Local youth star in ‘Big River’

When Mark Twain’s first book about Huck and his best friend, Tom Sawyer, arrived in 1884 it inspired children’s imaginations.

California Youth Conservatory hopes that its production of “Big River: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” which opens at the Lyceum Theatre on Aug. 2, does the same.

The production, which has several local children in its roles, is the tale of adventure and self-discovery that starts on a raft on the Mississippi River. The story is told by Mark Twain (as a character) and Huck, played by Point Loma’s 12-year-old Austyn Myers.

Huck is having problems at home so he runs away and hooks up with Jim (Shaun T. Evans), a runaway slave. Huck soon faces a real dilemma: Should he continue to live free or remain loyal to his community?

Such a complex role with so many mature decisions might be tough for young actors to understand. That’s not so for Myers, who has already been on a national tour and Broadway revival of “Les Miserables” and has a starring role in the new Eddie Murphy film, “Meet Dave.”

“It’s always been a dream of mine to have a lead part,” Myers said. “I’m excited to be in this show. I’ve read Mark Twain’s books since I was in preschool.”

Because both adult and children participate in CYC productions, kids have an opportunity to fine-tune their craft by watching their peers.

“CYC is more than just a youth theater,” said Evans, who is also the company’s artistic director. “For any child who desires to be an actor, the opportunity to work alongside professional adult actors gives him first-hand experience what that career is really like.”

This fact has already hit home for Myers, who has worked with mature actors on Broadway and in film and knows what’s really important for a young actor to concentrate on.

“Character development,” Myers said. “Every character has something that happens to him that requires building a relationship with other characters.”

Myers’ character in “Meet Dave” required a lot of time with Eddie Murphy.

“Eddie is such a gentlemen and an amazing actor to watch,” Myers said. “In an outdoor scene near the Statue of Liberty, he had to stand like a robot in the sun for take after take without blinking. It was only after the scene ended that he finally teared up from not blinking. I definitely learn a lot by watching other actors.”

Hannah Orr, Marielle Cooper and Max Guinn, three La Jolla students, are also learning their craft while appearing in “Big River: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” Cooper plays the role of Strange Woman in the play and sings in the ensemble. Cooper, a 14-year-old who’s home-schooled, takes voice lessons and has appeared in many productions, enjoys performing but decided an acting career is not in her future.

“Acting is a lot of fun, and CYC offers a great opportunity for kids to appear in a professional play opposite an adult,” Cooper said. “But for me, acting is a hobby. I want to be a scientist.”

Evans said he’s constantly aware of the value of CYC to himself and young aspiring actors.

“With kids that have never done theater, it fills my heart with joy to see them leaning and gaining more confidence in themselves,” Evans said. “I’m like a parent – I can enjoy their triumphs, but be driven to gray hair by their shenanigans. It’s a different story for the polished kids like Austyn and Dirk Stenger, who plays The King in this production. When I can work with kids who show a lot of promise, I’m like an artist with a paintbrush who sees lots of colors.”

“Big River: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” which runs through Aug. 17, includes well-known musical numbers such as “Waiting for the Light to Shine” and “Free at Last” and features a guest appearance by renowned vocalist, Deborah Terrell as “Alice.”

More information: (619) 544-1000,