Katherine Hammond and Lee Smith have their fingers in a lot of pots of gumbo at the moment.
In addition to being faculty members in Old Dominion University’s theatre department, the husband-and-wife team are also co-Artistic Directors of their own festival-frequenting production company, Warehouse of Theatre. It’s a vehicle they use to explore the integration of technology into live performance, and previous collaborations with ODU Rep (the production arm of ODU’s theatre department) have yielded such dazzling work as 2014’s The Death of Thomas Edison.
It’s important to note that ODU Rep is quasi-distinct from the ODU theatre department in which it exists. Hammond explains it best:
“Our classes are only open to students, but ODU Rep is open to the community. Anyone can come in and work on a show with us. Part of our mission is to allow members of the community to have opportunities here that they may not have elsewhere.”
The nexus of these two ideals is expressed quite clearly in the latest collaboration between Warehouse of Theatre and ODU Rep, an adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s classic tale of fantastical whimsy called simply Alice.
I was excited for the opportunity to ask Hammond, Smith, and their musical collaborator on Alice, local indie folk scion Skye Zentz, about the project. In order to get the full story, though, we had to travel back in time almost a year, to when Hammond and Smith first forged their collaboration with Zentz to develop and workshop the play.
The first hurdle, they tell me, was adapting the source material.
“The absolute truth is that “Alice in Wonderland” as written by Lewis Carroll does not work as a stage play,” says Smith, who wrote the script. “What does Alice have when she comes back to her sister [at the end of the book] that she didn’t before? Not a damn thing. For it to be a play that has any satisfaction for the audience, she’s got to change.”
It’s true, Carroll’s fantastical yarn is really more episodic in nature, without much of a narrative backbone, so Smith, Hammond, and Zentz’s first task was to apply one.
“One of the first things we all talked about was her ‘muchness,’” says Hammond. “She’s a young girl who’s looking for her muchness in the world; who am I, and how do I figure out what that is? That’s the driving arc of the story: She feels lonely and isolated, and then she gets to go on this journey that allows her to meet people who introduce her to how to take part in her life and her world. She finds a way to enter the world as herself.”
The other big task when adapting such a well-known and oft-revisited story was of course to put a unique spin on it. Warehouse of Theatre/ODU Rep’s production features a teenaged Alice (aged up a few years from her eleven-year-old literary counterpart). It is also set in New Orleans, which presented a world of possibilities to Zentz.
“When we made the decision to set it in Louisiana, I felt it was important to make sure that the music didn’t have to sound like blues or Dixieland jazz, because Louisiana and New Orleans in particular – in the same way as Nashville – is a mecca of all kinds of music. So it didn’t have to be that the music needed to sound an exact way, but I listened to lots of New Orleans bands over the last several months to make sure that things had the right flavors.”
“We also of course listened to a fair amount of zydeco researching the show,” adds Hammond. “And that really got us thinking about alternative ways of creating sound. Spoons, washboards, boxes, rubber bands… And Skye’s been really open to wondering how we can change things up, how can we reorchestrate, how can we make any kind of sound? So every song that she’s written she’s gone back and explored how we’re creating that sound.”
The sound of the show, as it turns out, is also a big part of the staging.
“We didn’t know at the start of the process how the music portion was going to go as far as accompaniment to the show, so I’ve taken on the duty of figuring out which cast members can play what,” says Zentz, for whom this is a first foray into theatrical composition and musical direction. She must have felt a bit like Alice herself watching the organic process of developing the play through repeated brainstorming sessions, a workshop production last November, and the freewheeling exchange of ideas that has taken place during rehearsals.
“The story that people will see when they come into the theatre is as much Katherine’s and Skye’s and the cast’s and people who came to the workshop as it is mine because I had like this many ideas,” Smith says, squinting at me through a quarter-inch gap between his thumb and index finger. “It has a lot of ideas now, some of which are mine, most of which are other people’s.”
When asked what first drew this team of troubadours into Wonderland, Zentz mused, “I think the reason it keeps speaking to different generations of people is because it’s one of the earliest girl hero journeys we have in that kind of literature. And it’s a really fun example of what happens when you’re let loose on your own to explore. That wacky world was a really fun thing to write about.”
Incorporating a wide variety of talent from around the community, including improv comedians and jazz singers, and a number of unusual characters, including a passel of puppets and a troupe of dancing seagulls, Warehouse of Theatre/ODU Rep’s production of Alice certainly promises to be a different kind of wonderland from anything we’ve seen before.
Alice runs 4/5 thru 4/15 at ODU’s Goode Theater. Wed, Thurs, Fri @ 7:30pm, Sat @ 2:00pm & 7:30pm. Tix $15. Call (757) 683-5305 or purchase online here.