Aspiring actors were all ears as Derrick Weeden and Timothy Bond visited their Pioneer Valley High School drama class.
Weeden stars as Troy Maxson, a former star of the Negro baseball leagues who now works as a garbage man in 1957 Pittsburgh, in PCPA's production of "Fences," which Bond directs.
As a black man excluded from the major leagues during his prime, Troy's inner conflicts take their toll on his relationships with his wife and his children as they look for their own chances to fulfill their dreams.
Speaking to drama and music students last week, the duo touched on their careers and gave advice to the young but captive audience, teacher Shawna VanGronigen said.
"Most of the questions were about how he (Weeden) got into theater and why he doesn’t do movies," she said, "but some students had questions about pursuing drama out of high school. He really told them to be confident in themselves and their ability."
Winner of the 1987 Pulitzer Prize for drama, playwright August Wilson's "Fences" touches on themes of family, responsibility and race by describing the evolving black experience of 1950s Pittsburgh. A powerful play with challenging subjects, VanGronigen said the students had no difficulty engaging with the material.
"When you don’t dummy down to them and expect them to understand the literature, they do," she said. "While we may have related to our respective characters, the kids relate to the son. The kid wants to play football but they won’t let him. I don’t think the kids had any problem relating to such a mature topic."
A National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) grant partially funded PCPA's production of the award-winning play. As part of the grant, tickets for matinee showings were provided to schools and site visits were coordinated to engage with local students, according to PCPA spokesman Craig Shafer.
"[Bond and Weeden] talked about individual careers and gave an overview of directing or acting and what it entails," he said. "It was a great overview and drove home the value and importance that stage acting is a viable career. It was kind of an eye-opener for everyone, learning about the amount of work that goes into preparing for the play."
Director of Outreach and Education Leo Cortez said PCPA was grateful to the NEA for the granting them the opportunity engage students with Weeden.
"To be able to speak one-on-one in a very informal environment with a performer of this magnitude is very unique," Cortez said. "He was able to tell them about his background and students were able to talk to an individual who is in the field many students hope to be in."
PCPA regularly interacts with local students through various workshops and programs geared toward them, Cortez said. Every fall and spring, the it offers intensive workshops geared toward the "young, but serious performer."
"One of the cool things about the site visit is that I recognized a lot of the students in the classroom," he said, adding that it was very exciting to see students interact.
As PCPA prepares to kick off its 54th season in November, Cortez said it's excited to unveil a new outreach tour aimed at addressing bullying. Titled "The Purple Marble," he hopes the play, written by 8-year-old Alyssa Antoci, will provide students with an invaluable opportunity.
"We’ve been doing this for years," he said of the outreach tours. "PCPA has always offered something that goes out in the community. We're really excited to get to know them."