Tuesday, September 8, 2020

Creating Wonderland - Talking to the Designers and Devisers of TheaterWorks' CURIOUSER AND CURIOUSER

Clara Bentz as The White Rabbit in TheaterWorks' Curiouser and Curiouser
photo by Josiah Duka Photography

by Gil Benbrook

Taking a familiar fantasy story such as Alice in Wonderland and adapting it for the stage takes a wide range of talent and a number of collaborators, including people to devise the story and design all of the creative elements. 

When you also add in the element of having the production be an immersive theatrical experience, where audiences aren't seated in a traditional theatre venue but instead move from room to room throughout a performing arts center with the story unfolding in the rooms along the way, and you also have to factor in safety measures due to COVID that adhere to strict CDC and State guidelines, you have a whole new set of potential obstacles but also open up a whole new world of possibilities.

Last week we spoke to TheaterWorks' Artistic Director Chris Hamby, about their production of Curiouser and Curiouser, their immersive retelling of Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland that opens this week and run through October 18th, and today we speak to some of the shows' designers and devisers to discuss the difficulties they encountered in bringing this imaginative theatrical fantasy to life.

Clara Bentz, Assistant Deviser

How familiar were you with the story of Alice in Wonderland before starting to work on this project?

"I’d read Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland once as a kid, and I remember being absolutely frustrated with the lack of coherent plot. Coming back to it as an adult, I think actually had a better appreciation for the charming nonsense of it all. I’ve definitely always loved at least the aesthetics of Alice in Wonderland; the classic Disney cartoon played in our house often growing up, in high school I was excited about the Tim Burton movie coming out, and my friends and I had also found a romance book series very loosely inspired by the story that we were obsessed with in typical teenage fashion. The world of Wonderland has captured imaginations all over the world for more than a century. I think that’s one of my favorite things about the adventures of Alice, it’s an enduring story that resonates with so many people in so many different ways. Returning to the source material to prepare for Curiouser and Curiouser was exciting, and approaching the text with theatre in mind felt like reading it with fresh eyes. "

What type of research went into your creative aspects of the show?

"Reading both Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There by Lewis Carroll were the first order of business. I love source material. I read each one twice: once to enjoy it and the second time to highlight, take notes, and generally pilfer the text for our favorite bits. I also watched several movies and clips from other shows/plays/ballets to take a sort of 'what worked/what didn’t' stock. Chris (Hamby) also had us do some additional research on world building and devising interactive theatre. He probably had found 5 hours of different documentary videos and got several copies of the book Creating Worlds: How to Make Immersive Theatre by Jason Warren to be passed around the creative team. Learning about the life of Charles Dodgson (aka Lewis Carol) and the real life Alice Liddell was also really interesting, but none of that actually made it into anything you’ll see in Curiouser and Curiouser. I had an acting professor tell me 'it’s always better to overpack for a trip than show up unprepared, and that’s the mindset you should have when prepping for a show,' and I definitely try to 'overpack' on research. Finally, as we got into the bulk of rehearsals and the script was getting set, I found myself returning more and more to the books, especially the chapters that my character, the White Rabbit, was in. It’s nice when research comes full circle, and it affirming to think that I’ve always kept the source material close. What’s the point of doing a show inspired by Wonderland if you don’t keep the original Wonderland at its heart?"

What element did you find the most difficult or the most challenging and what did you have to do to overcome that obstacle?

"This might sound like boasting, but I think one of our biggest challenges on Curiouser and Curiouser was too many good ideas. This team is incredibly talented and wildly creative. I don’t think Chris was quite aware of the monster he created by saying 'the sky’s the limit' in our initial production meeting. What you’ll see is really only a sliver of the original ideas tossed around. Digger Feeney and Jenny Abeyta blew our minds with every design and art piece they presented, and Ryan Terry discovered so many cool things technology could do for the show. There were several different, novel-length, insanely complicated options for the plot. But eventually you have to think about very un-Wonderland things, like budget, deadlines, man power, and CDC guidelines. But the limits to what we could do were a blessing in disguise, they created rules and structure. Ashley Gennaro and I spent a week or two making charts and timelines and maps and running around the building trying to figure out the best way to get people through the theater in a timely manner, while still giving the cast and crew time to reset and sanitize each space before the arrival of the next audience. With that we could figure out what rooms were the priority, how much time we had in each, what needed to happen, and what we could live without. So when you join us in Wonderland, and explore each space —don’t get me wrong each space is amazing— keep in mind there’s still piles of scribbles and sketches of more things that could have been."

