By Annette Hinkle
Traditionally, this is the time of year when most seniors are winding down their high school careers by finishing up class work, planning graduation parties and looking forward to the summer ahead and new adventures that will come with college in the fall.
But Holly Goldstein is hardly traditional.
This Pierson senior is still in the midst of a whirlwind of activity. She bustles around town gathering props, costumes and ideas for her senior project, an unique program that allows students to pursue a passion in their last year at Pierson.
For Goldstein, that passion is, without a doubt, theater.
“I live in the auditorium,” confesses Goldstein. “I can’t count how many times I have fallen asleep there. I took a power nap on the stage just yesterday.”
While as an actress, Goldstein has been on that stage more times she can remember — she’s been involved in every Pierson production that’s come along since middle school — Goldstein has also worked backstage, and has developed a keen sense of the big picture when it comes to putting on a play. Which is exactly what her senior project is all about.
“It’s something I’ve always wanted to do,” says Goldstein. “I thought, ‘When I’m a senior, I want to direct a play.’ I always say stuff that never happens, but I did the paperwork and it happened.”
This Friday and Saturday evening, Goldstein and her student cast and crew present “The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds,” the 1964 play by Paul Zindel. The script offers the story of a dysfunctional family headed by a single and abusive mother, Beatrice (played by freshman Emily Selyukova) and her two daughters, the mentally unstable and destructive, yet needy, Ruth (portrayed by senior Sophie Parker) and timid Tillie (senior Brianna Kinnier) the quiet and brainy scientist who carefully maneuvers around her family’s manic mayhem in order to protect herself. In the midst of it all is the comic Nanny (played by Laura Rinaldi), a decrepit senior citizen who is a boarder in the house.
The name of the play comes from Tillie’s science fair experiment in which she explores the effects of radioactive cobalt 60 on living flowers. Distance matters, and the experiment itself is an analogy for Tillie’s need to create a safe space and keep from getting burned by her mother and sister. It’s a complicated tale full of difficult material and layers of meaning, and as the play’s director and producer, it’s been Goldstein’s job to pull it together and create that vision.
“It’s going well. And it’s wrapping up which is scary. Our biggest challenge was we spread it out over time,” notes Goldstein who cast the play a full five months ago.
She points out that rehearsals were put on hold during the high school musical “Chicago” which Goldstein and several of her actors were also in a few weeks ago. It was only after that show that they could get back to work, and because of the long lead time, it’s been a struggle to keep the cast and crew charged up about the play.
“If we only had five or six weeks we would’ve been more focused,” confesses Goldstein. “The challenge was not only the momentum, but for the actors learning their lines. The last two weeks we’ve been honing it and bringing it together. We’re rehearsing every day now.”
“The good thing is, I think there’s more thought in it because we’ve had more time to explore the characters,” she adds. “We weren’t quite as stressed and we leisurely got to know the characters in the last few months.”
While Goldstein’s advisors on her senior project, Melissa Luppi and Paula Brannon, are there if she needs them as a sounding board, this project is truly all hers. She is free to make her own decisions, and mistakes. Goldstein admits she is a tough leader, and demands quality work. But since her cast members are also her peers, she also has been required to tread lightly on the delicate line of friendship.
“Being directed by my friend is not a problem,” says Brianna Kinnier. “Holly impressed me; She’s been very professional. I never really questioned her.”
“We’re best friends, we both put ourselves out there and this is Holly putting herself out there,” adds Sophie Parker. “I have to fully support her. She’s that way with me.”
“She’s fantastic — hands on, but let’s you explore,” Parker explains. “She’ll say if she’s not happy with what she’s directing and ask for input. She’s managing being friends and being a director, and is so classy about it. It’s hard sometimes to switch modes. We’ve had those struggles on stage, but we’ve powered through it and shown professionalism.”
“I think there are times when you have to step away and say right now we’re not friends — I’m your director,” adds Goldstein. “You need to learn your lines, or do your blocking or I’ll make you cry because I want it right. We all want it to be right in the end.”
“It is difficult at times. But I feel like I’m doing a good job my first time,” Goldstein says. “It’s more about listening and when I need people to be there getting them to focus. It’s something you have to earn. And I do have a sense of pride, because it’s my baby.”
Senior projects at Pierson are not mandatory — and only a few students opt to do them each year. But students who do take on a senior project tend to be highly focused and know what they want. For example, last year Hannah Cook designed the sets for the Pierson musicals as her senior project. Cook is now studying theatre design at Muhlenberg College in Pennsylvania.
Goldstein, too, is set to pursue theater beyond Pierson. Just a few weeks ago, she received word that she had been accepted to the drama program at Tisch School of the Arts at New York University. Goldstein was thrilled by the news, but also distressed, knowing full well that it wasn’t a school she could afford. Then she clicked on the financial aid award link at the bottom of the email.
That’s when she found out about the scholarship.
“It’s for all four years and is a very generous scholarship that will allow me to go to the school,” says Goldstein. “My grandmother went to NYU and was in the class of 1946. She just passed away. NYU had always been there but I never thought I was going to be able to go there. I was crying I was so happy.”
“I think it was a gift from my grandmother.”
Now that she’s gotten a taste of directing and a glimpse at her future, Goldstein seems set on her post-graduation path.
“I’m not going to drop acting, but I’ll find a way to do more directing,” she says. “I’ve worked backstage, so I know the point of view. I’m not going to throw my costumes on the floor because someone else has to pick them up. It’s about everyone coming together and sympathizing with the others. It doesn’t work if it’s just about my part.”
Goldstein’s production will be eligible for the Teeny Awards this spring, the East End Arts Council annual program that honors local high school theatrical productions — though ironically, Goldstein herself won’t be eligible as director. That’s because high school plays are almost always directed by adults.
But Goldstein isn’t worried about that now. She’s just staying focused and doing the work to get on with the show— and then she has the rest of her senior year to wrap up.
“I just have four classes — three APs, one French,” she says. “And in three weeks, I won’t have anything to do.”
“The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds” will be offered at Pierson High School (200 Jermain Avenue, Sag Harbor) at 7 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, April 29 and 30. Admission is a donation of $5.