Theater Interview: Going Mad With ‘Lookingglass Alice’ Director David Catlin

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CHICAGO – Most adolescent boys do away with their freshly-acquired Bar Mitzvah money before you can say “Haftorah”. But not David Schwimmer. Instead, the Lookingglass Theatre Company co-founder and “Friends” superstar mounted what was to become his theatre company’s most illustrious and withstanding production, “Lookingglass Alice”, based on the cherished novels of Lewis Carroll. The company’s Artistic Director David Catlin recently caught up with to discuss the adaptation and production process for Alice’s latest journey (now playing through August 1, 2010 at the Water Tower), and why this fourth trip down the rabbit hole just may be the best yet.

”Lookingglass Alice”” target=
”Lookingglass Alice”
Photo credit: Courtesy of Lookingglass Theatre Company

HollywoodChicago: This is the fourth time Chicago audiences will be treated to “Lookingglass Alice”. For our readers who do not know the story, take me back to 1987 when this production was first getting developed.

David Catlin (DC): We were students at Northwestern University and David Schwimmer had some money in a bank account that he had gotten for his Bar Mitzvah. He decided to self-produce an adaptation of “Alice in Wonderland”. That particular adaptation had been done by Andre Gregory at the end of the 1960s. It was this very physical production that was ensemble-based and had what you would call a “poor theatre” setting, very simple and transformational and not necessarily strictly for kids. It had a lot of grown-up ideas in it because there was a great deal of response to the turbulence of the 1960s in that production. There was this book that described the process that this [company] went through, and Schwimmer had an old tattered copy of this. So he brought six of us in to do it and use nontraditional ways to create the story. The production did well enough on campus that we brought it to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and decided to start a company, Lookingglass. Flash forward fifteen years, we were building a theatre here at the Water Tower and our artistic director at the time suggested that we return and re-tackle that material.

HollywoodChicago: I understand that at this time you had become a parent. How did this new personal role affect your approach to the children’s story?

DC: Going into 2005 I was a young father and had a daughter who was about two and a half years old. It occurred to me how just swiftly she was moving through life, even at that age. I remember one of her very first sentences was, “When can I get my ears pierced?” So one of the things we had discovered and felt very strongly about in doing “Alice” is that these stories were a loving gift from Lewis Carroll to the real Alice Liddell. They were written in a very Victorian world with lots of rules and strict regulations for behavior. Society had really pressured kids to grow up fast and become little adults. So with “Through the Lookingglass”, the structure is actually set up to be a Chessboard. Alice starts as a pawn and the book ends with her being crowned a queen. I realized that, for me and my personal way into the story, was what I would want to tell my daughter about growing up: not to do it too quickly, and to hang onto all of the amazing things that kids are so good at, like believing in impossible things. We as adults often forget how to do that.

HollywoodChicago: Carroll’s work is of course noted for its sense of wonder and whimsy, but more so its use of play. How have you been able to incorporate the idea of play into the physical production?

DC: We try to let every square inch of the theatre be part of our playground. Just as the play leads to very different paths, we try, through design and circus work, to evoke this same sense of the unexpected. I have also tried to make the show a little bit loose in terms of feeling spontaneous. There are things that we do that require prolonged degrees of focus and attention for actors’ safety, but there are also big sequences where actors are encouraged to discover. To me, play is very much about the ability and willingness to discover, to see things anew. This story, particularly “Alice in Wonderland”, was told to the real Alice and her sisters on a boat ride. So although Carroll may have been thinking about these characters before, they came out in this spontaneous, unscripted way. We want to evoke this sense of play, of responding and exploring in the moment.

HollywoodChicago: How did you design the production to tap into these concepts for audiences?

DC: A lot of the props are also reminiscent of childhood. There are balls that show up, distorted scales, physical transformations. A piece of fabric becomes a sea of tears and some junky old folding chairs become a tea party. That idea of transforming simple objects into amazing things, I mean kids do that so beautifully, and we want to continue that willing suspension of disbelief.

HollywoodChicago: How did the partnership with the Actors Gymnasium begin, and what is the significance of cirque performance in the role of storytelling for you as an Artistic Director?

