guy all the time,` he said.
That led him to give acting a try, and today he is a student in Russell Sage College’s Male Actor Apprentice Program. He’s the oldest cast member in the show, with everyone else still in high school.
`It’s been a lot of fun,` he said. `They’re very funny kids.`
Despite the actors’ youth, it’s a very accomplished group, Whiteman said.
`This cast ` it’s just incredible,` he said. `They are superstars.`
That’s a credit to time they’re willing to spend learning their lines and parts, as well as their experience, he said.
`They’ve performed with every group in the Capital District,` he said.
For Franklin, a senior at the Academy of the Holy Names, those appearances usually come with other members of her family. Franklin and her siblings and parents have performed in more than 30 local productions together.
It’s a little strange to be the only Franklin appearing in `You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown,` she said.
`It’s very difficult to not be able to come home and talk to them,` she said.
But like Sheldon, she’s had a lot of fun with her castmates. In fact, of the six leads, she knew all of them before rehearsals started, so she’s still among familiar faces.
One of her fellow actors, Michael Whitney, who plays Snoopy, is Franklin’s classmate at NYSTI, where both are serving as interns. The experience exposes them to several facets of the theater. Franklin, for instance, has worked in the costume shop and helped create study guides for some NYSTI shows.
`It was great to deal in other aspects of the theater,` she said, but the internship also cemented for her that she’s happiest when she’s on stage.
`It makes an actor feel very lucky to be an actor,` she said.
Whitney, a senior at Niskayuna High School, agreed. A few years ago, he was more apt to be described as an athlete than an actor. He had always thought it would be fun to act, but he was busy with baseball, football and track. Then he hurt his arm, and he had a chance to try acting.
`It just fell into place for me,` he said.
Since then, he’s been in plays at his high school and with Schenectady Light Opera.
But `You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown` marks the first time he’s done what he calls `real theater.`
He laughs as soon as the words are out of his mouth, acknowledging that the concept of the show `is not at all high brow.`
But it’s a challenge to tackle a role that doesn’t stick to the standard storytelling method. `There’s no through line,` he said. `It’s nice for me to try something different.`
He’s grateful to the internship program for providing such an opportunity. He said he felt he’d gotten all he could out of high school productions, and he’s in awe that through NYSTI, he’s working with veteran actors and being exposed to so many aspects of theater.
`It’s the best thing I could have done,` he said.
Whiteman was a NYSTI intern himself back in 1985. Just like Charlie Brown, you could say he has come full circle. He spent his early years as a director before getting a chance to merge his loves of theater and teaching, starting a theater program at Doane Stuart. Today, he is a teacher at Westmere Elementary School in Guilderland in addition to serving in several capacities with NYSTI.
As director of `You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown,` he strives to stay true to Shulz’s vision for the Peanuts characters, but he also took some liberties with costumes and props to `make it relatable.`
For instance, `one character uses a cell phone, and one uses a laptop,` he said.
He thinks the modifications will keep the show `refreshing and new,` while still offering plenty of laughs that are characteristic of the comic strip.
He and others encouraged people to come out if they want a good time.
`It’s such a great show,` Sheldon said. `It’s so iconic. You know who these kids are.`
`You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown` opens on Friday, June 5, at 8 p.m., running for one weekend only. The Sunday, June 7, show is sold out. All performances will be held at the James L. Meader Little Theatre, 5 Division St., on the campus of Russell Sage College in Troy June 3 to 15. Tickets are $15 for adults, $12 for senior citizens and students and $7.50 for children to age 12. For tickets, call the NYSTI box office at 274-3256 or visit www.nysti.org.