The Next Stage

Home from Hollywood, José Mercado is putting on a show ­ and showing Denver what North kids can do.

Standing in a circle, the six actors are shaking hands, kicking their feet and chanting. From the audience, the exercise looks like an epileptic version of "The Hokey Pokey." They're hopping around, making strange noises and doing precisely the thing teenagers supposedly live in fear of: acting free, being silly and totally uncool.

"We do some really goofy stuff," says Emily, "but it's good. The kids in this play are so diverse. I've known so many of them forever; I've watched them grow up and become so much more comfortable with themselves."

Emily is the star of the day's first scene -- her least favorite part of the entire show. Alice has come to visit Ernest's character, Henry, who's in prison in San Quentin for a crime he didn't commit. When she arrives, Henry tells her that he's no longer interested in her campaign to free him -- something she's dedicated her life to. It's an emotional exchange that requires Emily to scream, to come to the verge of tears, to throw a chair angrily across the room.

Elvis Nuñez
Anthony Camera
Elvis Nuñez
Emily Hare
Anthony Camera
Emily Hare

For Emily, the chair-throwing bit has been problematic.

"I've always played mostly comedy parts," she says. "Nobody's ever taken me that seriously to put me in another kind of role. It just feels so awkward to be yelling and screaming when I'm not really having a feeling to go along with it."

Mercado runs the scene three times, going over and over the trouble spot. Every time, Emily gets the dialogue but botches the throw.

She tries again.

"To hell with them!" she yells. "I hate them too!" But the chair stays put.

"I hate this part," says Emily.

"You should hate it," Mercado says. "You don't know what to say. You don't know what to do. When we don't know what to say, we stumble, and that's okay. Use that."

Emily takes it in.

"Okay," she says. "You want it, you're gonna get it. I'll throw the goddamn chair."

She takes a breath.

"To hell with them!" she yelps. "I hate them, too!" When she picks up the chair, she doesn't throw it. She bursts out laughing.

They move on.


Ali Paulson is sliding across the slick parquet stage in sweat socks, doing aerials, making Mercado extremely nervous.

"You're going to fall and mess up my show," Mercado warns her, only half-joking. "You can do one more. If you break your neck, I'm going to replace you."

But Ali doesn't fall. She never does. At seventeen, she's moon-faced and lovely, with highlighted hair that's either curly or straight, depending on her mood. Ali is almost always on -- the kind of girl that high school boys can't help watching, even when she does little more than walk down the aisle of the auditorium, flop down her backpack and stretch her long legs. Now, flipping around the stage and squealing, she's got the room riveted.

"Don't worry, Mercado!" she says, upside down. "I could do this all night!"

Ali, like Emily, has a schedule that requires almost all of her boundless energy. A member of Mercado's advanced acting class, she's on the yearbook staff, is a member of the cheer squad, and also works several days a week. In Zoot Suit, she plays Lorena, one of the female leads -- a role she landed even though she'd never been in a North production before.

"I'm a little bit nervous about it, because drama can be really competitive, and there's people who were in plays before who didn't get parts in this one," she says. "I wanted to do this play because it was, like, a little more mature. And acting has helped me be more mature. My freshman year, I was messing up a lot. I had to overcome a lot of stuff. My teachers helped turn me around -- they inspired me to get involved with acting."

Paulson is less than inspired by today's rehearsal, however. It's the third Wednesday in March, and she and Ernest are to practice one of Zoot Suit's most important moments, when Henry proposes marriage to Lorena. Before she accepts, they share a lingering kiss. This isn't such a big deal, since Ali and Ernest have been dating since February. What is a big deal is that they'll kiss in front of about twenty people. The scene is a flashback set inside another flashback -- a court scene that involves almost every member of the cast.

"Ali, don't worry about us, just stick with the moment," says Mercado.

"Easy for you to say, Mercado," she replies. "I don't like the moment in front of everybody. I'm afraid of the moment. The moment is scary."

For Ali, the scene presents several dilemmas. Like, what is my dad going to think of this? And, more vexing, how do you kiss someone for more than a few seconds without sticking your tongue in his mouth?

"It's a stage kiss, Ali. You don't use tongue in a stage kiss," Mercado says, scratching his head. "I can't believe I'm telling you how to do this."

When they run the scene again, the kiss is perfect: short, sweet and tongue-free.

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