2019 True West Awards Sophia Dotson and Nathaniel Waite-Lutz

2019 True West Award: Sophia Dotson and Nathaniel Waite-Lutz

2019 True West Awards Sophia Dotson and Nathaniel Waite-Lutz

Photo by John Moore.

Day 21: Two actors have discovered the secret of ephemeral youth

One of the most adorable stories of the 2019 theatre year has been the circle-of-life stage journey of 13-year-olds Sophia Dotson and Nathaniel Waite-Lutz, both eighth-graders at Denver School of the Arts. Not so adorable: They are both younger than the Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. film.

Sophia Dotson performs at the 2018 Henry Awards. Photo by Brian Landis Folkins.

Sophia Dotson performs from ‘Fun Home’ at the 2018 Henry Awards. Photo by Brian Landis Folkins.

That’s young. But these two are no strangers to the stage. Both began the year coming off high-profile, high-pressure roles in 2018: Waite-Lutz played Michael Banks in Vintage Theatre’s Mary Poppins, and Sophia Dotson became the youngest winner of a Henry Award in Colorado Theatre Guild history for her utterly natural performance as Young Alison in Miners Alley Playhouse’s coming-of-age musical Fun Home.

In an unusual twist, the pair were brought together in April for the Aurora Fox’s regional premiere of Caroline, Or Change. But not to perform alongside one another. Rather, they were hired to share the pivotal role of Noah in alternating performances. Fast forward, and they are now finishing the year reunited at the Vintage Theatre performing together (but separately) in Tuck Everlasting, playing youngsters who don’t know it yet but (spoiler alert!) are going to grow up and get married someday.

Caroline, Or Change tells the story of a no-nonsense African American maid to a Jewish family in 1963 Louisiana. Dotson and Waite-Lutz took turns playing a boyhood version of the musical’s masterful author, Tony Kushner (Angels in America). Noah is a sad and lonely 8-year-old boy whose mother has recently died, so when his father quickly remarries, he seeks out care and attention from Caroline, played by Denver First Lady and two-time True West Award winner Mary Louise Lee. But Caroline is an impoverished, single mother of four with little interest in coddling Noah. When a $20 bill goes missing from Noah’s pants, the family crisis that erupts inside the house looks a lot like the civil-rights unrest swirling outside.

Read about Mary Louise Lee’s 2019 True West Award

The weight of this major role in an important musical, combined with the pedigree of the talent around them, might have swallowed up less-prepared pre-teens. But only in retrospect does it now occur to Director Kenny Moten how much harder his job might have been with less-seasoned kids. But because his were poised, prepared and professional, “they made my job pretty easy,” he said.

Nathaniel Waite-Lutz and Krisangela Washington in ‘Caroline, Or Change.’

“This musical easily could have been a very difficult emotional journey for these young actors, given the serious racial issues of the play,” he added. “But even at their age, they already have a real understanding of what making a play entails. They were able to separate the story and the characters they were playing from the job they were there to do – so it never became too much for them.”

Unlike other directors in similar situations, Moten made a point of always rehearsing Dotson and Waite-Lutz together, rather than separately. “That way,” he said, “they both informed each other’s performances,” and they essentially created the same character collaboratively and consistently.

‘Just how can Sophia Dotson be so damn good at 13?’ – Juliet Wittman, Westword

But Moten gave them the freedom to find their own truths. And they found very different ones in the climactic scene where Caroline and Noah get into a fight in the family basement. “They both responded to being yelled at very differently,” Moten said of his actors. “Sophia got much angrier and defiant, while Nathaniel kind of withdrew and was more empathetic. Both approaches worked, and the end game was the same.”

Perhaps surprisingly, the actors’ differing genders was not so much of a concern to Moten as their particular ages.

Maggie Tisdale Sophia Dotson in 'Caroline, Or Change.'

Maggie Tisdale Sophia Dotson in ‘Caroline, Or Change.’

“You have to understand, we cast this show a year in advance, and the risk you run with actors that age is that no matter what you do, either one of them might have matured too quickly for them to believably play the part.” Luckily it worked out, “or I don’t know what I would have done,” he said.

