Thursday, April 19, 2018

It's a Sister Act: Illness Leads to Role Switch in Texas Tech's Little Women

Maddie Bryan Prepares for a Performance
of Little Women.
Photo by Anna Ruth Aaron-Despain

Standing on the Texas Tech Theatre mainstage on Friday night, sophomore music theatre major Maddie Bryan was trying to calm her nerves. She was forgetting to breathe, and she kept fidgeting and twiddling her thumbs. Her director was walking her through what she would be doing on stage that night. She had been working on the show for nearly two months, but tonight she would be doing a role she hadn’t rehearsed for a second.

It was 1:30pm when Bryan got the call that Jordan Sheets, the senior theatre major playing the starring role of Jo March in Texas Tech’s production of Little Women would not be able to perform in the 7:30pm show, and Bryan would be going on in her place.

It’s a story that has been presented time and time again in plays and musicals. The lead actor can’t perform for whatever reason and another actor is thrust into the spotlight. It’s how Shirley MacLaine got her big break on Broadway. The same with Sutton Foster (who, coincidentally, originated the role of Jo March). The plots of 42nd Street, Phantom of the Opera, and The Understudy all revolve around this theatrical mythos. But now, for students at Texas Tech University, it was happening for real.

Bryan had been playing the role of Meg March up until this point. When asked to step into the lead role, she felt anxious.

“I wasn’t gonna say no,” said Bryan with a laugh. “I got to the theatre right at 2:30, scarfed down a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and a banana, and started to work immediately.”

With Bryan moving from the role of Meg to Jo, there was another problem: who was going to play the role of Meg?

“When I walked into the theatre, I heard someone singing my songs,” Bryan said. “I turned the corner, and it was Casey Joiner.”

Joiner had served the production as accompanist during the entirety of the rehearsal period. When asked by the director for her opinion on who could play Meg, Joiner volunteered herself.

“Since I had been there since day one, I was willing to step in,” Joiner said. “I just wanted the students to feel like they got everything they expected and could have gotten out of the show.”

(From Left) Maddie Bryan, Baylee Hale, Jordan Sheets,
and Julia Rhea.
Photo by Dori Bosnyak
Bryan remembers someone curling her hair while she started her makeup. Someone else was putting on her microphone as she was finishing her lipstick. All the while, she was listening to the songs she would have to sing on repeat. The cast tried to remain calm.

At 7:30, the curtain rose, and the cast was off and running with everyone doing their best to make sure that none of the cracks in the fa├žade were showing.

“People would be pushing me in an acting way, guiding me, making it look natural,” said Bryan. “It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done.”

Sophomore Baylee Hale, who plays the role of Beth, had a different reaction to everything going on around her.

“For the first couple of numbers, I was backstage laughing hysterically,” Hale said with a grin. “It felt like a prank, like any moment someone would walk out and say, ‘Gotcha!’”

After the final curtain fell, Bryan and Joiner were shoved down front for an extra round of applause.

Although she wasn’t able to attend the performances, Sheets said she learned a valuable lesson from the ordeal.

“I had no idea how supportive and how much of a family this theatre department was until this happened. No matter what happens, these people have your back.”

Bryan took it all as a learning experience.

“It was an incredible opportunity,” Bryan said. “This sort of thing happens all the time in professional theatres. You’ve got to be ready.”

“The show must go on.”

Little Women continues through April 22 in the Charles E. Maedgen, Jr. Mainstage Theatre, located at 2812 18th Street between Boston and Flint Avenues. For tickets and more information, call (806)742-3603 or visit theatre.ttu.edu.

--Shane Strawbridge

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