When the curtain rises on the New Theatre and Restaurant’s production of “Sherwood: The Adventures of Robin Hood” on November 22, Avila University will be well-represented both on- and backstage, highlighted by the professional debuts for undergraduates Gavin Merrill and Sam Stratton.
Merrill and Stratton, a senior and sophomore respectively, join the production as part of brand-new internship partnership between Avila and the New Theatre. Matt Schwader Harbor, M.F.A., assistant professor of theatre and director of performance studies at Avila, said the program continues the University’s dedication to preparing its students for life after graduation.
“Within the theatre department at Avila, we’re continually looking for ways to grow our pre-professional training,” said Schwader Harbor, who appears in the supporting role of Little John. “After I received the part in this show, representatives from the New Theatre approached me saying they were interested in working with a university to start an internship relationship. This became a natural fit and it was great timing for all of us.”
Both students appear as members of the ensemble, taking on several roles throughout the show. The internship is designed to have the two students split the role, alternating days they rehearse and perform in order to allow them to attend classes. Schwader Harbor said Merrill and Stratton were specifically selected as the first two interns for the program because of their exemplary classroom and on-stage behavior.
“We have a great company at Avila and we could have gone with any of our students, but both Gavin and Sam already display the qualities you need to be successful as a performer,” Schwader Harbor said. “Especially as our two guinea pigs, we wanted to have two students who exemplified the quality of Avila student we enjoy in the theatre department at the University.”
Merrill, who plans to graduate this upcoming spring, said he is grateful for the opportunity to be exposed to a highly-professional theatre setting prior to embarking on an acting career.
“The biggest adjustment has been that I’ve been able to focus solely on my acting,” Merrill said. “In the student-run productions I’ve been a part of, there are so many thing associated with running a show that you need to keep in mind. Here, I can focus on my acting and paying attention to the other actors to learn new techniques. I’ve had several great conversations with the experienced actors on set about how they made acting a career.”
Stratton specifically noted the size of the production being an eye-opener for him when he began working on the show in October.
“The scope of the show that we’re doing here is huge compared to what I’m used to,” Stratton said. “I’ve never done a show at this scale before and seeing what preparation goes into both on- and backstage has been an education. The fellow actors in this show have been very welcoming and I’ve gained so much from the time I’ve spent working on scenes with them.”
Several Avila alumni star alongside Schwader Harbor, Merrill and Stratton. Phil Fiorini ’82, Avila’s first B.F.A. recipient, features as Prince John, while recent graduate Jerry Manan ’19 is also a member of the ensemble. Backstage, Melissa Legg ’03 is a resident technician and master electrician for the New Theatre and Michael Kruse ’99 is the senior restaurant manager.
“It’s exciting to see several generations of Avila theatre students represented in one production at one of the premier theatre companies in Kansas City,” said Charlene Gould, Ph.D., dean of Avila’s College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences. “Seeing Phil Fiorini on-stage next to Gavin and Sam along with our other fine alums working backstage and front of house truly shows the enduring strength of our theatre department and the impact Avila continues to have on performing arts in our community.”