Anytime a beloved book regenerates as a play or film, there’s an understood gamble. Fans cling to their favorite moments, scenes, and lines like mountaineers on K2. The risk lies in whether they will accept and enjoy a condensed production or resent a company who dared to mangle their treasured tale. (For more on possible results, compare the multi-generational fan-driven success of Lord of the Rings with the lackluster, cobbled mess of The Chronicles of Narnia.)
So when I sat down to begin preliminary work on A Wrinkle in Time, based on the novel by Madeleine L’Engle, it was not without trepidation. I’ve loved this book since I could read. The playwright, John Glore, also loved the book and admitted he pared out pieces he enjoyed to fit the parameters of South Coast Repertory’s Theatre for Young Audiences, who had commissioned the script. Before I could focus on our production, I thought I had to reconcile myself to this script. I learned that a script, well-written, remains true to the story, even if it does condense the plot a little.
For those who haven’t read the book, a recap: Awkward, stubborn, brilliant-at-math, Meg Murry sits alone in her attic, missing her father, a scientist absent for two years. She and her brother Charles Wallace, a child of excelled intellect and empathy, learn from the very odd Mrs Whatsit that he is alive but in danger. They meet Calvin and the three are whisked away by Mrs Whatsit and her colleagues, Mrs Who and Mrs Whatsit. The Mrs Ws inform the children that Dr. Murry was experimenting with the tesseract, a concept which wrinkles the fabric of space-time, allowing for intergalactic travel in no time at all. He tessered to Camazotz, a planet shadowed by the Black Thing, the evil which pervades the universe. The only way to save him is for Meg, Charles Wallace, and Calvin to rescue him. On Camazotz, they meet IT, a huge disembodied brain which forces everyone into the same rhythm and to behave and think exactly alike. Though they find their father, Charles Wallace becomes controlled by IT. To escape, Dr. Murry tessers Meg and Calvin away. Angry at her father’s inability to fix everything, Meg demands the Ws return and solve her problems. They arrive but inform her that she alone can save Charles Wallace. Returning to confront IT, Meg must discover what she has that IT does not. Realizing what her weapon is—the love she gives and has been given—enables her to save Charles Wallace and reunite her family back on Earth. Early on, one of the cast asked if this production would be in the present day or period. After all, 1962 in many ways looks nothing like 2012. Our director replied she had considered “going period,” but the book is relevant because it is timeless. To choose period would not be as accessible and she wanted it to be as accessible as possible for our audiences.
In that vein, she began the first day of rehearsal asking the cast, who had all read the novel, why this was relevant today. Responses ranged from the importance of family to the acceptance of oneself including all quirks, faults, and foibles. She followed with the question, “What do you think is ‘Camazotz’ today?” Responses from the cast began with social media: “It’s like everybody has an iPhone, a Facebook, all the same,” one actor noted. A second chimed in: “On social media, you’re not talking to someone [by] posting. You wouldn’t have the guts to do that in real life.” A third cited texting, with its lack of facial and vocal interaction.
While nary a smart phone appears in the play, we began integrating social media into this production. This show employed a tag-team relay among departments. Creating and coordinating tweets and hash tags with our Audience Services Manager for the company Twitter account tested our ability for witty, engaging, relevant blurbs. The opening of The Hunger Games proved to be a great connection as the argument stands that without Meg Murry there could be no Katniss Everdeen. Our favorite tweet went: “resistant. resistent. resistint. resistit. Resistit. Resist it. Resist IT.#AWrinkleinTime,” playing on the surging theme of fighting the system in today’s world (thank you Occupy, Arab Spring, Dumbledore’s Army, and Tributes). I pulled tidbits from my dramaturgy work and the rehearsal room to be status updates on the company Facebook for our Subscriptions Manager/Marketing Assistant. Later, we launched a separate Facebook page for the show itself in coordination with our interactive lobby display and online companion guide, a three-pronged intersection conceived by our Producer for Arts Discovery Programs.
And while these can all be wonderful tools in reaching the audience, they aim to support a timeless story in a relevant way. As a house manager, I witness the immediate response the work onstage, which provides a check for when I am frustrated by a lack of response on the Facebook page or nobody retweeting our clever quips or kids coloring all over the lobby display. The point is they come away connected. All those elements outside the house—the online work, the interactive lobby display—those are there to enrich an encounter. They are not excessive or frills, but they are new facets in a potentially already unfamiliar place.
To some extent, they’ve been successful. It is still a learning process on both sides, balancing the traditional with the modern. Each performance concludes with a post-show discussion with the cast, and that’s when our audiences, especially students and all who love the book, really respond and interact and connect. And that’s when the fans voice how much they love what they’ve seen: the story they know brought to life. There is a place and time to integrate today’s media into live arts, but first and foremost, the aim remains to tell the story.
A WRINKLE IN TIME adapted by John Glore, based on the novel by Madeleine L’Engle; Director Samantha Bellomo, set by James Pyne, Jr., costumes by Marla J. Jurglanis, lighting by Lily Fossner, sound design by The Broken Chord Collective, dramaturg Hannah Daniel, production stage manager Kate McSorley. At the Mainstage, 39 Conestoga Road, Malvern, PA 19355. For tickets, call (610) 644-3500. Now through May 20, 2012.
WITH: Emilie Krause (Meg), Conrad David Sager (Charles Wallace/Ensemble), Catharine Slusar (Mother/Mrs Who/Camazotz Woman/Aunt Beast/Ensemble), Pete Pryor (Mrs Whatsit/Man with Red Eyes/Ensemble), Aubie Merrylees (Calvin/Ensemble), Tom Byrn (Father/Mrs Which/Camazotz Man/Ensemble)