Laura Potel plays the title character in "Alice in Wonderland." The Theatre Department will present the show April 27-28 and May 4-6 at Watters Theatre.
Photo by Jonathan Cohen
Theatre students discover their ‘Wonderland’Tweet
For director Michael Toomey and his 27-member company, “Alice in Wonderland” has come a long way since starting as “a blank stage and an idea.”
“In all honesty, I had no idea what this would look like,” Toomey said of the Theatre Department production that opens April 27 in Watters Theater. “When I watch it now, I think: ‘How did we get here?’”
Toomey and the students’ journey to adapt the Lewis Carroll classic to the stage began last fall with a theatre class called “Devising Alice in Wonderland.” Students studied Carroll, Alice Liddell and anything inspired by the story as they eventually created an original script, music, costumes, sets and lighting.
“It’s a huge, epic story and there’s room to create something new with it,” Toomey said. “But it’s a risky way of doing theater. When you walk in the first day, you don’t know how the play is going to begin or end.”
Theater-goers will get the opportunity to see the results of the class when “Alice” takes the Watters Theater stage at 8 p.m. April 27-28 and Mary 4-5, and 2 p.m. May 6. Tickets are $14, general admission $12, faculty/staff/seniors; and $8, students, and are available by calling the Anderson Center Box Office at 607-777-ARTS (2787) or visiting http://anderson.binghamton.edu.
“Alice” is the latest in a string of creative productions led by Toomey, a visiting assistant professor. Spring 2010 saw Toomey direct an all-female version of “Henry V,” while spring 2011 featured Toomey offering a contemporary take on “Julius Caesar.”
“I’ve always wanted to look at ‘Alice in Wonderland’ again,” Toomey said. “Ever since I was a kid, I’ve loved the story. … There are so many different productions and so many different movies of it. I don’t find many of them successful outside of their time period. So I was wondering what it would be like to create an ‘Alice in Wonderland’ for a new century with new voices.”
Toomey pitched the idea of a class whose members would work together to create a new “Alice” and eventually received the approval of the Theatre Department.
“To do a piece like this, I needed to work with people who were ready to do a piece like this,” Toomey said. “It’s much different than coming together and working on an established play over a short period of time.”
For members of the class and cast, the creative process was “daunting, inspiring, playful and exciting.”
“I had no idea what to expect (from the class),” said sophomore Laura Potel, who plays Alice. “That’s what made it so exciting. I said, ‘I don’t know what this Alice project is, but it looks cool.’ It was a promise of a secret, unknown adventure that I couldn’t tear myself away from.”
“It’s a different environment and a different way of working,” said senior Bobby Dagilo, who plays the Cheshire Cat and Tweedle Dee. “It got me excited because anything could happen. We’ve got a chance to make our mark on something that may last. That’s exciting to me because I’ve always wanted the chance to create a work from the ground up and see it come to life.”
Suzannah Herschkowitz, a senior who plays the Caterpillar, said she constantly had to reminder herself of one thing during the creative process: “If Michael proposed this project and cast us, that means he thinks we can do it.”
“Devised theater” – taking a concept and creating a play out of it – is cutting-edge, but gaining in popularity around the country and across college campuses, Toomey said.
“I believe it’s necessary for undergraduates to experience what it’s like to create as an ensemble and as a company, and to think of themselves not just as actors and performers,” he said. “That’s where I see live theater moving toward. People thinking of themselves as merely actors is the old model. The new model is people thinking of themselves as actors/singers/writers and creators of theater. That’s the world these students are going to go into and at least have a taste of what that means.”
After the initial research, class members shared their findings with each other, Toomey said.
“After a while, we got a sense of what was inspiring,” he said. “There was a lot of improvisation and throwing ideas out there.”
About 60 percent of the ideas were thrown out before writing sessions similar to television script work were held. A first draft of the new “Alice” was in place by Christmas 2011 and the “production phase” started early in the spring semester.
Class and cast members say their version of “Alice” stays true to the classic story without being a scene-for-scene or word-for-word adaptation.
“Part of what makes this (play) special is that it’s a story that so many people know,” said Herschkowitz of Alice’s trip down the rabbit hole and interactions with characters such as the White Rabbit and the Hatter. “We didn’t want to lose that element of seeing those characters that you read about as a little kid. But it has a twist so you can still go on the journey moment by moment and not be able to predict what is going to happen next.”
“We’re not putting on what everyone has said is the Mad Hatter,” said junior Jake Wentlent of his character. “From the ground up, we get to build who the Hatter is, what he looks like and how he moves and speaks. … The opportunity to do this in an undergraduate setting with great direction and support is fantastic.”
“There’s a complete belief and immersion in this world,” Dagilo said. “It really comes across.”
While the class/cast members said they have benefited from learning how to work as an ensemble, they also have focused on having fun with a classic story.
“Wonderland is a place I would always want to play,” Potel said. “It was easier when I reminded myself to ‘let go and have fun with it.’”
Toomey has noticed that fun among the students over the past several months.
“It’s like watching children play,” he said. “It has a joy, a playfulness and at times a madness. What I keep hearing over and over is them say ‘It reminds me of what it was like to play as a kid.’ They’ve created an atmosphere in which they can play again with the abandonment that we all had at one time.”