The Porter family dynasty began with a good bloody show, “The Hollow Crown.” It continues next month with a bloody good show, to borrow a phrase from “Mary Poppins.” When 11-year-old Thomas Young steps onto the Halton Theater stage, he’ll complete a four-decade cycle that saw his grandmother and mother take their places before and behind the footlights at CPCC Summer Theatre.
His fate was sealed before birth. Gay Porter, his grandmother, trained at the Arts Educational School in London alongside Julie Andrews and danced professionally in her native England for seven years. “I was in the original West End production of ‘The King and I’ in the Coronation Year,” she says. (That’s 1953, if you’re doing the math.)
Bridget Porter Young was onstage in her mom’s womb, as Gay danced with the ill-fated predecessor of Summer Theatre in Charlotte. Bridget once auditioned for New York City Ballet and danced as a girl with Mikhail Baryshnikov at Jimmy Carter’s White House. As an infant, Thomas attended “Nutcracker” rehearsals at Charlotte Youth Ballet, which his grandma founded; he became a party guest in that ballet at 7. He has spent the last four years acting at Trinity Episcopal School and dancing at Youth Ballet.
“Now he’d like me to get him an agent,” Bridget says. “And I need to pursue that.”
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If the family name sounds familiar, you may know Gay or Bridget from Youth Ballet, which has occupied them for 30-plus years as teachers and ballet mistresses. Keen-eyed fans of its annual “Nutcracker” will recognize Thomas as the Fritz from last Christmas.
But long before Youth Ballet’s tutus or toe shoes, Gay Porter and Tom Vance founded the city’s longest-running summer musical program in 1973. It rose from the ashes of another program slain by its own ambition, when a Charlotte producer decided to mount shows in repertory in the late ’60s.
“We did a different show every week at Ovens Auditorium,” said Porter, who danced there for six years. “We’d perform three hours at night and rehearse the next show for five hours during the day. It was wonderful. But we were using Equity actors, and (the union) wouldn’t let us work on that schedule.”
So Vance and Porter, who taught theater and dance at CPCC, filled the summer void in 1973 with “The Fantasticks,” “The Hollow Crown” (about the British monarchy from William the Conqueror through Victoria) and “Not Enough Rope,” a short comedy by Elaine May. Three years later, CPCC Summer Theatre was doing three musicals and one comedy-drama, the pattern that prevails today. (A show for kids was added later.)
Bridget joined that troupe in the 1980s, when every show took place in the cramped, slightly curved confines of Pease Auditorium. But where Gay had directed and choreographed, Bridget sang and danced. She too turned up in a production of “The King and I,” blonde hair sprayed black to make her a Siamese child.
“A lot of times, it was, ‘Bridget, put this on! You’re dancing!’ ” she recalls. “Which was fine: I’d seen ‘The Fantasticks’ (at CPCC) at 7 and loved theater.”
“Her mother-in-law liked to say Bridget never had a natural childhood,” Gay says, laughing. “Well, she didn’t, but she loved it.”
Bridget went to study dance at the University of Louisville in the mid-’80s, spent time in New York, then came home. She danced in CPCC’s “The Secret Garden” and choreographed shows there from “Big River” to “James and the Giant Peach.” She left to be a mother to her daughter, Remy, and her son. And she transmitted love of theater to both in her DNA.
“Mary Poppins” caps the 41st CPCC season, running July 18-26. (It follows the current “Li’l Abner” and upcoming “Over the River and Through the Woods” and “Little Mermaid Jr.”) Thomas will play discontented Michael Banks, whose life gets turned around by a nanny who literally blows in from parts unknown.
Thomas seems a natural Anglophile: His mom says the first things he wanted to do on their trip to England was visit Stratford-on-Avon and attend a “Macbeth” at London’s Globe Theatre, where Judi Dench turned up in the audience.
Grandma could adjust his accent, though the Banks family in 1910 occupies a social station above Gay Porter’s in her youth. She was a Cockney by the classic definition: She lived within the sound of the Bow Bells at St. Mary-le-Bow church in east London’s Cheapside district.
But as Thomas approaches his first professional job, he already shows the confidence that is the most essential quality for any actor.
“Growing up around theater, I kind of adapted to it,” he explains. “A person from a foreign country who has to move somewhere will adapt to his new (environment). I did, too.
“Before this audition, my mom said, ‘There will be a bunch of people (trying out for Michael), so don’t be disappointed if you don’t get it.’ ” After I auditioned, I criticized myself about every little thing I’d done. But while I was on the Halton stage, I felt like I was home.”