ACADEMY AWARD-nominated actress Diana Scarwid and all-around local theatre talent Rene Rossett have teamed up to bring Tybee Island what is likely to be one of the most original and ambitious community productions seen in the area for years.
Using their own adaptation of Lewis Carrolls immortal Alice in Wonderland, Rossett and Scarwid will stage the classic in the round -- more or less -- on center court of the brand-new Tybee Gymnasium this weekend and the following.
With a cast of 47 actors, a host of fanciful costumes and special effects galore, this Alice would be difficult for even a professional company to stage.
But consider that this is community theatre -- an entity that, like another famous young girl from literature, is dependent on the kindness of strangers -- and the thing is even more daunting.
Connect caught up with co-directors Rossett and Scarwid the week before opening, and all seemed -- remarkably -- to be going according to plan.
Rossett multitasks with aplomb, answering interview questions, subbing for absent actors, prompting actors on forgotten lines and yelling out blocking direction -- all virtually simultaneously, and all with a smile.
Scarwid -- a Savannah native nominated for an Oscar for her work in Inside Moves and an Emmy for her portrayal of the presidents wife in HBOs Truman -- is the Jedi Knight of the pair. Choosing her words and actions carefully, Scarwid focuses on craft and deals with the cast primarily as individuals.
Go home and work on your vowels, she coaches the actors as rehearsal wraps up. The vowels are what carry out into the audience. We dont want the audience to have to work to hear you. We do all the work for them -- thats our gift to the audience.
Its not exactly a good-cop/ bad-cop routine, but the subtle contrast in styles enables Rossett and Scarwid to coax an amount of cohesion out of the cast and crew that belies the productions amateur nature.
Following is our interview with Rossett, Scarwid, set designer extraordinaire Richard Adams and the actress portraying Alice herself, twelve-year-old Glory Padgett.
Connect Savannah: Why Alice? Why now?
Rene Rossett: Its always been my dream to do it and do it right. And Ive always been an avid fan of Lewis Carroll and his work. Its a great play for children and families. Adults really like it, too.
Diana Scarwid: Its a true classic in that it goes beyond, it goes to the core. Its
attractive to kids of all ages -- its a real land of wonder. You know, where is that four-year-old we all once were? Can we as adults cross that threshold and carry that innocence with us?
Richard Adams: There are very few things that are written in such a way that adults and children will enjoy it equally. Also, its the perfect play for Savannah
and Tybee. It just fits. There are so many characters.
Connect Savannah: But this is no ordinary community theatre production.
Rene Rossett: If it hadnt been for the generosity of a whole lot of people this wouldnt be happening. We went to the Tybee Arts Association and told them wed need financing. Everybody from the YMCA to the City Council has just been so supportive.
Richard Adams: For community theatre this is a huge, huge undertaking. It simply would not have been possible if not for the community support weve gotten. A lot, and I mean a lot of professionals have helped out by contributing their advice and expertise. Angela Beasley has said shes basically at our beck and call for this whole thing, whatever of her costumes or puppets we might need.
Connect Savannah: Youre doing some really unique things here staging-wise -- beginning with performing in the round in a gym.
Diana Scarwid: These days people live in a box, they go to work in an office building thats a box, then they go home to their box of a house and watch the TV box.
Rene Rossett: There are all these different levels going on. For instance, the caterpillar is on a hydraulic lift. We were going to have the big tree in the middle of the set open up and play the scene in there, but at that point theyre supposed to be only three inches high, so we went with the lift instead.
The lighting is different from any show Ive seen, because weve got so much interaction out in the audience. And because there are no curtains we have tree people doing the scene changes. Theyre dressed in the same fabric as the trees on the set, and they have lights on them so they can move things on and off the set between scenes.
There are a lot of live animals in the show. I guess thats the old animal wrangler in me coming out. Were going to have a cat, a hedgehog, a baby pig. After the show well have a petting area for the children to pet the animals.
Weve going to have a 20-foot video screen in one corner, thats going to show two video sequences. First when Alice goes down the rabbit hole, and then after the Cheshire Cat scene, theres a video sequence when the
caterpillar turns into a butterfly. That was all done for us by a video company in Atlanta who donated their services.
Connect Savannah: Allison Greer, who plays the Cheshire Cat, has been very coy with me about how shes going to manage all that disappearing and reappearing.
Rene Rossett: Oh, shes going to be up in a tree about ten feet off the ground. Her costume has black light stripes, so when you first see her its just the stripes.
