Directing a full-length play is a tough gig and not for the faint of heart. Yet, for 15-year-old Sierra Friday, who is directing The Princess Bride for Topanga Youth Services, it comes to her as easily as breathing.
As the sun began to set on a recent Thursday afternoon, about 30 cast members ranging in age from 9-16 noisily streamed into the Topanga Community House and plopped their backpacks, jackets and stage gear on the long tables under the windows.
They passed around snacks and talked excitedly about the show, knowing they were there to work on the group and fight scenes from The Princess Bride by William Goldman.
Based on the film of the same name, this version was painstakingly adapted for the stage by its director, 15-year-old Sierra Friday, for three performances on Oct. 26 and 27 at the Topanga Community House.
Prior to the start of Thursday’s rehearsal, the 13-year-old production photographer, Jack Carolan, took photos for the Messenger Mountain News. He posed the actors in front of the stage as their characters—a brilliant idea for getting the large cast into one photo.
When word came down that there had been an unfortunate scheduling conflict at the Community House that evening—the Boy Scouts needed the room at 6:30—without a second thought, the resourceful and unflappable young director instructed her large cast to gather their stuff and move to the outdoor stage at the ballfield.
Willing troupers as they were, the actors cheerfully cooperated without hesitation, a testament to Friday’s full command of the rehearsal and her natural leadership qualities.
With just weeks to performance and with a million details still to work out, their rehearsal took place outdoors as the light faded from the sky.
Yet, with the stress mounting, as it would be for any production if they were going to get the show onstage by the end of October, they needed to get the sets built, the sword fights blocked out, the costumes designed, and stage lights hung by parents and volunteers.
No worries, because Friday seemed more than able to juggle these elements and even keep the large cast in check.
“We’re starting to run through the whole show,” she said. “The TCC is very booked, but we will be rehearsing there as much as we can.”
A Life in Theater. Even though she’s only 15, Friday, the daughter of Will Friday and step-mother Kamakshi Hart, is no stranger to the theater. Hart, has won accolades and awards for her one-woman show, “Wild at Hart,” scheduled for a performance at 8 p.m. on Saturday, Nov. 16 at the Santa Monica Playhouse. (Tickets are available at santamonicaplayhouse.com/wildathart)
Friday also learned from the best in the Canyon, having grown up in theater at the Theatricum Botanicum with Artistic Director Ellen Geer and Topanga Youth Services (TYS) director, Karen Cooke.
“I have been at the Theatricum since I was three, doing workshops and classes; I joined their Repertory Company when I was eight,” Friday said. “I am there pretty much every weekend from June through October.”
Friday started onstage very young at Theatricum playing a fairy in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, played a narrator on Animal Farm and worked the front of the house on The Chalk Garden.
This last season, Friday appeared in the ensemble for The Skin of Our Teeth, and worked on Moby Dick, Rehearsed. She also played Ophelia a few years ago in a production of Hamlet directed by Willow Geer.
Over the years, Friday also had the privilege of watching Ellen Geer, Melora Marshall and Willow Geer direct plays and learned directing from beginning to end.
“Being able to watch her [Ellen Geer] and other people direct has really influenced how I approach stuff and then watching people in rehearsals who really know what they are doing and ask such specific things, I would never have thought of that but now it’s on my radar,” she said.
At age 10, Friday began working with Karen Cooke and TYS, appearing in six shows, including starring as Maria in The Sound of Music and Lina Lamont in Singin’ in the Rain.
Cooke chose her to direct a play for the upcoming fall season.
“I was offered the opportunity to direct something last February,” she said. After talking to her friends, Friday, who is in tenth grade at the Manzanita School in Topanga, made the decision to direct The Princess Bride.
“We sort of threw around a couple of ideas, then settled on this,” she said. “I had four different options…I didn’t even know if it would really work onstage; it has about 35 cast members, now closer to about 30 actors. It’s such a generational crowd pleaser…not catered to any one group; anyone can find something that they enjoy in it.”
After deciding on which show to direct in March, Friday would spend the next six months adapting the film script to change all the camera angles to stage directions.
“Oh, yeah, it was a lot of work, but it has paid off,” she said. “It’s been a long process.”
