Four talented young actresses: Brooklyn Shuck (Young Bertie); Gracie Jones (Teen Cee Cee); Maya Brettell (Teen Bertie), and Presley Ryan (Young Cee Cee) appeared in Signature Theatre’s production of Beaches. Here they reflect on the production, their performances, working together, and their ‘Signature Experience.’
Joel: Introduce yourselves and tell us where you are from and how you got involved in Beaches. What did you sing and read at your audition, and where were you when you got the call that you were offered your role?
Brooklyn Shuck: My name is Brooklyn Shuck and I am 9 years-old and I play Young Bertie. I’m originally from Lexington, KY but now I live in New York City. My agent sent me in for an audition for the role of Little Bertie. I sang a song that used to be in the beginning of the show called “Don’t Go in the Water” and I read the beginning scene between Young Cee Cee and Young Bertie. When my agent called to tell my mom I got the part, I was on my way to an evening performance of Annie on Broadway. We celebrated on the street!
Gracie Jones: My name is Gracie Jones and I’m from Poolesville, MD. I was called in to Signature to audition for the show and then was fortunate to be given a callback as well. For the audition we were asked to prepare part of a song for the show and be ready to read a scene from the show as well. I was running sound for a ballet performance in Poolesville when I received the offer!
Maya Brettell: I am Maya Brettell from Fairfax Station, VA. I heard about the staged reading for Beaches but there were only young girls and adults involved so I wasn’t sure if there was a role suited to me. I was pretty excited when I learned that Iris (Ranier Dart) had included a teenage set of Cee Cee and Bertie in the script. The timing for the auditions almost didn’t fit into my schedule. I was doing a show at ATMTC and also in final rehearsals for another production at Woolly Mammoth. My audition was set up during a sliver of time when I was driving between those two theaters and luckily Signature was located right in the middle of my commute! That’s when I sang Cee Cee and Bertie’s song, “The Letters,” for the first time, and went through some of the dialogue woven between the verses. The offer came in while I was at school. My mom met me as the dismissal bell rang and handed me her phone to read the email.
Presley Ryan: Hi I’m Presley Ryan. I’m 10 years old and I am a 4th grader from NJ. I auditioned for Beaches at Telsey + Co. in NYC. For the audition, I sang the song “What a Star” and I performed a scene from the show. I was on a sound stage at Grumman Studios on Long Island rehearsing for The Sound of Music Live on NBC when I got the call from my agent. I was really excited to play the role of Young Cee Cee.
Joel: Who did you play in the show and how did you relate to your character?
Brooklyn: I play Young Bertie. I related to her because she’s very obedient and a good little girl. Early on, we had a lunch with all three Berties to talk about how she would eat, dance, walk, talk. It made it easy for us all to play her in the same way.
Gracie: I played Teen CeeCee in the show. As with most adolescent young ladies, she’s got her quirks and awkward moments, but she also posses a great deal of drive and fortitude. I can relate to her as far as her struggle to decipher who she is (as most folks who have been teenagers at one point can, I guess!) but I can also understand having a very solid ida of what you want to do as an adult before you even graduate high school. Granted, that idea often changes, though it ultimately didn’t for CeeCee!
Maya: I play Teen Bertie and summer actor in the ensemble. As a teen, I can say that Iris has written a teen character who is totally relatable especially when you see her with her mother. We are similar in that we are both somewhat shy, we love to learn, and every once in awhile, we can be spontaneous. We both have our guards up but because we are teenagers, we are still pretty naive. One conclusion I came to about Bertie was that she loves to read (just like me!) and would dive into a book and never want to come back out.
Presley: I play Young Cee Cee. She is loud and funny and a really sassy little girl. I LOVE playing this role!!
What did you admire about your character and what didn’t you admire about her?
Brooklyn: I admired that she was a very loyal and supportive friend. I didn’t admire that she was a bad dancer, because I love to dance.
Gracie: I admired her ability to stick to her dreams and put herself out there time and time again, working through rejection with relative grace at an early age. It’s a testament to how much performing is a part of who she is. She tended to be a bit of a selfish conversationalist, which I didn’t admire.
