Behind the scenes of center stage
Zacharee Simms doesn’t sit still. There’s always someone to say, “Hello” to, a meeting to attend or an idea that is best explained standing. He has a frantic energy, like a spinning plate. The battery pack to this bunny: passion.
This November, Simms devoted his energy to directing “Speech and Debate” by Stephen Karam, a play that follows three high school students through their involvement in a sex scandal with the school’s theater teacher. The teens stir up Salem, Oregon with musical numbers ranging in topic from abortion to crap sandwiches.
“The play takes the childish bravado of high school and combines it with that wanting to be older,” Simms said. “That meshing of the two makes it a play for our generation.”
Simms first found the play as part of The Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival. The competition draws student directors from across the country to present single scenes in front of judges.
His team made the semifinals performing a scene from the script, beating graduate students, Simms said.
After the competition, Simms said he knew he had a hit on his hands and hoped to continue his work with the play.
Lead actor Megan Huynh was the only cast member to stay on with the project since its early stages in the competition.
“She’s one of those actors who is willing to play and has an innate comedic timing,” Simms said. “I’m not going to say she’s a natural because she works hard.”
For Huynh the respect is mutual. She said Simms understands each character in the play, and also gives the actors enough room to figure the characters out themselves.
While working to understand her character Diwata, Huynh said she spent time reflecting on how trauma impacts people’s behavior. Huynh’s character doesn’t have a support system to aid her in her hardship.
“She has this shell of a persona she uses like a shield to protect herself,” Huynh said. “But it’s just to distract from all she’s going through internally.”
Huynh co-starred in the play by actors Max Koh and Derek Swanson.
“Something you always want from an actor is for them to make big bold choices,” Simms said.
With a cast of only four actors, Simms said every role is crucial to the success of the play.
Swanson said he appreciated how Simms got the actors ready to play every day and had high praises for stage manager Veronica Martin.
Simms’ goal was to create a universe that can suspend reality for the audience. He said directing is more of a balancing of energies than instruction.
Simms said taking the project from one scene to an entire play was anything but easy. He paid for the production almost entirely out of his own pocket.
Simms got his first taste of directing in the spring of his freshman year in theatre arts professor Mark Kuntz’s class. Before this, he acted, taking his first role in the sixth grade in a school musical.”
He described the “rocking musical of mythical proportion” as “garbage.” While Simms didn’t win any Tony’s for the performance, he did find a passion that followed him from middle school to years abroad in both France and Dubai.
Through various projects, Simms found his own visual style of directing focused on composition.
“I love seeing people move, having the actors form shapes on the stage, it’s like a puzzle,” Simms said.
Last year Simms directed, “The Memory of Water” by Shelagh Stephenson. The play tells the story of a reunion of three sisters as they plan their mother’s funeral.
“‘The Memory of Water’ was for my family and our situation. [‘Speech and Debate’] is for me,” Simms said.
Simms spent his entire fall quarter working with actors on their lines and blocking. Blocking describes the motions and actions actors will perform on stage. Because the cast couldn’t practice in the venue until Nov. 7, last-minute changes had to be made.
In addition to blocking, Simms paid special attention to how the two gay characters in the play were portrayed. While the script called for one character to behave in stereotypical ways, Simms called for honesty and realism.
In one of Simms’ favorite scenes, the main character, Solomon, has a dramatic coming out.
“The character maintains a cool persona throughout the whole play, but we finally see what’s eating him from the inside,” Simms said.
Simms said the scene was what originally drew him to the play. Compared to the comedic scenes of the story, it’s weighty. Simms explained tension is created in a play when characters wait to reveal something about themselves.
He said he was particularly excited for the audience to see a comedic number the cast had taken special liberties with.
“I don’t know how much to give away, but there are skin suits,” Simms said.
Although the play is full of laughs, Simms hopes the audience will also appreciate its deeper meaning. He said the play is really about the three students supporting each other and building a friendship.
“I don’t want them to feel alone,” Simms said. “No matter where you’re from or who you are, I like to believe there’s always going to be someone that will help you or listen. You don’t have to fight by yourself.”
Simms said he sees parallels between the support the debate team gives the characters of his play and the support of the theater community in his own life.
“If I didn’t have theater, I would go crazy,” Simms said.
Directing is Simms’ ultimate goal. He hopes to eventually establish himself in London, Seattle or another large city. While the location for his future is vague, Simms is certain in his passion for the craft.
“Bellingham is great, but it’s a bubble,” Simms said. “I love telling people what to do.”
“Speech and Debate” was performed in the Douglas Underground Theater on Nov. 17 and 18.