By Anna-Rhesa Versola | Photography by John Michael Simpson
“Gasps are my favorite,” says India Nykamp. “Gasps are probably even better than chuckles.”
Jacqui Anthenien laughs in agreement as they discuss how to tell if an audience is a good crowd. “You’re listening for it,” Jacqui says about one memorable production. “Crickets. There was nothing. I mean, nothing. And then there were the other two [shows] when someone somewhere chuckled. That’s all you need.”
These two Pittsboro Youth Theater alumni say their experiences in the company shaped their ambitions and inspired them to pursue social justice through their craft in college.
India returned this fall to Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, New York, for her sophomore year studying theater and production. Her first role was in a kindergarten play in Holly Springs, North Carolina. She moved to Pittsboro when she was 10 and was cast as the lead in “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” in 2012, PYT’s inaugural season. “I’m an awful public speaker; I’m dreadful at school presentations [and] talking in class,” India says, amazed at her own ability to stand alone on stage to deliver dramatic monologues. “Adrenaline, that’s all theater really is … doing what you’re terrified of. … It’s a source of strength for me.”
India and Jacqui, both graduates of Northwood High School’s drama program, note the “healthy high” and other intangible benefits of escaping into a character in addition to drawing lessons from productions that aided their own personal growth.
Jacqui is back on campus at the University of Michigan for her sophomore year and is considering a double major in biochemistry – she wants to become a medical examiner – and theater. She’s also a member of the RC Players, a student-run theater group.
“In a perfect world where money is not an issue, I would totally just act,” Jacqui says. “I love it. I love the sciences … I love anatomy, … but theater makes me feel alive.”
PYT founders Tammy Matthews and Craig Witter have cast more than 1,000 local kids ages 6 to 18 in well over 100 productions and performances in the last decade. In 2017, the couple established the Center for the Arts and Sweet Bee Theater, Pittsboro’s only public theater, located downtown on East Salisbury Street. They founded the Social Justice Theater of the Carolinas under the umbrella of Center for the Arts the following year and oversaw an ensemble production of “columbinus,” a drama about the Colorado students at the center of the fatal shootings at Columbine High School.
Tammy says she and Craig decide which plays to produce based on the pool of talent available to them. “Mainly for India, we did ‘The Glass Menagerie,’ because I knew she had deeper, more interesting work, and boy, she rose to the challenge,” Tammy says. She remembers a wardrobe malfunction just before India was due on stage. “Her dress broke backstage, and there was no fixing it,” Tammy says. “Literally, she pulled a shawl that happened to be hanging on a rack. I think it was more of a large tablecloth. She threw it around her shoulders and went on stage and acted like that was the way it was supposed to be. It reminded me of Scarlett O’Hara with the curtains [in ‘Gone with the Wind’]. And then she went through ‘columbinus,’ and for her to really attack that part and take it on in such a meaningful way, that was the pinnacle of [her talents emerging].”
Tammy first met Jacqui a few years ago during auditions for the musical “Into the Woods” and saw her grow as an actor with every role she took. “She just shined,” Tammy says. “But the pinnacle was playing a serial killer, a murderer, in ‘columbinus’ and doing it with such amazing ability. [Jacqui’s] probably one of the sweetest people I’ve ever met; [the character] was the antithesis of her actual personality.”
“‘columbinus’ was an incredibly influential show on my life,” India says. “It completely shifted what I thought theater could be. … I want the things that I produce or perform or create to have some kind of impact in the way that ‘columbinus’ did for me and the community.”
Jacqui was similarly affected by the play, and she joined a campus project in Michigan that brings together college students and formerly incarcerated individuals to create a sense of community through the arts. “I think art is incredibly important for self-expression,” Jacqui says. “Especially for those who have all other avenues of self- expression on lockdown. I think that going through ‘columbinus’ really opened me up to moving into those social justice avenues.”
India and Jacqui performed “columbinus” in March 2020, just days before the pandemic shut everything down, which added another element of complexity to the weight of the heavy drama. “And speaking of the pandemic, not having theater for over a year has affected me in ways that I cannot describe,” India says. “Because the escapism is gone, and I’m finally having to confront myself. I drew a lot of strength and pride from [theater]. And without it, I didn’t know who I was fully.”
India’s experience with PYT came full circle when she returned as a camp counselor this summer. “It’s very interesting how me and Jacqui are basically the people setting the precedent,” India says. “We’re the people who finished to the end, graduated and then moved on. It’s crazy for me to think that it all began in the little community house.”