Getting to play on the set is Rachel Snyder's favorite part of being in the University of Kentucky Theatre's production of Hair.
The set of Hair is energetic and busy, down to the colorfully painted stage floor. "(The set) is like a giant playground, and I love it," says Snyder, who plays Sheila Franklin, a New York University student and political activist in the late 1960s.
Hair is the ground-breaking rock musical that follows members of the "tribe" as they struggle with love and the sexual revolution, protest the Vietnam War, and rebel against the beliefs of conservative parents and society.
The show was originally staged in 1967 and opened on Broadway in 1968. Since then, the musical has been staged throughout the world and was adapted for film in 1979. Its Tony Award nominations included best musical. Its 2009 return to Broadway won best revival of a musical.
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With Hair, Snyder and her castmates are playing characters that parallel themselves in age. But that doesn't mean it was easy for them to connect with the turbulent times their characters lived in.
The cast has been working together since January, as the production was also a class. "It has given us a really rare opportunity to really work through this piece and get as deep of an understanding as possible," Snyder says.
While Snyder and her character, Sheila, share the similarity of being college students, it was hard for Snyder to comprehend that so many students in the 1960s dropped out of school to protest. Snyder researched the era to gain a better understanding of student protesters in the '60s.
Each cast member had to do a character analysis as part of the process. Emily Cole, a member of the ensemble, says, "We had to create a character for ourselves even though there wasn't one directly outlined in the script for us so that everybody knows what their role is in the 'tribe.'"
Cole decided her character is a "weekend hippie," who goes to the commune for the weekend yet has a business job during the week.
For Peter LaPrade, who plays Claude Hooper Bukowski, the biggest challenge was trying to find the human being in his character.
Claude plays a pivotal role in Hair, as a young man torn between staying true to his pacifist beliefs and resisting the draft or serving in Vietnam.
LaPrade didn't want to play just a stereotypical hippie who was into drugs, sex, and rock 'n' roll.
"I wanted to play a real person who believed in the things that the hippie sub-culture believed in," he says.
On April 25, about 20 family members of Hair co-writer Gerome Ragni will be in the audience.
"Its's so cool to do a show where there are still people living who were a part of its creation," Snyder says. "The fact that they heard about us and are coming out to see our production; it's an honor."
The cast members were given the assignment of trying to find the deeper meaning in Hair. Peter Gibbons, who portrays George Berger, says that it was really tempting to say, "Oh, he's crazy," to explain some of Berger's lines. This is a cop-out though, Gibbons says.
"The writers wrote these lines for a reason. They're not crazy. They had motivation behind these lines and behind the things they're trying to say in the show."
Berger, a leader of the tribe, is a free spirit who is a hippie by every definition. He is also a friend to Claude.
Joshua Randal Price plays a character called Margaret Mead — after the famous anthropologist — a member of the tribe who was born as a male but identifies as a woman and dresses as one. Price says his character comes into the tribe to reiterate the point of Hair: "We should all accept each other for who we are."
"One of my lines," Price says, "is 'I wish every mother and father in this theater would go home tonight and make a speech to their teenagers, and say, 'Kids be free, no guilt. Be whoever you are, do whatever you want to do, just as long as you don't hurt anybody.'" Price says, "I think that's a huge, powerful message."
One of the things Hair has been known for is its sexual and graphic content, including some explicit songs and a brief nude scene at the end of Act I. Almost any production of Hair comes with the question of how that scene will be done, and whether actors will actually disrobe.
"We are doing it exactly how the national touring company did it, and how UK did it when they produced the show 30 years ago," Rachel Snyder says. Nudity is a personal choice for each of the cast members, and they get to choose whether or not they participate from show to show.
"If grandma is here I don't have to," Snyder says.
"If you can't own it, don't do it," Russell Henderson, director of Hair, told his cast. "It's about your freedom and the freedom of your choice, so knock yourselves out. I love you either way."
Peter LaPrade summed up the common sentiment among the cast. To the audience, he says, "Come with an open mind, and an open heart, and be ready to have a lot of fun."