Mature direction

In her last year, student director Alysha Bernstein finds a balance between adulthood and play in Charlie Brown

You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown director Alysha Bernstein said her dream production to direct is Stephen Sondheim’s musical Company.
You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown director Alysha Bernstein said her dream production to direct is Stephen Sondheim’s musical Company.

Compared to managing her professors, directing her peers comes easily for student Alysha Bernstein, who’s directing the upcoming You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown.

In addition to working on Blue Canoe’s end-of-year production, Bernstein is also working on two other productions including John Lazarus’ The Grandkid where she manages Queen’s drama department head and lighting designer Tim Fort.

“I’ve worked on other shows where I’ve been my professor’s boss,” she said. “Last year when I stage managed Candide, the drama department major, all my professors were working on it.

“After that, working with students [is] not intimidating at all. It’s fun.”

You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown will be Bernstein’s sophomore stint as a director at Queen’s. But she directed 40 to 50 plays during high school and as a drama instructor at Camp White Pine in Haliburton, Ont.

“I’ve always been able to stare at a blank stage and see how actors move,” she said, adding that third-year directing classes have helped. “Also I really think it’s important, if you are a director, to know other sides of theatre.”

Since coming to Queen’s, Bernstein has worked on the technical and production sides of theatre for numerous productions, including her directorial debut in Vogt A’s The Badger and the Star last semester.

As she walks me through a day of rehearsal for You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown, it’s clear the young director brings a hands-off approach to her role.

“I come [to rehearsal] with blocking notes prepared,” she said. “But I never tell the actors what’s on that sheet until after we run it a few times. Then I offer suggestions and a few tweaks and changes. I let them make choices and decisions for themselves first.

“I am a big believer in the director as a facilitator or a communicator. I don’t think the director is at all the boss or the god of the show.”

You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown, is a children’s theatre musical based off of Charles M. Schulz’s comic strip Peanuts. It may seem an odd choice for a fourth-year drama major. But Bernstein insists her vision draws on both old and new perspectives of the 1950s cartoon.

“They’re still those quintessential, archetypal Peanuts characters — Charlie’s still going to be wearing the yellow shirt with the black stripe,” she said. “I really wanted to bring children’s theatre to a more mature audience, change it from what it had originally been on Broadway and at Stratford, because those characters — they say they’re five years old but the way that they talk they could be 40.”

For Bernstein, one challenge has been working with the actors on finding a marriage between their 20-something selves and their inner five-year-olds.

“We sit in a circle and we talk about stories from when they were five,” she said. “Today I told them they had to have the name of their ‘girl character’ ready and a brief history of the first five years of their life.”

A girl character refers to an alternate personality each actor developed in addition to the Peanuts persona. You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown is a script that typically features three male and three female actors. For Blue Canoe’s production, Bernstein selected an all-female cast.

Rather than try and hide the obvious discretions, Bernstein encourages the actors to embrace their genders. “They have two characters: they have their Charlie Brown Peanuts character and then they have their five-year-old girl character,” she said. “We’re developing those in rehearsal, that’s why they bring stories from when they were five and they bring their blankets in and they bring all of their stuff from their childhood — home videos and stuff like that. It’s so they get a chance to build and create a character of their own.”

Despite managing a cast and crew of over 20 people, Bernstein doesn’t separate herself from the fun and games. She also shares stories from her childhood as inspiration — one involving stolen Jos. Louis and chocolate milk.

“I just want to play,” she said. “And that’s what this show is and I tell that to my production team every time we have a production meeting. If they’re worried about buying wood or worried about getting shop time to build our set, I just go ‘This is fun, it doesn’t matter, we’re just going to have fun.’”

She said reviving the love people already have for Peanuts is what incited her to pick this piece — which will run at the end of the semester, leading up to exams.

“It’s not something that they have to really, really think about. They don’t have to leave the theatre and think philosophically about life,” she said. “Hopefully the audience leaves thinking about those moments when they were five years old too.”

You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown plays from March 30 until April 6 at the Baby Grand Theatre.

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