CASTing spells onstage
Delve into the magical world of Nancy Harakay, founder and director of CAST, the premier children’s theater program in the Wood River Valley. Text by Betsy Andrews Etchart. Photos by David N. Seelig.
Nancy Harakay’s cappuccino is gone and the blue mug rests securely in its saucer on top of her head. She looks out from under it through candy-apple-red glasses. "My mother used to make us balance books, for posture," says the founder and director of Children’s After School Theater, or CAST.
Without the cup, she is not much over five feet tall, with a plump, expressive face. It’s easy to tumble back into the ’60s when an imaginative 9-year-old staged elaborate neighborhood productions with her friends in Madison, Wisconsin. "Midori played the harpsichord," recalls Harakay. "She wrote the music and did choreography. Cassapple designed and sewed incredible Renaissance costumes." Harakay wrote the scripts and directed. "We all sang, danced and acted into the hearts of our neighbors."
Today, Harakay works in the wings, and CAST is celebrating its 10th season with performances of four musicals, including Rogers’ and Hammerstein’s Cinderella and an original musical, URatz. Public elementary and middle schools in the Wood River Valley don’t offer drama classes, so the CAST program gives students an opportunity they wouldn’t otherwise have. More than 50 students a year between the ages of 7 and 15 sing, dance and act their way into the hearts of valley residents under Harakay’s creative eye, skilled hand and patient tutelage.
For Harakay, CAST is a lot like being back in Madison. She coaches students in improvisation, voice and movement.
Standing suddenly, she cups and flattens her palms across a vertical plane; magically, she’s built an invisible wall. Learning such "set illusions" helps develop focus and attention span. "It’s also cool at show and tell," Harakay says with a laugh.
In the early years of CAST, Harakay wrote the scripts and Mary Poppen, a leader in local children’s musical theater, composed the music for the biannual musical performances. Each child would read through the script and audition for their chosen part. If the right part didn’t exist, Harakay created one. Lisa Brown, whose daughters Barrett and Waverly were CAST members for many years, marvels at Harakay’s custom tailoring. "She’ll pick a play that she thinks is strongest for the group," says Brown. "She’s so good at identifying a part for their special personalities."
For Harakay, working with children is a joy. "Children act," she says simply. "A lot of them do it instinctively. They imitate. I love it more than anything."
A 23-year resident of Hailey, the vivacious Philadelphia, Pennsylvania native came to the Wood River Valley from Madison by way of Key West, Florida. She characterizes her career as "serendipitous. It just kind of pursued me."
At 20 she attended The Valley Studio, founded by E. Reed Gilbert, who had studied with the father of classical mime, Etienne DeCroux. "In this little country town in Wisconsin," muses Harakay, "he’d bring in Chinese shadow puppet troupes, Mamako (a famous Japanese female mime), actors from New York." Visiting artists from Yale University taught workshops on Kabuki. When the eager student proposed a summer apprentice program for herself, she ended up "doing acting and theater and movement pretty much 24/7." The training informed and inflamed her passion for teaching.
She was offered a position as a mime instructor in Florida, and moved to Key West. There, she founded a street mime troupe, and when Tennessee Williams’ Green Street Theatre, a Key West landmark, needed coaching in movement for a production of Animal Farm, they called her.
"Tennessee Williams would come down about three times a year," recalls Harakay. "I’d sit beside him in the theater, and he would smile and nod, and then we’d go out to lunch. He was always very polite with me."
At 23, Harakay took time out to visit her parents, who had relocated to Ketchum. "I tried to leave twice, never did," she says, but jobs came her way even in the Gem State. The Antique Theater in Gooding had just received a large grant to do mime, "but nobody knew how to do it," Harakay says with a chuckle. "They had to learn, because they were supposed to be teaching it!" She taught them mime techniques, and they got their grant.
The new Idahoan married and started a family. She opened The Toy Store in Ketchum with Carol Knight, and taught first- through fifth-grade drama at The Community School for the next 18 years, while raising daughter Julia, now 26, and son Jay, 24.
In 1998, her business partner asked her to give her 7-year-old son C. Gordon acting lessons. Harakay agreed to hold classes if Knight could round up eight kids. Knight delivered, and CAST was born. Three years later, 58 kids were meeting once a week in what is now the reference room of the Hailey Public Library.
In 2001, Harakay’s cast for Peter Pan was so large that she rented Ketchum’s nexStage Theater, and nexStage invited her to use its facility permanently. It was an invitation she accepted with some reluctance, knowing that not all her students could make the commute.
Harakay attributes much of CAST’s growing momentum to her music director of five years, Janis Walton. The daughter of a documentary film producer, Walton has sung on stage and recorded music since the age of 3; she has suffered firsthand the tyranny of directors who don’t respect children’s needs. Walton does not wear saucers for hats but, after knee surgery last winter, she choreographed The Legend of Sleepy Hollow on crutches. ("Step, shuffle, fall," intones Harakay.) A former children’s theater director herself, Walton came upon Harakay’s ad in the classifieds a week after moving to Bellevue with her husband, a minister, and their five children. Today, the women interact like sisters, one picking up a thought where the other leaves off.
"What we’re offering kids is an experience of performance that feels as comfortable as them doing it in their own living room," explains Harakay.
"I like the ones who don’t think they can do anything," adds Walton. "The surprise on their faces when they do…"
"It’s all about giving them confidence," continues Harakay. "Their peers admire them, they build up their self-esteem."
"They may not ever do the arts again," finishes Walton. "But they’ll always appreciate it."
The students who participated in CAST’s first season returned for seven years, and many members pursue high school theater or attend the prestigous Idyllwild Arts Academy in California. Whether they head for Broadway, though, is not the point. "It’s so good for the public speaking and confidence," says Lisa Brown. "My girls were up there singing, dancing, acting, and they loved it."
Harakay and Walton also work with Sun Valley Adaptive Sports, adding an artistic dimension to the athletics-based program for the disabled. A production of The Grinch last winter played to an audience of 70 parents and friends.
In her spare time, Harakay snowshoes and tootles around on her bicycle. But her passion remains teaching drama to children. "You’re teaching them, but you’re always learning from them, too," she explains. "The places their minds take you are so wonderful." She pauses, and then adds, "for an old person. Don’t put that in!"
Tonight, Harakay is off to a tango lesson. And where is CAST headed? "A lot of kids who have grown up in CAST want to come back and work for us," says Harakay. "We want to grow big enough to be able to hire them."