What has been the most exciting part of this process for you?  

"Seeing it come together, hands down! Every rehearsal, every new set piece, every new technical cue is so validating. This is a crazy idea. We are quite literally all mad here. And to have a crazy idea that works? Amazing. It’s definitely not easy. Blood, sweat, and tears have gone into this production and still will as we move through tech week and previews. This show has a lot of moving pieces, it has to run like clockwork, there’s still some fine tuning to be done. Theatre is always a living, breathing animal, but this show is another beast entirely. Probably closer to a behemoth or eldritch god. When I first started on this project in May, it didn’t feel quite real, but I watched a run last night. It’s very real. We may be mad, but that’s perfect for Wonderland. I hope you can join us, and don’t be late!"

Jenny Abeyta, Props Designer

How familiar were you with the story of Alice in Wonderland before starting to work on this project?

"I had seen a few different versions of Alice in Wonderland in movie form but was unfamiliar with the books until the project started. I would read along as we designed the different rooms. But I still have a lot of nostalgia towards the story and aesthetic because of a game I played as a kid with the Alice theme. "

What type of research went into your creative aspects of the show?

"As we were coming up with the early sketches for the show, I was able to pull some inspiration from the fine artists I studied in college, having focused on installation art. The accumulation pieces of Yayoi Kusama and Tara Donovan, and of course the fantastic work of the collective behind Meow Wolf. "

What element did you find the most difficult or the most challenging and what did you have to do to overcome that obstacle? 

"The biggest challenge was that every space presented a brand new set of problems for us to face. Each room required a different approach and the use of different materials. In a way, you have to drop everything you know about the room that came before and start fresh in the next space. However, by taking this approach, we’ve been able to make spaces feel unique, with vastly different ambiance. You really feel like you’re entering a different world every time you walk through a doorway. "

What has been the most exciting part of this process for you?   

"I’ve been a property designer for a long time so the most exciting part of this was being able to start without a script or a prop list. It was a ‘world built first’ approach that really let the designers go nuts with what we wanted Wonderland to look like. The early brainstorming sessions were incredibly fun and sometimes we got a little carried away, but it’s been an amazing experience to work with such a dedicated team who all wanted to make such a fun world for our actors and audience members to play in." 

Heather “Digger” Feeney, Technical Director and Scenic Designer

How familiar were you with the story of Alice in Wonderland before starting to work on this project?

"Alice in Wonderland has always had a special place in my heart from the time I first read the books in junior high.  We did a production of Alice in Wonderland in high school shortly after reading the books, and the infatuation more or less took off from there.  I was particularly drawn to Tenniel's illustration, and would copy his style in many mediums."
 
What type of research went into your creative aspects of the show?

"To begin researching, I re-read the books with my 6 year old son.  I then brought suggestions to Chris Hamby about which locations could exist in which spaces, and once we honed in on a general look and feel for each, we lost ourselves in other artists' interpretations of the work.  There is so much great content revolving around the original stories, it made it fun to stretch our creative muscles and make each space distinct.  I also spent a good amount of time researching Art Installations, since this show demands a vastly different design and build that is traditional to theater."
 
What element did you find the most difficult or the most challenging and what did you have to do to overcome that obstacle?

"I would say the most challenging element was outfitting our non-traditional theater spaces, particularly because they were already set up to be something different.  I found it took much more time to imagine an environment around pre-existing counters and cabinets, or problem solving installations when there were no existing points to secure to.  It took a great deal of planning to respect the building as it is intended so it is not as difficult to restore when it is time to close the production."
 
What has been the most exciting part of this process for you?  

