Cascia Hall Grad Bringing Elephant Man to Tulsa

Contributing Editor

A CAST OF CAMPERS: Professional actor Justin Badger works with local students at a performing arts day camp. Meredith Purgason, director of the Helmerich Theater at Cascia Hall, along with professional actors visiting Tulsa for performances of “The Elephant Man??? will coach the students for their performance of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream??? June 29 and 30.

ALICIA SHRUM for GTR Newspapers

The elephant man is coming to Tulsa. With luck, he’ll start a tradition.

The story of Joseph Merrick, a Victorian-era Englishman who suffered from a severe physical abnormality recently diagnosed as proteus syndrome, was made into a Tony Award-winning play in 1979 and a hugely popular movie with Anthony Hopkins and John Hurt a year later. Soon a production of the play will serve as the inaugural presentation in Tulsa of the Emergent Theatre Company.

“Merrick (mistakenly renamed John in both the play and the film) was an outsider who had to find his place in society,” says Meredith Purgason, director of the Helmerich Theater at Cascia Hall who is helping some friends from the acting world put on the play. Indeed Merrick, who was horribly deformed and forced to leave his house by an unsympathetic step-mother, went first to a carnival freak show (where, unlike the movie shows, he was treated kindly and made a fair amount of money) and was eventually befriended by Victorian royalty and hence society. He died, highly popular, at the age of 27.

Like all first-year efforts this is a bit of an experiment but Purgason hopes it is the beginning of something big.

“If it proves successful I’d like to see something like this done on an annual basis. It would not only give training to our young actors but would give talented people from outside of Oklahoma an opportunity to put their skills to work.”

Purgason, a graduate of Cascia Hall, says she got the idea of bringing a theatrical troupe to Tulsa from spending time in New York City. A graduate with a degree in theater arts from New York University she quickly found out that she had no burning desire to act, but the process of putting a show together from scratch fascinated her. Accordingly, she helped some actors put on a show at a tiny New York City theater.

“I loved putting the production together. As producer I was responsible for everything from chosing the theater to getting costume designers and people to build the sets. I loved it.”

She also met some highly talented though far from famous young actors, such as Justin Badger who has a bachelor of fine arts degree from Columbia University and who will play the role of the doctor in “The Elephant Man” (a role played by Anthony Hopkins in the film) who could use some summertime employment.

Five actors from outside Oklahoma and Robert Gray, a native Tulsan who spent 30 years in Los Angeles before returning home, will make up the faculty.

They will not only put “The Elephant Man” together but will assist in teaching a day camp for the performing arts that will start at Cascia Hall for students who have just graduated from the sixth to the 12th grades. In addition to rehearsing “The Elephant Man,” the actors will be helping their young campers ready a performance of Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

The student play will be performed on June 29-30.

“The Elephant Man” will have preview performances on the June 18-19, and then begin an eight-day run.

“To give enough individual attention, we’re holding the number of ‘campers’ down to the 30-35 level,” says Purgason. “About 25 will be in the cast and the rest will serve as backstage help such as the stage manager, props, scene changers and other auxiliary jobs. Not everyone who works on Broadway gets on stage, and we want to offer an experience for people who would love to be involved with a production but have no wish to go on the stage.

Purgason hopes both the camp and the Emergent Theatre Company become regulars on the Tulsa theatrical circuit. By not being constricted to any particular area, she says, the new company can draw talent from wherever they can find it, and the new Helmerich Theater with its 733 seats can give them an ideal place to play.

“We’re biting off a lot with 10 performances including the previews,” she admits, “but if it is successful this is something I’d like to repeat every year.”

Updated 05-23-2007

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