Castle Dettinger was initially inspired to take part in Eau Claire Children’s Theatre’s production of “The Giver” because he enjoyed reading the Newbery Award-winning novel of the same name so much.
But what the 13-year-old didn’t know going into the lead role of Jonah was that portraying a character trapped in a dystopian world would give him an entirely new perspective on the story.
“I always imagined everybody in this world as very robotic and without emotion,” Dettinger said before rehearsal Wednesday night. “But reading through this script and playing this character, you realize that it’s a normal play ... These are real people, they’re just living in a different world. It’s made me think a lot.”
ECCT will present its production of “The Giver” at 7:30 p.m. Friday at RCU Theatre in the Pablo Center at the Confluence.
As in the dystopian novel, the society “The Giver” focuses on is a world shrouded in black and white. There is no pain, but also no joy — it is a world of so-called perfection, but also numbness.
At 12 years old, each member of society receives their lifelong profession based on that particular person’s skills and talents. Much to his surprise, Jonah (Dettinger) receives the unique role of “Receiver of Memories.”
The cast agreed there are both advantages and disadvantages to bringing a play based on such a popular young adult novel to the stage.
On one hand, Drew Thompson said, audiences will likely come in with high expectations, having already imagined from reading the book how characters should look and act.
“It can be a little intimidating. We’re going to have 1,200 people in the audience who have read the book as well, so they’re gonna know the material,” Thompson, who portrays Father, said. “So I think it puts a lot of pressure on us as performers to not disappoint and to convey the story in a manner that is consistent with what their expectations are.”
At the same time, Eric VandenHeuvel said each of them were able to get far more background on their characters from the book than they would from any other typical play.
“We can really see what the author was going for with each character,” VandenHeuval said.
Another challenge the show poses is striking the perfect balance between portraying the lack of emotion and feeling in the society while also maintaining energy that will keep the audience interested in the plot.
“I’ve struggled a little bit with wanting to be entertaining on stage and ... (have felt tried to) not get sucked down into the controlled society,” said Jen Kieffer, who plays Mother. “But I’ve learned we can still be animated.”
“This isn’t a show about robots. There is some character, there is personality,” added Thompson. “You can kind of think of (the show) in the sense that we all try to create our own utopias ... we’re sometimes trying to create this perfect life. So here we can kind of see how that might play out to an extreme.”
Something else audiences can look forward to is the “visually stunning” nature of the show.
The only moments of color in the show are when the Giver shows Jonah memories, marking a stark contrast from the rest of the production.
In those moments, the stage will be lit up with color through projections and the experience will come alive through sound effects.
Director Wayne Marek said ECCT for years has received suggestions from the public to put on “The Giver.” But because of the technology the show requires, it wouldn’t have been a good fit in their own space at The Oxford or at The State Theatre.
That all changed with the recently-opened Pablo Center.
“There’s a lot more to play with there, which is exciting,” Marek said.
Overall, Thompson said he hopes audience members walk away from the show thinking about how horrible a life without pain and joy would be.
“Life is about the good and the bad,” Thompson said. “You can try to sanitize away the bad, but inevitably you’ll erase some good. It’s exactly like the old adage: You take the good with the bad.”
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