"The most exciting part of this process for me has been the ability to come in to work every day and be creative with a solid team of artists.  There is often a good amount of problem-solving that goes into a theatrical production, but this has blown it out of the water.  I was very fortunate to work with a team of people that greatly improved upon my contribution to the project, which I think is clear from the outcome."

Hahnna Christianson as Caterpillar in TheaterWorks' Curiouser and Curiouser
photo by Josiah Duka Photography


Elizabeth Peterson, Costumer Designer

How familiar were you with the story of Alice in Wonderland before starting to work on this project?

"Alice in Wonderland has been a part of my life since I can remember. Not only was the Disney movie a favorite at our house but Lewis Carroll’s books were also always spotlighted on the bookcase. I fondly remember exploring the stories with my sister! Also another fun thing is that I grew up with vintage Alice in Wonderland curtains in our bedroom and a tall mid-century 'cheshire' cat statue that would eerily smile at me every night. Honestly I remember both making me feel uneasy when I was younger, but because of my history with these images all Alice in Wonderland visuals bring back a feeling of home. (If only I still had that cool vintage curtain fabric! ) " 

What type of research went into your creative aspects of the show?

"Because I was already so familiar with the show and have done it many times in a more Disney style, as well as the fact that Alice in general has been done so many times, it was crucial that I rediscovered the show in a different light. I wanted the costumes to be unique, different, maybe something new for the audience. So I started with some inspirational concept words Circus, Gothic, Military, Burlesque, and Masquerade and researched images in these styles. By doing so I was able to find a unique style for these costumes that will hopefully be fun for the audience!"

What element did you find the most difficult or the most challenging and what did you have to do to overcome that obstacle?

"I think the most difficult obstacle was having to costume all of the actors during Covid. My first thought when I was beginning my work was 'how can I do this with minimal actor contact.' The first thing I did differently was use virtual meetings to take the measurements. They were possibly less precise but close enough. Then to avoid longer fittings and the need to tailor the costume to a perfect fit,  I chose to use elastic wherever possible. Overall it has worked out really well and between this and all of the other safety measures the theater has enforced, it has been a very safe and healthy experience."

What has been the most exciting part of this process for you?  

"The most exciting part of this process for me was the ability to create these costumes for more of a personal experience. Sometimes in the theater because of the distance from the stage to the audience, the small details are often eliminated as they are not necessary. But with this immersive show the details have become my favorite thing! These were already my favorite group of characters but after creating these new fun looks it has reinvigorated my love for Alice in Wonderland."

DeAndrea Vaughn, Hair and Makeup Designer

How familiar were you with the story of Alice in Wonderland before starting to work on this project?

"I grew up watching the Disney version and still enjoy watching it to this day.  However, I didn't read the book until I was an adult, as I'm sure is the case for a number of people. I'm hoping the performances will spurn peoples' interest to pick up the book to become familiar with the story and appreciate both the story and the production even more. "

What type of research went into your creative aspects of the show?

"There were several pieces I designed that I have never created before this production. I went through a lot of research for sewing, hat making, mask making, how to make rabbit ears, crowns, etc. to try to find the best way of creating these pieces that wouldn't hinder the actor or weigh them down. I also researched hairstyles from the 18th century and added elements of whimsy to try to keep an old world feel to certain characters, but still have them look as if they belong at home in Wonderland. "

What element did you find the most difficult or the most challenging and what did you have to do to overcome that obstacle?

"I try to challenge myself with each new production I am a part of to step out of my comfort zone and do something I have never done before. For Curiouser & Curiouser I tried my hand at mask making. I had to overcome working with new materials and tools and so I experienced several frustrating set backs in the process. I reached out to fellow special effects artists and took part in some online tutorials from a film studio which really helped me create the masks for the White Rabbit character. "

What has been the most exciting part of this process for you?  

"The most exciting part of this process is seeing the actors' excitement when they finally get to have their whole look come together. Watching them transform into their characters and how they utilize the pieces I created for them to evolve their characters even further is always a very rewarding feeling for me." 

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