Fortunately, Friday had the opportunity to work on the play during the day under a program called “Moxie Block” or independent study, whereby Manzanita’s high school students work with staff members on a passion project.
“I was also doing something [that was] theater related last year, so half the work was in class, setting up sides; a lot of this was done in school,” she said. “They were very supportive of all of this.”
Once Friday had the script and sides ready, it was time to find her cast. On June 8, before everyone disappeared for the summer, Cooke and Friday held auditions at The 1909 in Topanga where they spent three hours auditioning about 40 young actors—a big turnout for the TYS—read for their parts.
Friday said she took extra care to cast Wesley, Inigo Montoya and Princess Buttercup.
“I could see multiple people doing this,” she said. “There were definitely people who walked in and nope, this is definitely who you are going to be. Some were easier to cast, some people came in really prepared, some people came in with things memorized after they found something online.”
After a family vacation, Friday said she and Cooke decided who would be in the cast and who would be the production crew.
“It’s very much a family affair,” Friday said. “My dad is working on the production, building sets; we’ve been really good with talking through ideas; this is definitely one of the movies I remember watching many, many times; we know it word for word.”
Now, with a few weeks to go, the show is finally coming together with parents and friends helping at all levels. Friday even had to find a sword fight instructor. Fortunately, she found actor and fight choreographer Brandon Pugmire to work on the production and experienced TYS costume designer Faye Gaines is also on board.
“I am very proud of her, to say the least,” Hart said of Sierra. “We certainly take our credit as her parents and this wouldn’t be happening without the extraordinary Topanga community that we are so blessed to live in. Sierra is able to shine at a young age because of the outstanding resources of the Theatricum Botanicum and Topanga Youth Services at the TCC.
And, in case this isn’t known, without the dedication of Topanga’s homeschool families you would not see the level of quality productions that you do. The moms and dads are the unsung heroes of every TYS play that you’ve seen. I am thrilled to see a 15-year-old girl celebrated and supported to be a creator and a leader. This was not happening in my world at that age. It is beyond high time to see Sierra blazing a trail as a powerful and positive voice in our world. It doesn’t get any better than this as a parent.”
In an e-mail Friday didn’t hesitate to describe what helped bring her to this point: “I’m really grateful to Karen Cooke for letting me have this opportunity and for trusting me with putting on a show that matches the quality that the community has come to expect from TYS productions,” she wrote. “In the past couple of months, I’ve learned a lot about theatre and what it takes to put on a play. I’d like to thank Ellen Geer, Kim Cameron, Sydney Russell, and all the amazing people I’ve had the opportunity to work with over the years at Theatricum Botanicum. And, of course, my amazing parents, Kamakshi Hart and Will Friday, for supporting me through all of this. Without them this show would not be happening!”
Topanga Youth Services “It’s going well, she’s doing a great job and the kids are excited about the show,” said Cooke. “We got a fight choreographer, Brandon Pugmire. He’s been great on the fight scenes, we are trying to stay true to the show.”
Cooke has been directing TYS productions for about 10 years and this is only the second time she picked a student to direct one of their productions.
“I’m glad she [Sierra] picked this show. She did such a great job putting this script together and I’m glad it’s all working out,” Cooke said. “It was a no-brainer for me to ask her; she’s special. As I said to Sierra—she’s gone above and beyond my expectations and I’m very proud of all the hard work she has given to this project.”
“The Princess Bride” runs October 26 at 7 p.m. and October 27 at 1 p.m. and 5 p.m. at theTopanga Community Center, 1440 N. Topanga Canyon Boulevard, CA 90290. $15 suggested donation. For more information, go to Topangayouthservices.org or contact Karen Cooke at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Topanga Youth Services (TYS) provides creative enrichment and community service for youths from sixth grade through high school for little or no charge. Participants can attend monthly events, community service outings, field trips, and participate in performances, talent showcases, and other comprehensive activities. It aspires to instill teamwork, behavior skills, looking at things creatively, breaking inhibitions, confidence, enrichment of the surrounding community, equality, and courage in a safe and non-judgmental environment. Karen Cooke, Director.