Debera-Ann Lund doesn’t see children as children when they’re working on a play.
“I see them as actors. It’s an equalizer, theater; it makes everyone the same,” Lund said shortly before the Windham Actors Guild rehearsal for Oliver!, which shows at Windham High School the first weekend of April.
Oliver! is a play that relies just as much on its child actors as it does on its adult actors, but this show, under director Lund’s guidance, might not be the Oliver! you know; just because it’ll have kids doesn’t mean it will be kid-friendly.
“This isn’t the little boys’ Annie. It’s a dark story, as most of Dickens’ work is,” Lund said. “Dickens never meant it be cute, and we’re darkening it up as much as we can. Teenagers and teens, I think, like that, and they get left out a lot when it comes to theater. I’m all about what makes it exciting for them, too.”
Though perhaps the biggest twist to this show, visually at least, is that it will be steampunked.
“When I do any type of play, I like to turn it sideways, to make it exciting again. Especially with something as old as Oliver! — I’m trying to figure out, how do we make it new?” said Lund, who fell upon this style while watching an episode of Castle.
Steampunk is a sort of science fiction sub-genre that focuses on steam-powered machinery, usually in a setting inspired by industrialized Western civilization during the 19th century. Lund describes it as “Victorian futurism,” or how Victorians might have perceived the future with their technology at the time. Everything from the settings to the costumes will be draped in gears, cogs, clocks and machinery, creating a steamy, dark feel to the play.
“It doesn’t change the story at all,” Lund said. “It’ll just change the mood of the play.”
The plot itself is pretty dark even without the added edginess, as anyone who has read Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist knows. Oliver! is the story of young orphan Oliver Twist, who escapes a workhouse orphanage and is adopted into a gang of child pickpockets, led by a grown criminal named Fagin. What follows is violence, thievery and crime, also involving a burglar named Bill Sikes and his live-in girlfriend (whom he abuses), Nancy.
Lund is a new director for the New Hampshire theater scene. A veteran actress and director, she grew up learning and performing in Portland, Ore. She lived in Massachusetts for a bit and moved to New Hampshire about a year ago. She’s very arduous in her efforts not only to pull the most from her experienced actors — she demonstrated how Keith Strang, who plays Bill Sikes, should snatch a cup of coffee from the set table, using a crowbar almost as an arm extension between scenes at an evening rehearsal last week — but also to educate the show’s youngest cast members.
In Oliver!, she introduced a pair of 9-year-old brothers, Jack and Logan Runde, to onstage combat. The pair are fraternal twins and in this, their first show, they break out in fights every time they step onstage. Naturally, the boys enjoy this quite a bit — Logan says the onstage fighting is “really fun,” if a bit difficult, and Jack agrees.
Their mother, Melissa Runde, is in the show as well. She plays Nancy and is very happy with how her boys have come to enjoy theater.
“They’re sporty kids. … Giving them permission to fight onstage put me in an interesting role,” Runde said. “At home, we don’t let them watch violent TV shows or play violent video games. I appreciate the fact that [Lund] worked to show them how it works, how it’s not real,” she said.
The Rundes aren’t the only family in the production. The atmosphere at that evening’s rehearsal was a little different from that at other community theater meet-ups; the Windham Middle School cafeteria-turned rehearsal space was teeming with mothers, fathers, daughters and sons. Strang’s 13-year-old daughter Lillian is part of the ensemble (who’s impressed at how scary her dad gets as Bill Sikes), and kid actress Abigail St. Laurent is performing alongside her mom, Kristi, and her older sister Grace.
“I like that both kids and adults are in it,” Abigail, 9, said. “Some plays you can’t do without both. If this was just kids, I think the play would be kind of weird.”
This is the first play she’s ever been in, and she’s happy that her sister and her mom can help her along in this new experience. (Though, she added, she’s not nervous about going onstage for the first time; “I like all the attention,” she said.)
Husband and wife team John and Susan LeBlanc are acting and costume designing, respectively. John LeBlanc, a member of the WAG board, was talked into performing as Fagin, initially reluctant because of his busy schedule. He gave in, in part because this show offered a twist (pun intended).
“This version will be different. … It’s a darker version, and we’re putting out a violence disclaimer. … But I like that it’s got its own identity,” John said.
As seen in the March 27, 2014 issue of the Hippo.