2017-08-03 / News

‘The Syringa Tree’

One woman, 24 characters at Engine
By Grant McPherson
Staff Writer

Courtney Wood has been performing on stage since she was a child and her performance at Engine this August is a one woman show she has acted in for the past three years. “The Syringa Tree” follows one black family and one white family in early 1960s South Africa under Apartheid, as seen through the eyes of 6-yearold Elizabeth. Wood said she hopes audience members can learn from the lessons in history and the struggle for freedom through Elizabeth’s experience. (Courtesy photo)Courtney Wood has been performing on stage since she was a child and her performance at Engine this August is a one woman show she has acted in for the past three years. “The Syringa Tree” follows one black family and one white family in early 1960s South Africa under Apartheid, as seen through the eyes of 6-yearold Elizabeth. Wood said she hopes audience members can learn from the lessons in history and the struggle for freedom through Elizabeth’s experience. (Courtesy photo)
BIDDEFORD – A Biddeford native will return home this summer to perform a one-woman show that tackles themes of home and family. Courtney Wood, 27, is the only performer in “The Syringa Tree,” which will be held at 7 p.m. Friday, Aug. 18 and Saturday, Aug. 19 at Engine, 128 Main St. in Biddeford. Wood grew up in Biddeford Pool before graduating from Falmouth High School and Doane University in Crete, Nebraska. General admission tickets are $20, reserved front row are $25.

Wood has loved theater for as long as she can remember and began acting at summer camps at Heartwood College of Art and the Children’s Theater of Maine. From there she joined summer programs at Belvoir Terrace in Lenox, Massachusetts throughout middle and high school. She learned of Doane University at those summer camps and was admitted with free tuition.

“I never would have known about it,” Wood said. “But they gave me a full ride and I said ‘I’ll take it.’”

Wood chose “The Syringa Tree” as her senior thesis project in college. She first saw a performance of it at Portland Stage Company over her winter break of freshman year. She said she enjoyed the material and had been thinking of how to do a one-woman piece for a while. After graduation, Wood toured the show professionally throughout Nebraska and helped recruit high school students for the Doane University Theater Department.

“I realized I can take this anywhere, this doesn’t have to be the end,” she said.

“The Syringa Tree” is the story of 6-year-old Elizabeth as she grows up under apartheid with her family in South Africa during the early 1960s. Wood portrays 24 different characters over the course of the two-hour play.

Wood has toured theaters and educational venues across the United States for the past three years and said every time she performs the show it changes for the better and the characters become more fleshed out. Wood said she enjoyed working with director Kim Bent of Lost Nation in Vermont last year, who helped her develop the vision of the show. Wood hopes to acquire a booking agent soon to help find even more venues where she can perform.

“I’m ready to take it to that next level,” she said. “The future is bright with where the show can go.”

Wood said she was initially nervous to portray men and women of different races. The play is based on the writer’s true story and Wood feels the material is handled tastefully. But being white, she said she had to think about how to play the black characters.

“You have to give them a heartbeat and be honest with the material,” Wood said.

Her greatest challenge, she said, is making sure she is physically and mentally prepared for the show. The two hour performance requires a great deal of stamina and energy and she said the thought of losing her voice is often in the back of her mind.

“I have to do a lot of prep work to not have that happen,” she said. “But if it does, I can’t do anything about it.”

Wood first performed “The Syringa Tree” at Engine last April. The play is originally written without an intermission, but Wood added one to allow audience members a break and time for herself to drink water. However, she said the performance at Engine in April was the first time she felt she could have done the whole show without a break.

“It’s like a dance, performing a one person show,” Wood said, “I know the lines so well, I know it cold. It’s so fun to perform.”

Tammy Ackerman, executive director and co-founder of Engine, said the space isn’t typically used for dramatic performances but she was happy to accommodate Wood. Ackerman hopes to host other smaller shows that may not be feasible to stage at City Theater.

“’The Syringa Tree’ was popular enough for us to bring back in the summer and see how much of an audience we can pull,” she said.

Ackerman said audience members should prepare for a personal performance. With about 60 seats in total for viewers, there is an intimacy not found in larger venues.

“Expect something a little bit different,” she said.

Ackerman was impressed the first time she saw Wood portray so many different characters.

“How she remembers everything is beyond me,” she said. “The charisma and ability to go from one to another fluidly, it’s a riveting performance.”

Wood’s godfather, Charlie Crane, was one of the people who approached Ackerman about staging “The Syringa Tree” at Engine. Wood lives with Crane at his home in Biddeford Pool when she is not acting in another part of the country.

Crane was initially neighbors with Wood and her family and has known her since she was born. He said watching Wood grow up has been an extraordinary ride. For Crane, “The Syringa Tree” shows off the culmination of her skills.

“It’s astonishing to me she pulls it off so well,” he said. “When I first saw it she was in college and I’ve seen it a couple times since then. She keeps getting better.”

Crane doesn’t know anyone with a more optimistic outlook on life than Wood. He said she knows her limitations and directs her energy toward what she can accomplish. Crane sees her as a role model for many people.

“She has the attitude that there’s nothing she can’t do if she really applies herself,” he said.

Crane has watched Wood transition from eccentric roles in plays to more dramatic ones as she grows older. He said “The Syringa Tree” is a great example of her inhabiting both. Crane said what hasn’t changed is her amount of trust and the belief she can overcome any challenge.

“She’s fun to be around, in the theater or anywhere,” he said. “She’s enthusiastic and bubbly, not in a silly way but in a way that makes other people feel good.”

Contact Staff Writer Grant McPherson at news@inthecourier.com

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