When adapting a story to the stage, the first step for NH Theatre Factory Artistic Director Joel Mercier is determining its message — or, at least, his interpretation of its message.
Lost in Wonderland, which went up last spring and was adapted from Lewis Carroll’s books, was about growing up. A Dragon’s Tail, which hits the stage in early March and is adapted from Kenneth Grahame’s The Reluctant Dragon, is about bullying.
“Sometimes [my interpretation] isn’t exactly the same thing the author intended. But to me, The Reluctant Dragon is about not judging a book by its cover … and not picking on someone just because they’re different,” Mercier said via phone. “To me, this story is just a really great way to remind children and adults alike that it’s OK to be different, and that we really should love that about each other, rather than be uncomfortable or nervous about it.”
The show, with book and music by Mercier, will be performed March 3 and March 4 at the Derry Opera House by kids ages 8 to 16 from the company’s Stage Setters Youth Program.
Grahame’s story follows a boy who befriends a poetry-reading, tea-drinking dragon living in a small cave on a village hilltop. The town’s residents, fearful of the dragon, recruit St. George to slay the beast, but the boy convinces him otherwise. Together, they devise a plan to stage a fight between the two.
Fourteen-year-old Meghan O’Neill said she’s been enjoying playing the dragon, because at heart, the dragon is just a “huge nerd.”
“And I love that. I can totally relate to being a huge nerd! He writes poetry and drinks tea. I think I’d be best friends with him in real life,” O’Neill said during rehearsals in the Jefferson mill building last week.
The Reluctant Dragon is a short story, which didn’t naturally translate to an hour-and-a-half musical, so Mercier made some alterations, changing the story’s little boy to a little girl named Marta and adding more characters, from villagers and royals to dragonflies.
“It’s definitely a challenge. You want to stay true to the heart of the original story, but you want to give it a spin that makes it worth this new medium,” Mercier said.
Kid actors hail from Manchester, Derry, Londonderry, Amherst, Merrimack, Hooksett, Concord, Boscawen and Barrington. They’ve worked with Amanda Pawlik, who taught a master class on pantomime movement, and fight choreographer Alex Jacobs, originally from Aylesbury, England, who taught safe stage combat — both very popular rehearsals for the kids.
“I really liked the stage combat a lot. It was fun to learn how to fake fight, though it looks realistic when you do it,” said 16-year-old Colleen Joy Paquette, who’s performing as the evil villain, Lady Darkwood, a new character to the story.
Tina Cassidy choreographed, Lorraine Louie and Janet Dare created costumes and the company’s producing director, Wallace J. Pineault, designed lighting and scenery, which Mercier said is simplistic, with a 3-D village and larger pieces that move on and off stage.
Between straight theater rehearsals, Mercier has been leading discussions on the story, which the kids find relatable; 9-year-old Reya Rivera, who plays a villager and a dragonfly, said it reminded her of an experience she had in first grade when she got glasses.
“I think it’s easier to perform something when you can relate to it. And so it’s nice when people open up and tell their own stories,” Paquette said. “The message is not to exclude anybody who’s different. I think that’s a really good message — to accept everyone for who they are, because in reality, everyone’s different.”
Mercier said he thought it was great that the kids were sharing their experiences too.
“Not only [does open dialogue] made for better productions, it also makes theater a tool for these kids to learn these kinds of things, and to me, that’s way more important,” Mercier said.