Maya: I admire that Bertie still dreams and wants to get out into the real world and experience life even though she knows next to nothing about what is out there. I don’t like that she is so sheltered and tailors her life to fit her mother’s expectations. Even so, she continues to offer all her determination and heart to go after what she wants and never accepts being someone that she’s not just for the sake of living.
Presley: I admired that Cee Cee follows her dreams and never gives up. She is also a very loyal friend.
How did your performance grow since the first rehearsal and through the run? And how had the show changed during the run?
Brooklyn: I think our performances grew because my friendship with Presley has grown. We’d become best friends and I think that showed onstage. There were a lot of changes during previews. We would have script and song changes daily as the creative team watched to see what was working.
Gracie: My performance grew in that I was able to get to the point where I didn’t have to think about being Cee Cee, I just let her happen. She went from a young girl who has very specific habits, to one who’s physical character encompass more than a few signature tendencies.
Maya: I think that I was playing Bertie a little too timid in the beginning. I was denying her a chance to enjoy the dreams she had and be a little daring when she’s all by herself or talking to Cee Cee. After going through most of this process, the character has evolved into a girl on the verge of womanhood who you know has the potential to be confident and creative, but is never given enough room to reach that point.
The creative team worked long hours during the rehearsal and previews to keep tweaking things. As an actor, it was fascinating to watch and listen. Since the previews, the only thing I feel has changed about the show is how much fun it is. The more comfortable we get, the more we all have to look back and see what we can polish and correct about our own performances so that we’re still on our toes and sharp. When you can see those kinds of things for yourself and continue to make each show a little bit better, that’s when it gets really good!
Presley: The show has changed so much from the first rehearsal. Lines and songs get cut and new lines get added and hopefully all the changes make the show the best it can be.
How was your Signature Theatre experience? What did you like the most about working there?
Brooklyn: I loved Signature Theatre! They made us feel at home right away. Besides being in the show, my favorite thing was hanging out with the cast and creative team after the performances in the lobby! They had become like family.
Gracie: I very much enjoyed working at Signature. I love how approachable everyone was, not to mention how clean and tight a ship they ran both onstage and off. It was a very pleasant and exciting experience!
Maya: Signature had been such an adventure for me, and one of the best experiences. I love doing musical theater! Signature has always been on my stage wish list. My favorite thing about working there was working with this amazing group of talented people. I worked with people who I used to read about or see onstage. Everyone was really personable so it was like going to work with people who have been my friends for years. I didn’t just bond with the cast, but also the crew, the creative team, and the staff! They did a good job of making you feel that you belonged there. I am so happy that Signature invited Iris to hold her world premier in our town. It was an amazing rehearsal experience with the authors (the incomparable team of Iris and Tom Thomas), the composer (the awesome David Austin) and their team in residence. When I learned that they were writing and composing for years to reach this point, it was a real honor for me to speak the lines and sing their songs.
Presley: Signature Theatre was a really wonderful place to perform. Everyone who works there, from the production staff to the back office, from the costume shop to the box office, everyone was really nice and supportive. I love Signature Theatre and Shirlington Village is a great place to live and work. It was really fun being there and I especially loved to visit the dog park!
Did you know about the popular movie of Beaches before you got cast and how did you prepare for your role? What was the best advice Director Eric Schaeffer gave you on playing your roles.
Brooklyn: I had never seen the movie but my manager showed me the first part when Young Bertie meets Young Cee Cee. The best advice Eric gave me was to put myself in my character’s situation to see how she would be feeling. For example, when I’m lost at the beginning of the show, he said to imagine being lost in the mall and not being able to find my mom.
Gracie: I knew of the movie, but I had never seen the film all the way through in one sitting before. Therefore, I did not really use the film in preparation for the role, I simply went in and presented myself and my abilities as best I could and hoped I fit the bill for this particular character and production! Eric helped up to begin developing our characters by offering us opportunities to bond with a younger and older selves! We wrote letters to each other and even went out to lunch together, all three Berties and all three Cee Cees to strengthen that rapport.
Maya: I didn’t know the movie. The best part of my research was watching the movie. Then, I had an incredible dinner with Iris and some others working on the show where she told the story of writing her book and working to have the movie made. She is an incredible storyteller no matter whether she is talking to you or writing. Her story has really inspired me to be more patient about reaching my goals while always remaining determined!
