ACMA actors find modern resonance in Dickens' 'Great Expectations'

by: JAIME VALDEZ - Arts and Communication Magnet Academy senior Hogan Fritz and freshman Ally Merkel rehearse their roles as Pip and Estella in ACMA Theatre Company's adaptation of Charles Dickens' classic 'Great Expectations.'Auditioning for the lead in a school theatrical production is never a walk in the park — even if you were once the great Jay Gatsby.

“The audition process is always nerve racking, regardless if you’ve been in eight shows or it’s your first year there,” says Hogan Fritz, an Arts and Communication Magnet Academy senior who cut his teeth in ACMA’s 2010 production of “The Great Gatsby.”

“I felt a little more comfortable this time. It’s always nerve racking auditioning for a part, but that makes it worthwhile.”

The mix of comfort and nerves paid off for Fritz, 17, whose latest audition landed him the role of “Pip” in the ACMA Theatre Company’s adaptation of Charles Dickens’ classic, “Great Expectations.” A benefit for the “Books for Kids” program, the production runs for six performances from Thursday, Dec. 6, through Saturday, Dec. 15, in the school’s Arts Center, 11375 Center St.

The play follows the adventures of Pip, an orphan boy given a chance, courtesy of a mysterious benefactor, to rise from his humble beginnings in 19th century Victorian England. The coming-of-age story explores the social classes of the place and the time.

While Fritz clearly inhabits a different set of circumstances than his character, the young actor strongly identifies with Pip’s determination to be his own person — to pursue his desires regardless of the obstacles he faces. Those desires include Estella, played by Allison Merkel.

“We all have goals,” he says. “Pip is in love with Estella. He really wants to be married to her. Whether it’s a person, a career, we all can identify with wanting something so badly we’re willing to give up something for it. (Pip’s) willing to give up his family and the things he grew up with for that sole goal alone. The question is what will we do to achieve that? How tough is it to make that decision when the opportunity arises?”by: JAIME VALDEZ - 'Great Expectations' director David Sikking, an English teacher at ACMA, says despite the Victorian trappings, the play for him holds an uncanny resonance with today’s cultural and economic climate.

Then, as now

“Great Expectations” director David Sikking, an English teacher at ACMA, says despite the Victorian trappings, the play for him holds an uncanny resonance with today’s cultural and economic climate.

“It’s about a sense of entitlement, the work ethic, young people coming into a sense of who they are and how they’re going to interact with the world and with others in a productive manner,” he says. “And about being emotionally and psychologically successful in a financially trying time.”

It’s those connections more than any holiday-season theme that drew Sikking to choose the play for ACMA’s winter production.

“I thought Dickens would be a really nice choice,” he says. “I’ve always loved the Dickens’ stories. I thought it would be exciting to do with the kids, with such a large group of very distinct characters.”

Merkel, an ACMA freshman, credits her best friend from eighth grade for leading her to read “Great Expectations.”

“I’m a big fan of the story of ‘Great Expectations,’” she says. “I love the Dickens’ characters. They’re so complex. I love the language, the era in the 1800s.”

She also heard great things about Sikking’s inspirational ability as a director.

“Mr. Sikking pointed out that in doing Dickens, you forget he has a comedic side to his literature, not just a serious side,” she says. “I wanted to explore the comedy as well as the tragedy.”

Merkel, 14, says the universality of the character drew her to Estella.

“There’s a bit of Estella in all of us. She’s always talked about as a beauty — drawing men in and breaking hearts. In fact, all that does is hurt Estella. It’s all about what’s inside, the way Dickens wrote Estella’s character arc,” she says. “It shows happiness comes from the inside. That’s what resonates.”by: JAIME VALDEZ - Arts and Communication Magnet Academy students rehearse their roles in ACMA Theatre Company's adaptation of Charles Dickens' classic 'Great Expectations.'

Just ask Pip

Fritz, who after graduation plans to study acting at Marymount Manhattan College in New York City, says he enjoys working with friends like Merkel as well as fledgling actors he’s still getting to know.

“It’s great to work with people with different skill sets on the show. (Sikking) likes to bring in younger, newer students. There are a lot of people in the show I don’t know,” he admits. “I’m getting to know them on a whole new level. I think it’s fantastic.”

As he enters the final stretch of rehearsals, Sikking says he’s picking up signs that “Great Expectations” — and its lead character’s dogged striving to become what he wants — is the right message at the right time.

“Pip has great expectations of himself and the world, as we all do. But as usual, we have to work to make those expectations real,” he says. “It’s not handed to us. Pip learns the hard lessons for us, so that our journey may be easier.”

A question on a T-shirt he recently saw put the ongoing impact of Dickens even further in context — and draws a satisfied grin.

“It said, ‘What would Pip do?’ ” he says.

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