Alice in Wonderland

Cynthia McCowan speaks to students in the cast of Alice in Wonderland, a student-directed children's theatre production, that will be performed at the Arts Center in Athens this April.

The Athens-based student directed production of Alice in Wonderland is exposing children to a more expansive view of the literary classic and community theatre.

Alice in Wonderland, directed by Arts Center Intern Jedidiah “Jedi” Gabel, marks the second student led children’s theatre production at the Arts Center.

Last spring, Gabel made Arts Center history by leading its first student directed production, The Jungle Book. This year, Gabel is helping his cast view the story of Alice in Wonderland and opportunities of the community art venue through a different looking glass, so to speak.

In the youth’s exploration of performing the play based on Lewis Caroll’s most notable novel, the cast, comprised entirely of children, is devoting some rehearsal time with a literary expert and theatre enthusiasts.

Already, the cast has been visited by a couple of guests, including Dr. Kerri Ann Considine, a lecturer, theatre history and dramatic literature professor at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. Considine also works as a professional dramaturg with Clarence Brown Theatre.

Arts Center Executive Director Lauren Shepherd explained how the theatre specialist became involved with helping the kids understand various literary elements of the story.

“When we decided to use a stage adaptation of Alice in Wonderland as the text for our second student-directed play, I suggested to Jedi that we invite a guest lecturer to talk with the cast about the literary work,” Shepherd said. “It’s a challenging text and Jedi and I agreed the young cast would benefit from a learned instructor talking with them about the story, the author and the themes.”

During one rehearsal, Considine spent about two and a half hours guiding the cast through a literary analysis of the text and provided supplemental materials to help them continue their process of character and plot development, according to Gabel.

“It was really good to have her there,” Gabel said, adding that Considine “got the kids involved in games and activities” to help them physically embrace the roles the story requires.

Her dedicated time and expertise, Gabel noted, was “wonderful since Alice is crazy in a great way – having her there helped us understand more about the story.”

Gabel said he believes involving others is important for the cast educationally, but also developmentally. For this reason, he coordinated additional guests so the child actors could learn from others who have been in their shoes.

Cynthia McCowan, an Arts Center participant, made her local theatre debut during To Kill a Mockingbird. Gabel said he was inspired by McCowan’s perspective that the theatre is more than just a venue.

“I thought she should share her experience and understanding of how they’re unique and for the kids to understand the Arts Center is not just for theatre or for the arts,” Gabel explained. “It’s a home where they can be safe in being themselves.”

For her part, McCowan expressed that she sought to help the students appreciate that their talent is a gift, as well as an opportunity to impact others.

“I wanted them to understand their gift of art is not theirs,” McCowan said. “That gift is to be given away to the audience. The gift is to inspire, to educate, to uplift that kind of joy to the audience.”

According to McCowan, she emphasized to the adolescents to maintain a spirit of humility and gratitude for their gifts. While her own granddaughter, eight-year-old Devin Arnwine, is in the production, McCowan said she was impressed with the interaction she received from the entire cast.

“What I enjoyed the most about speaking to them was how they responded so well,” McCowan noted. “I loved that they were interactive and were a part of it. That made me happy.”

The presence of adult speakers, Gabel said, is beneficial to the cast in numerous ways.

“Having other people come in from the outside gives them a boost of energy,” he said, adding that he “noticed when the kids were listening to these other people - it made them more excited.”

Additionally, the director explained that having theatre veterans participate also helps the youth understand more about theatre etiquette, as well as what makes the Arts Center unique.

Subsequently, Gabel spoke about looking at performing arts as a catalyst for personal development, noting that he has seen growth in many of the adolescents.

“Theatre is a really important tool to have,” he explained.

Since some are seasoned actors and others are rookies, he said he has witnessed some helping each other blossom and others coming out of their shells on their own.

As a whole, Gabel said through theatrics “many open up and grow up – become confident in themselves” which is “really wonderful to see” – since he said everyone has moments of struggling with self-confidence.

While Gabel is witnessing the growth of his cast members, the Arts Center executive director said she is “inspired” by his work ethic.

“I admire the young director for many reasons, not the least of them being how thoughtful he is in planning his rehearsal schedule,” Shepherd said. “He makes a point to enhance the experience of the young actors.”

The well-rounded experience that Gabel is helping participants cultivate is what makes his ambition more admirable, she said.

“He’s not just teaching them blocking and theatre basics, he is very intentional about inviting guest speakers to cover a range of subjects for character development to the important of community building,” said Shepherd.

Some of the cast members shared their perspectives about what they are enjoying about the play.

“I have done many productions in my life, but this is the first all student and student directed show I have acted in. To be a part of the creation that all of these kids are participating in is a pleasure and great opportunity,” said 16-year-old Emerson McKenzie. “Speaking as a girl who wants to spend the rest of my life doing this, I am grateful to be playing Alice in this youth production of Alice in Wonderland.”

Ace Church, an ensemble member, commented that Gabel explained to him and his fellow ensemble members that they are “very important” to the production.

“I love the Arts Center and what Jedi is doing,” 12-year-old Church said. “It makes me feel welcome and wanting me to come back for more.”

For eight-year-old Isaac Griffin, playing the role of Frog Footman, Alice is his first play.

“I am so excited to be a part of this play,” he said. “I’m also glad that I love acting.”

Ella Locke, age 14, spoke about the environment.

“This is only my second production at the Arts Center, but it already feels like home. The directors and actors you meet here are extremely talented,” Locke said. “The opportunities you receive are insane. Even though I haven’t been involved in theatre long, I somehow got a noticeable part, the Mad Hatter. It has been a wonderful way to work on my skills. The Arts Center is a safe place.”

The group’s next keynote speaker will be Jason Carusillo, another veteran of the Arts Center. According to Gabel, Carusillo will speak about his experiences in community theatre, especially highlighting how the relationship between a director and cast contributes to developing characterization.

Alice in Wonderland has a cast of 32 children, but including offstage contributors, there are 36 total children currently shaping the piece.

A two-act play, Alice in Wonderland was dramatized by Brainerd Duffield. Public performances will occur Friday, April 5 and April 12 at 7 p.m.; Saturday, April 6 and April 13 at 7 p.m.; and Sunday, April 7 and April 14 at 2 p.m.

Tickets are $15 for adults and $10 for students. Tickets may be purchased online at www.athensartscouncil.org/events/alice-in-wonderland/ or in person at the Arts Center, located at 320 N. White Street in Athens.

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