Eric gave us really interactive direction in the beginning of rehearsal as far as developing our characters. He sent us out to lunch with our older and/or younger counterparts (so I went with Bertie/Mara and Little Bertie/Bertie) so we could talk about our characters and bond as little groups. We also at around at the end of one rehearsal and talked about why Bertie and Cee Cee liked each other so much, wrote down adjectives to describe what the other was like, and talked about how our characters’ personalities evolved through the years.
Presley: I didn’t know about the movie before I got the audition but then my mom showed me the beginning scenes with Mayim Bialik (who plays Young Cee Cee in the movie) so I could see the character I was auditioning for. Our director Eric Schaeffer had us write letters to the other versions of our character and spend time with them so we could figure out how she would do or say certain things. That helped all 3 of us to play the same person at different ages and make it be believable.
What did you admire most about Mara Davi and Alysha Umphress’ performances?
Brooklyn: I think Mara and Alysha were perfectly cast as Bertie and Cee Cee. They both have amazing voices and had great chemistry on stage. And offstage, they were a lot of fun!
Gracie: I admired their prowess as performers very much, but I’d have to say what touched me most about the two of them was how well they fielded every ball thrown at them throughout the process! With so many changes un until the day the production officially opened, I truly admired how composed, energetic, dedicated and positive they were. They rolled with the punches and made what at times was a stressful transformation, a fantastic experience for the rest of us by carrying it on their shoulders with grace and dignity.
Maya: Mara and Alysha have the most amazing voices and spectacular control over them. The way they can hold out for almost two hours and sound perfect while jumping on couches, being lifted in the air, and shoving around mannequins is beyond my comprehension. Whenever I can see their scenes, through cracks in the set, I always notice how honest they are. They let conversations on stage ebb and flow with all the ease and pace of a real-life conversation.
Presley: Mara and Alysha are both truly spectacular performers. They both have amazing voices and were so perfectly cast. They were also so nice and so much fun to be around. I’m really excited to see what happens next for them.
What did they and your fellow cast mates teach you during the run? Which scene that they were in moved you the most and/or that you liked the most?
Brooklyn: This is the first original show that I’d been part of. The cast taught me how important it is to be open to changes to make the show better. “Normal People” is one of my favorite songs because it shows Cee Cee and Bertie being silly. The most moving scene for me is when Cee Cee takes Bertie to the beach when she’s sick and Cee Cee tells her that she can call her Cecilia.
Gracie: They all had nurtured in me the ability to see the fun in what we do for a living throughout the audition process and well into performances. Each version of the show we performed, night to night, there was always something new to discover and finding those moments with each cast member was wonderful. My favorite scene between the two leading ladies had to be when Cee Cee decides to stay and take care of Bertie. Their genuine love for one another really prevailed throughout the scene and song “A Day at the Beach.”
Maya: My fellow cast mates taught me a lot of things. There were tips like eating potato chips if your voice is dry; and lessons like how to regroup all your thoughts and relax before a show. I think my favorite scene in the whole show, though it’s hard to choose, is the first scene of Act II. The ensemble and Cee Cee do a hilarious, high energy disco number with some of the craziest vocals and dancing in the whole show. I especially love Little Cee Cee’s big number “What a Star” and Little Bertie’s entrance in her wedding dress for “My Perfect Wedding.”
Presley: All of the adults in the show were really professional and it was amazing to have the opportunity to be around them and watch how they worked. I especially loved the ensemble scenes because they were really fun and they lightened things up a little bit while helping to move the story along.
Brooklyn and Presley: What did you do about your schooling while you were performing here in Beaches?
Brooklyn: The theatre provided a tutor for Presley and me. We went to school 15 hours each week. Our tutor followed lessons plans sent to him by our teachers from our schools in New York .
Presley: The production hired a tutor who works with my home school so I kept on track with the work the kids in my class were doing. Our tutor Travis was really nice and I actually already knew him before I got here because he was also my tutor on The Sound of Music Live.
What surprised you the most about the audience’s reaction to the show?
Brooklyn: I loved that there was as much laughter from the audience as there were tears.
