If the adage is true that if you want to master something, teach it, Megan Taylor Callahan will return to New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts knowing more about the craft of acting.
Callahan, a rising senior at NYU, is back at her alma mater, Vero Beach High School, directing advanced drama students this weekend in David Ives’ avant-garde comedy, “All in the Timing.”
It is the second in Callahan’s Summerstage series, founded last year for the school’s competition drama troupe.
When that wraps up on Sunday, Callahan gears up for drama camp the very next morning. For the first time, she has been hired as the camp’s director. At only 20, she will assume responsibility for some 50 students eight hours a day for two weeks, winding up with a production of the musical “Dear Edwina Jr.”
Last year’s Summerstage production, “Almost, Maine,” marked Callahan’s directorial debut, coaching kids only slightly younger than herself, several of whom she has known from childhood and her days at Riverside Children’s Theatre.
For Callahan, Summerstage is strictly volunteer, and she came up with the idea. For two years she has eagerly come home to direct it as soon as exams were over at Tisch, where she maintains a grueling schedule along with enduring the stress of urban living.
In addition to NYU’s rigorous academic schedule, she trains at the Stella Adler School of Acting, one of eight studios that partners with NYU. Three days a week from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. she moves from a two-hour movement class to a vocal class, a break for lunch, then two scene classes. She calls her instructors “incredible.”
It was under their influence that Callahan, who played mostly in musicals at RCT and Vero High, realized she wants to be a dramatic actor. “There were kids who came from performing arts school where they were acting in plays like Gibson and Chekhov. I didn’t know anything about classical plays.”
Directing her second straight play for Summerstage is reinforcing her training, she says.
“It’s helped me analyze my own acting, like, why isn’t this translating, or how could I make this scene better?”
As director of summer camp, Callahan will be replacing Dee Rose, longtime Vero Beach High School drama teacher, who is facing a summer of recuperation from knee surgery. Rose used to teach at Riverside Children’s Theatre, and met Callahan in a production of “Beauty and the Beast.”
“She was on my tech crew in 2006,” says Rose. “What 10-year-old would say, ‘Oh, I’ll go ahead and do tech since I didn’t get a role in the show’? And she would just do anything, no matter what task she was given. Very compliant, so willing and ready to learn.”
By the time Callahan entered high school, she showed enough leadership that Rose named her co-president of the drama troupe, standing in for Rose when she was unavailable. “That’s when she really blossomed. She really took the bull by the horns and everybody was extremely receptive.”
This summer, watching from her office, Rose has seen Callahan conduct rehearsals and marveled at the respect students give her. “It’s absolutely amazing,” she says. “She’s just three years into college, and these kids listen to her like she has 300 years of experience. I see my kids doing things I didn’t teach them, and they go, ‘Oh, we learned that from Megan last summer.’”
By last week’s rehearsal, the actors were barely “off book” – not relying on scripts – and already were giving performances that would easily make an audience forget they were watching kids. “I hear that all the time from parents,” she says. She adds that this particular group is exceptionally talented.
Relegated to a make-shift black box theater at the Freshman Learning Center – and at only $8 a ticket – the play is made up of six, fast-paced unrelated vignettes. In one, two people on a first date try out lines on each other while an off-stage bell dings when one gets it wrong. Another scene has a chorus of actors dressed in black turtlenecks parodying the music of Philip Glass.
Another involves lessons in a totally invented language, formed of homophonic phrases like “pasta prison furniture” – past, present, future.
Finding her place at one side of the plywood stage, Callahan traces a pencil down a long list of notes, pausing to read the impression she jotted as the scene played out. Blending encouragement with suggestions, she succinctly made known her expectations with a smile.
“Lilly, I like the line ‘It’s like death – without the advantages,’” she says to Lilly Connell, a talented junior and childhood friend; they were in plays together at Riverside. “Can you really lean into ‘without the advantages’?” Callahan suggests. Lilly mouths the line, and nods in ascent. Leaning into vowels and consonants, getting more juice on a moment, finding the intention in a line – this is the invented language of a play taking shape.
“Every actor is unique,” says Callahan. “So I just try to look at how they think. If they’re musical theater kids, I try to relate things to songs, like, in a song you wouldn’t keep the same dynamics because that would be boring. You need to build in different colors in this scene.”
She adds, “theater makes you so vulnerable when you’re up there and show yourself like that. In a public high school, the kids don’t really respect the theater like they would in an arts school. Having that close-knit group that takes it seriously is like an alternate reality. When I was in high school, competition drama was my escape. It was like my family.”
In ways, Callahan means that literally. She is an only child, born in Vero and raised by her father. The executive chef at The Isles of Vero and, before that, Dodgertown, Bruce Callahan understands his daughter’s passion. He pursued his own at the Culinary Institute of America in New York.
From Megan’s first play at Riverside, he has made a point of seeing not just every show, but every performance, sometimes for three weeks running and always in the same seat. He still flies up to see her performances in New York. “He’s already bought his tickets for this weekend,” says Callahan. “All three shows.”
“All in the Timing” is staged Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. at the Freshman Learning Center, 1507 19th St., near the downtown gallery district.