Listen to the cast being interviewed on Colorado Public Radio

Director Michael O’Shea, himself an actor, had worked with both Dotson and Waite-Lutz before casting them in pivotal roles for Tuck Everlasting (running through January 5). O’Shea played Daddy Warbucks to Dotson’s Pepper in Performance Now’s Annie, and he played Waite-Lutz’s father, Mr. Banks, in Mary Poppins.

So O’Shea already knew that, even at age 13, Dotson has the chops to carry the weight of a leading role in a musical.

“What strikes me about Sophia is that she’s such an intuitive actor at such a young age,” he said. “I love it when actors bring me ideas. Sophia always made any direction her own, and she always gave me great choices to work with. I can always feel the gears turning in her. But when she’s onstage, there’s such pure joy in her work.”

Sophia Dotson with the cast of 'Tuck Everlasting.' RDG Photography.

Sophia Dotson with the cast of ‘Tuck Everlasting.’ RDG Photography.

Tuck Everlasting, based on Natalie Babbitt’s award-winning children’s novel, is set in a small northeast town in the 1880s, where a runaway 11-year-old girl named Winnie discovers a family in the woods that has enjoyed both the blessing – and the curse – of having sipped from a fountain of youth a century before. Eventually this girl must choose between her family and the possibility of immortality. Winnie can’t yet know that the natural course of things is pointing her straight toward Waite-Lutz’s Hugo, the goofy 15-year-old son of the bumbling town constable. (You may now cue the song “Together” from Gypsy: “Wherever we go, whatever we do, we’re gonna go through it together.”)

O’Shea chose Waite-Lutz to play Hugo, he said, because of the innocence and joy he brings to role. “I have watched Nathaniel grow so much in such a short time,” said O’Shea. “In the span of a year, he’s gone from light to serious in his parts, and he is so adept at both.”

That these two teenagers are enrolled at Denver School of the Arts might foretell where their futures might lead them. But at 13, there is no telling. “I am certain they both have bright futures as performers – if that is what they decide they want to do,” Moten said. “But I have no doubt they will be successful and creative no matter what paths they choose.”

Sophia Dotson performs Wednesday in 'Homo for the Holidays' at Vintage Theatre. Photo by John Moore.

Photo by John Moore.

Sophia Dotson/2019

  • Noah Gellman, Caroline, Or Change, Aurora Fox
  • Fredrika, A Little Night Music, Cherry Creek Theatre
  • Hugo, Tuck Everlasting, Vintage Theatre
  • Featured performer, Homo for the Holidays, Vintage Theatre (pictured right)

Nathaniel Waite-Lutz/2019

  • Noah Gellman, Caroline, Or Change, Aurora Fox
  • Hugo, Tuck Everlasting, Vintage Theatre

Tuck Everlasting: Ticket information

  • What: The regional premiere of the new musical Tuck Everlasting is based on the best-selling novel by Natalie Babbitt. It’s the evocative tale of 11-year-old Winnie Foster, a free spirit who meets up with the Tuck family, one of whom dangles a tantalizing choice before her: Return to her own family or join the Tucks for all of eternity.
  • Directed by: Michael O’Shea and Isabella Duran
  • Cast: Includes Sophia Dotson, Elton Tanega, Hannah Quinn, Carter Edward Smith, Nick Johnson, Todd Black, Lee Ann Scherlong, Kate Bogdewiecz, Brian Trampler, Nathaniel Waite-Lutz and Kyriana Kratter
  • Tickets: Call 303-839-1361 or go to vintagetheatre.com

More Colorado theatre coverage on the DCPA NewsCenter

About The True West Awards: ’30 Days, 30 Bouquets’

The True West Awards, now in their 19th year, began as the Denver Post Ovation Awards in 2001. DCPA Senior Arts Journalist John Moore — along with additional voices from around the state — celebrate the entire local theatre community by recognizing 30 achievements from 2019 over 30 days, without categories or nominations. Moore was named one of the 12 most influential theater critics in the U.S. by American Theatre magazine in 2011. His daily coverage of the DCPA and the Colorado theatre community can be found at MyDenverCenter.Org

Read up on all of the 2019 True West Awards