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How this RHS grad went from bullied teen to ‘theater kid’

08/06/2015 10:30 AM |

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Brett Chizever was the type of student who hated, more than anything, to be late to class.

He carried an extra-large backpack, which he’d stuff full of textbooks he needed for the day, to avoid missing the bell. The heavy bag would weigh down his tall, lanky 14-year-old frame as he made his way to class.

One day, a few of his Riverhead Middle School classmates, who liked to tease him about his acne or the tight, high-water jeans his parents bought him, greeted him with a roll of thick, clear tape.

Twisting the tape around him, the students wrapped young Brett and his giant backpack like a mummy. Instead of quietly taking him aside to clean him up, his teacher brought him in front of the entire class and made a show of unwrapping him.

Now 28, the Aquebogue resident can still vividly recall that moment and the torment he felt.

But as much as that day still haunts him, it’s second in his memory to a different day from his 14th year: the afternoon his older brother, Matt, brought him to North Fork Community Theatre to audition for a Youth on Stage production of “Damn Yankees.”

The first day knocked him down, but the second was when he picked himself back up.

“There is no doubt in my mind that this place saved me,” Mr. Chizever said last week at the Mattituck theater where he’s since performed in about a dozen productions.

He’s currently back at the theater as director of “All Shook Up,” this year’s Youth on Stage production, which closes with four shows this weekend. In his director’s note inside the play’s program, Mr. Chizever tells the story of his transition from an awkward teenager to a more confident kid thanks to the sense of belonging he felt among the many aspiring young actors that made up the “Damn Yankees” cast and crew.

It’s a tale that, with different names and faces, has been repeated often in the theater’s 44-year history of youth productions.

“It’s an amazing opportunity for a lot of the kids in the community who are not the local soccer star,” said Marilee Scheer of Mattituck, a theater mom who has produced 11 Youth on Stage presentations. “Sometimes kids feel like they don’t fit into a norm. The theater becomes their norm. It breaks down so-called boundaries. They’re no longer Riverhead, Mattituck or Greenport kids. They’re theater kids.”

Cast members of 'All Shook Up,' the current Youth on Stage show at North Fork Community Theatre, sing 'Heartbreak Hotel' in the production directed by Brett Chizever. (Credit: Katharine Schroeder)

Cast members of ‘All Shook Up,’ the current Youth on Stage show at North Fork Community Theatre, sing ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ in the production directed by Brett Chizever. (Credit: Katharine Schroeder)

NFCT’s first youth musical was performed in 1971, when theater members Maureen and Don Cahill brought a production of “The Music Man” to the stage. The Cahills and, later, sisters Linda and Joanne Szymanowski, staged independent youth productions for the next six years at NFCT before the theater began producing the shows itself in 1977. Since then, they’ve continuously cast actors between the ages of 14 and 22 from across the East End.

“Youth on Stage is this theater’s gem,” Mr. Chizever said. “It’s the best part of every season because you get such incredible kids from the North and South forks to perform.”

For his second directorial effort at NFCT — his first time directing the youth musical — Mr. Chizever cast a wide net to find actors. He even reached out to many of this year’s East End Arts Teeny Award nominees from local high schools.

Patrick O’Brien, who plays Dean in “All Shook Up,” said many of the 33 cast members live in communities as far west as Medford and as far east as Montauk, and had never met. Now they’re a family.

“The play is ending this week and we don’t even know how we’re going to handle not being together,” Mr. O’Brien said.

A graduate of Bishop McGann-Mercy High School who’s entering his second year at Suffolk County Community College in Riverhead, Mr. O’Brien has performed in more than half a dozen NFCT productions and will soon perform at Theatre Three in Port Jefferson. But this, he said, is by far his favorite experience.

“I’ve never felt anything like this love we all have for each other on this play,” the Riverhead resident said.

That connection is something Mr. Chizever said has been present in Youth on Stage productions since he was a kid. Instead of being competitive with each other, cast members make an effort to unite.

They traditionally appoint a unity deputy among the actors and designate a unity item for the duration of show. The first year it was a tennis ball that each of the actors gave to someone to a cast member they weren’t close with. They’d spend that day getting to know each other and attaching an item to the ball that meant something to them at that point in their lives. That first year, Mr. Chizever said, he shared a photo of him and Matt.

Mr. Chizever can still recall sitting in the audience, crying through every performance his brother gave in “She Loves Me” in 2001. That’s when he fell in love with the theater.

The grandsons of coaches at Riverhead and McGann-Mercy high schools, the Chizever boys preferred the stage to athletic fields. And since they’re four years apart, the theater gave them not only an outlet to perform but a vehicle to bring them closer to one other.

Matt, now 32, who works as a television actor in Miami and had three small screen credits in the past year, fondly recalls that first summer at the theater.

“We never really were that close as kids, given the age difference,” he said. “That play gave us an excuse to spend all day together just about every day that summer.”

“We got so close,” his brother added. “We became best friends and we’ve been super close to each other ever since … really because of this theater.”

Ms. Scheer was present for the Chizever brothers’ first audition together. She remembers seeing Matt, who had just performed in “She Loves Me,” walk in with his shy, skinny little brother. Then she saw Brett audition.

“He had a beautiful voice,” she said she remembers thinking that day.

Brett Chizever played the title role in 'Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat' at North Fork Community Theater in 2013. (Credit: Katharine Schroeder)

Brett Chizever played the title role in ‘Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat’ at North Fork Community Theater in 2013. (Credit: Katharine Schroeder)

Brett Chizever says there’s something about being on stage that allows him to shed his anxiety and express himself in a different way. And he believes he’s not alone in that, especially among younger actors.

“In a classroom, you’re afraid to speak up and make a mistake,” he said. “In these shows you’re on stage playing a different person and sometimes that’s easier for certain kids. It’s easier to play someone else who isn’t a shy, awkward teenager.”

Mr. Chizever has performed in nearly a dozen shows at the theater since “Damn Yankees,” winning a Broadway World Award for his 2013 performance in the title role in “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.”

He has also worked and acted at a handful of other community theaters across Long Island, including a stint in the company at Theatre Three, where he performed in the anti-bullying play “Stand Up, Stand Out.”

“It basically taught kids that the people who stand by when bullying is happening are the people that need to say something,” Mr. Chizever explained.

Emotionally, it brought him back to his days as a bullied teen in Riverhead schools. And his return to directing the youth play at NFCT has brought him full circle with the place that rescued him from those dark times.

“A lot of how strongly I feel about this place has to do with how close I got to my brother,” he said. “But it’s also that this place to me really feels like home. The people who make up North Fork Community Theatre have been so supportive. When you come back here, you feel like you never left.”

It’s a feeling he knows the current Youth on Stage cast will get to experience.

“A bunch of them are already talking about doing another play together on the South Fork this winter,” he said. “They just like being around one another. That’s just so cool. I love it.

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Photo caption: Brett Chizever of Aquebogue found a home at the North Fork Community Theatre as a teenager and he’s now the theater director for this year’s Youth on Stage production, “All Shook Up.” (Credit: Grant Parpan)

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