Gracie: I shouldn’t have been so surprised by how weepy the audience generally got towards the end of the show, but I think I was simply consistently touched by how willing they are to display how the story has touched them.
Maya: First, I have to say thank you to all my friends and family who came to see the show. They all loved this new musical. Some came back to see it again. The people who came to see this show were really expressive, which says a lot about DC theater audiences and also, about the clever, emotion-filled writings of Iris and Tom. Also, because it’s a new musical, you never know what the turnout is going to be. However, we had consistently large houses, and it’s been great to be able to share our show with so many supportive people!
Presley: It always surprised me how much the audience laughed at certain parts of the show. As soon as I stepped out onstage in the wedding scene the entire audience was cracking up. I didn’t even have to say a word or sing a note!
What did you like the most about working together in the show?
Brooklyn: I loved that our friendship in real life is just like our friendship in the show. I know Presley will be a lifelong friend because of this experience.
Gracie: I enjoyed connecting to what it felt like to be a really young teenage girl again! There’s a specific kind of energy a 13-16 year old girl encompasses, and working especially with my friend Maya, who plays Bertie, helped me tap back into that. Finding that continuous optimism and determination was a lot of fun.
Maya:I like working with Gracie because we have become good friends in real life so the dressing room time was always a favorite part of my day. We clicked easily onstage, it was that way even back at the audition singing together for the first time. I liked working with Brooklyn and Presley, too. They were full of energy and fun to be around but more importantly they are instinctive actors with excellent insight on their scenes.
Presley: I loved every second of working on Beaches with this incredible cast. We spend so much time together that we really did become a family. Brooklyn and I also lived together and spent almost every minute together for the last 3 months so we really feel like sisters now.
What did you learn about yourselves as actresses during the run of Beaches?
Brooklyn: I loved being able to originate a part in a new show. I learned to adapt to the many changes that took place during the previews. This cast was incredible and I really felt like I’d become a better actress from watching them commit to and perform their roles each night.
Gracie: I learned how much fun it was to let go of my inhibitions and just let CeeCee be CeeCee! I was nervous about being the connection between the young CeeCee and adult CeeCee, being able to adapt both of their habits and tendencies, but once I stopped trying to analyze that so much and just trust that I’d observed enough, it all fell into place.
Presley: I learned what it is like to perform in a professional show 8 times a week. It is important to rest your voice and drink lots of tea between shows!
What’s next for you on the stage?
Brooklyn: I will be performing in Cabaret for a Cause benefiting St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital in New York on May 12th. galapagosartspace.com/stjude
Gracie: I will be swinging for Signature’s Threepenny Opera.
Maya: I am working now with a troupe who is a part of a playwright incubator project. There is a final rehearsal and then a staged reading in April for this great new work by an up-and-coming playwright, Jean Koppen. Over the summer, I will keep busy with training. I’m always on the lookout for the next project!
Presley: I’m going to be in the Off-Broadway and U.S. premiere of A Little Princess The Musical. I’m playing the role of Jane, one of the seminary girls. The show is set in England and I’m really excited to speak and sing with a British accent! A Little Princess is playing at the Hudson Guild Theatre in NYC from May 22-25, 2014. www.alittleprincessnyc.com
What advice would you give to a young actor who is considering acting in the theater as a career?
Brooklyn: I would advise anyone interested in acting to follow their dreams. Who would have thought a little girl from Lexington , Kentucky would end up performing professionally at the age of 7? Dreams do come true!
Gracie: Of course it is a great deal of work, but it is also a great adventure! If you feel you want to pursue it, then don’t live with the regret of letting it clip away untried!
Maya: You’re not going to pop out of high school and be fully cooked and ready to rock Broadway. Your voice won’t be developed, there’s still so much to learn about yourself and life, and you still have a lot of dues to pay. Everyone who is a young actor faces those challenges, and the most important thing to do when you recognize them is be open and willing to learn.
Presley: It’s hard work but worth it! Keep following your dreams!
Beaches ended performances on March 30, 2014 at Signature Theatre—4200 Campbell Avenue, in Arlington, Virginia.
Tiffany Draut’s review of Beaches on DCMetroTheaterArts.