DC: The relationship with Actors Gymnasium started really because, as theatres, we have the same DNA. One of the founders was in that initial Northwestern production. As the company was starting, Cirque Du Soleil was doing one of its initial tent shows here in Chicago and we as a group saw it together. We thought, “This is so exciting.” We thought theatre, like that, should bring people to the edge of their seats and always evoke a visceral, kinesthetic response. We want you to experience it in your muscles and in your stomach. There is something about the impossible instance of watching a cirque performance that just fit the Lewis Carroll world, something about the idea of seeing people do things that are magical and entirely unexpected. And there’s also that dizzying quality that you get, and we want you to feel that same effect much like how Alice may have felt falling down that rabbit hole.

Alice meets the Red Queen in “Lookingglass Alice”” target=
Alice meets the Red Queen in “Lookingglass Alice”
Photo courtesy of Lookingglass Theatre Company

HollywoodChicago: The recent Tim Burton adaptation of “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” focused a great deal on the themes of good vs. evil inherent in the text. Your adaptation tends to focus more on the lyricism and acrostics of the story. Was this intentional?

DC: Yes, I am very interested in the things that I want my daughter to really think about and therefore the elements of his stories that I want young people to think about. To me, there is somewhat of a battle going on here, but it’s a battle between the strict, rational mindset of the Red Queen and the kind of irrational force that is the White Queen. The White Queen is telling Alice to believe in impossible things, to return to being a kid. The Red Queen wants propriety. So the conflict for Alice is between these. As we see the Red Queen in our production, she is this incredibly tall, 15-foot force but by the end she is tiny and basically floats away on an umbrella.

HollywoodChicago: How did the concept of childhood identity, and the development of it, factor in to your understanding of the text as an adaptor?

DC: As the Red Queen diminishes, Alice’s esteem and sense of self in the world grows, because this story really is about identity. There’s this concept in psychology known as the “Lookingglass Self”, which says we define ourselves based on how we believe others perceive us, or see us through the lookingglass. We often, and children in particular, look to others to find who we are. But eventually Alice learns we must look at ourselves to truly define ourselves. Essentially, each square on the Chessboard represents one of those stages in our lives. You look at the work and you can see it. The Tweedles call to mind that awkward stage in adolescence, when we are so concerned with how our friends see and act toward us and how we might fit into that equation. Then there’s Humpty Dumpty, which really shows the moment in our young adult lives when we lose somebody, someone important to us, a situation we cannot fix. It makes us older, takes away our childhood.

HollywoodChicago: One of the most notable elements of the production is the relationship you portray physically between Carroll and Alice. Why did you decide to make the author such a prominent character in Alice’s journey?

DC: I think partly because this is a loving gift to her from him. It’s these two people who had this connection and loved each other, and that connection is an important force in the story. So in a way it creates two worlds within the production. Carroll was a lonely soul, coming from a big family but never really able to fit in with the real world. I think there is something sad but also beautiful about his connection to Alice, because that world he was most interested in was the one they created together.

HollywoodChicago: What do you hope children who see your production take away from its message of the power in imagination?

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DC: We live in a world with so much stimulation coming at us, with video games and iPods. I hope that kids will take away the idea of creation, of creating new worlds and characters and to ultimately be okay with that nonsense. Not everything has to be logical and perfect. As Humpty says, “What if you had two eyes on the side of your head, your mouth is above and your nose above? That would be something, that would be different.” And Alice says, “That wouldn’t look very nice.” Humpty responds, “Wait ‘til you try.” So I hope that kids will leave wanting to try new things, outside of the boxes that we as adults often make for them. Go out, invent impossible things and believe in impossible things.

HollywoodChicago: What does the name “Lookingglass” continue to mean to the company?

DC:It means a lot of things, but among them the connection to Lewis Carroll and the celebration of nonsense and irreverence. Also, the pursuit of clever ideas and that source of wonder that Alice brings into the world. But more, the idea of the mirror that reflects who we are as a society. We need to look into that mirror, and I believe theatre can be one of the best kinds to understand and become aware of the world that surrounds us.

“Lookingglass Alice” runs through August 1, 2010 at Water Tower Water Works at 821 N. Michigan Ave. in Chicago. To purchase tickets or for more information, visit here. For half-price Chicago theater tickets, visit our partner Goldstar. staff writer Alissa Norby

Staff Writer

© 2010 Alissa Norby,

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