Connect Savannah: What text are you using?
Rene Rossett: We actually wrote our own adaptation. We looked at a lot of other scripts, but it seemed like they were all either too elementary or just
inane. Some of them were a compilation of both Alice in Wonderland and
Through the Looking Glass, which we didnt want to do. So we sat down
and decided to write our own.
Diana Scarwid: We watched a few film versions also. In some British version the Queen of Hearts was just shrieking.
It was horrible. She must have run off 18 boom operators who just couldnt take it anymore and walked off the show.
Rene Rossett: She made me turn it off.
Diana Scarwid: Anytime you take something from a book you have to do something to make it visual. The audience has to extrapolate. They have to use -- what do they call that -- the suspension of disbelief.
Connect Savannah: The willing suspension of disbelief.
Diana Scarwid: Yes! The willing suspension of disbelief. There are certain liberties taken, for example, you have to imagine when theyre shrinking and growing. The theatre is a safe place to purge. We really need that the way the world is now. Society tells us to repress, repress. Where do people put that confusion, when theres no education and no emotion? You get everyone screaming at everyone behind closed doors. Thats the basis of evil and war.
Connect Savannah: The cast is huge. Tell me about auditions.
Rene Rossett: Well, it was the most different type of audition that Ive ever heard of. Instead of having them read from the script, Diana wrote a monologue for each character to perform. She was writing them for days.
We had a lot of people show up. We were really surprised. On one night there just happened to be one of the biggest storms of the year come through. But still a lot of people showed up.
Diana Scarwid: We pretty much figured that whoever showed up on a night like that would end up being our core. And they are.
Rene Rossett: We had them take the monologues home and gave them time to look them over. We preferred to call it an audition process.
Diana Scarwid: Ive been on thousands of job interviews, and cold readings are always really challenging for any actor. You dont get a feel for how a person will really be in a role from something like that.
Connect Savannah: Glory, how have you prepared for the role of Alice?
Glory Padgett: Im very much playing her like a girl that most of the adults around her look down on. Now that shes come into this other world, she doesnt have to be looked down on anymore. Now shes in her own little world where she can be who she wants to be.
Connect Savannah: Would you have been happy with any role or was your heart set on playing Alice?
Glory Padgett: I would have been happy with anything. When I tried out for it, I didnt think anyone else would be auditioning. But as it turned out just about every person I knew was trying out for Alice, all my friends.
Its been weird -- when I do shows in town the cast is almost all children. Here, the cast is almost all adults. So Im the main character with all these adults. It gets confusing.
Diana Scarwid: Its really an incredible thing these days -- just to get this many older people and this many younger people in the same place, right here, right now. Its a holy thing, really, to be able to touch massive amounts of people at the same time. You offer your own unique self to them in a safe place. Like I tell the actors, this will come and this will go. Its all about what we leave in our wake.
Connect Savannah: Diana, what prompted you to get involved in this?
Diana Scarwid: From so many years of doing movie work I started to feel this disconnect. In the movies you sit in your trailer, go to make-up, then go to the set and the directors got the camera all set up. And youre like, oh, so this is the kitchen Ill be in today. Ive been missing
being with other human beings. I really appreciate that tangibility.
People are so used to thinking that art is just something you see on a screen, but its in ourselves. It can be in a book or in a simple act of kindness. I like to just drive down the street and wave consciously to other people. And they always wave back. They want to initiate it but they just cant.
That kind of thing does have power and it does go out in the universe. The power of one really is incredible. Do I need a stage or an audience to make that connection?
Gandhi said it best himself: You must be the change you want to see in the world.
The Tybee Arts Association and the City of Tybee Island present Alice in Wonderland at 8 p.m. July 8-10 and July 15-17, with 3 p.m. matinees on July 11 and 18. Tickets are $18 adults and $12 for children under 18. Advance tickets are available at your local YMCA or online at www.tybeearts.com
Other cast members include Kelsey Chandler as Emily, Alison Greer as the Cheshire Cat, Capt. Bob Eccles as the Dormouse, Rod McAdams as the Mad Hatter, Mickey Dodge and Grace Diaz-Tootle as the Duchess, Johnny Walgate as the March Hare, Virgil Moore as the Gryphon, Bob Riddle as the King of Hearts, Ritajane Eicholzer as the Queen of Hearts, Baxter Palmer as the Hedgehog, Stan Hedgecorth as the Walrus, Barry Finch as the Caterpillar and Ivy Deason as the Lobster.