Talking about Lexington Children's Theatre's production of The Neverending Story, associate artistic director Jeremy Kisling and general manager Lesley Farmer say, "It's a very Vivian show."
LCT artistic director Vivian Snipes has put her mark on otherworldly shows, including The Snow Queen and Alice in Wonderland. The shows require her and her crews of actors and designers to come up with new ways to tell stories that you might presume should be left to the movie studios and their computer-generated images.
The big-screen movies already have taken a crack at Michael Ende's novel, with Wolfgang Petersen's 1984 film, but Snipes says the film gets a universal thumbs-down from kids at the Children's Theatre. Although technology has bounded far ahead of '80s special effects, this stage version has the student actors learning new ways to tell stories live.
"What I love about theater is everyone brings your personal self, and your knowledge and your perceptions, and we all interpret what we see on an individual level," Snipes says. "Hopefully, this show will allow us to do that even more so, and keep people engaged because we're not handing it to you on a silver platter."
A few days before the show opened, we sat down with Snipes to talk about the production.
Question: What has made Neverending Story an interesting corundum?
Answer: The scope and scale of any quest story is always a massive challenge of, 'How do you translate that to a theatrical venue?' when you don't have all the bells and whistles that movies can accomplish with CGI.
For me, it was analyzing the script and saying, 'What is this thing truly about, other than that it is just a quest play?' That broke down into three or four really strong themes, but we have boiled it down to the fact that it is vital to make connections to the world and the people around us and maintain our individual imaginations. Albert Einstein said, 'There can be no knowledge without imagination.' It's that pushing us beyond who first dreams of doing what, and then making it happen.
So when we first came into design meetings, I said 'I do not want to rely on visual images. I want the audience to rely on their imagination to engage within the play, to understand that two chairs stacked on top of each other can be an ironing board or a door frame.
Q: What attracted you to Neverending Story?
A: The challenge of accomplishing it. I enjoy the quest aspect of the play, the episodic nature. I like to find material that has the same things: strong characters, a great sense of change, an importance for telling the story and sharing the story. ... Material like this, where it is so open to interpretation, and which path of the journey do you want to take in order to get there, that's one of the reasons I was especially interested in doing this show.
Q: In addition to the imagination, what else have you worked on to tell this story?
A: Well, I have worked diligently with our ensemble. I have 27 in the cast and only four — Atreyu, Falkor, Artax and Gmork — play dedicated characters, meaning they do nothing else during the play. Everybody else is part of a Greek chorus ensemble. We use their bodies, their voices, their movement to help transport us in time, place and rhythm. That's been a wonderful challenge pooling them and working on our physicality ... In many ways, it's a dance production.
Q: Thinking about the entire mission of the children's theatre, having this as a Discover Series show, how important is that to stretching the kids?
A: I have heard some of the kids say they never thought it would be so taxing to be part of the ensemble of a show, because they have to be in such control of their bodies. I feel as if they are constantly being pushed to step beyond the norm. I have several who I set a challenge of, 'I need you to use your bodies to build a bookstore,' and they look at me and go, 'do what?' But then you see them figure, 'Yes, why can't your back be a table?' 'Why can't a row of hands be a series of books?' 'Why can't those books open and close?' Find as many ways as you can for your body to accomplish those things.' When they begin thinking, they come back and say, 'I didn't know we could do that.'
For many of them, it's a stretch into a new form of theater. I hope they understand that it's not just about staging the words of the script, but seeing through the script to the things beyond.