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Savage or Sane: Katrina Still Ravages

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Dallas TX resident and internationally accomplished theatre director Catherine Hopkins has never stepped back from a major challenge. She’s currently directing a unique stage adaptation of the provocative novel Lord of the Flies, set in post-Katrina New Orleans, opening this weekend at the Bath House Cultural Center at White Rock Lake, geared to audiences age thirteen and up. With the support of Dallas Children’s Theatre, Risk Theatre Initiative and the Office of Cultural Affairs and the Bath House, it promises to be an outstanding production as well as a memorable cultural experience for all who attend. The cast includes Will Altabef, M. Graeme Bice, Dave Burford, Dante Flores, Christopher Harshaw, Zachary Josse, Travis Messersmith, Kyle Mason, Dakota Nolan, Chance Jonas O°¶Toole, Ian Stack and Trey Trevino; the young cast members range in age from ten to seventeen.

Hopkins is co-artistic director and co-founder of Public Works Theatre Company, created in London in 2005, now based in Dallas. Inspired by new writing and challenging, contemporary adaptations of classic theatre and literature, its mission is to make theatre relevant to Dallas’ youth audiences. The company plans to work in partnership on youth outreach projects with Risk Theatre Initiative; their next project together is a new adaptation of Ibsen’s "A Doll's House", slated for production at the Festival of Independent Theatres later this year.
A former assistant editor at the Washington Post, Hopkins is a successful playwright and energetic, inspired director. Since 1998, she has directed and developed over forty plays and adaptations, for both adults and youth. Besides her own work, she has directed plays by the award-winning UK playwrights Ron Hart and Richard Goodwin, and among others, directed for the New Plays Festival at Soho Theatre and the Lyric Studio Theatre, both in London°¶s West End as well as for a range of public and educational companies in Panama.

I caught up to Catherine in between her rehearsals and production meetings and found the genesis of her production fascinating.
What brought you to Dallas?
My husband, a Dallas Morning News journalist, learned that the newspaper was closing the London Bureau and that we were headed
home. I had grown up in Dallas and went to Skyline High School so I was very excited about bringing this kind of work to young audiences who I believe could benefit the most. We arrived in Dallas in August 2006.
What drew you to this play?
I was working in London with a group of low-income, refugee children ages 12-17 teaching theatre workshops and life skills in 2005-2006. I already had great interest in developing adaptations of classic literature and theatre for young, disenfranchised audiences. Compelled by what I was seeing among the English students I was teaching in terms of bullying and violent power struggles in the schools, I found myself drawn to reread William Golding’s Lord of the Flies and discovered that a faithful stage adaptation had already been developed in the late 1990°¶s for the Royal Shakespeare Company by Nigel Williams, one of the finest adaptors and playwrights in the UK. His is still the only authorized stage version.
Did author Golding approve of this adaptation?
Before he died, Golding saw one early performance of the script, tested out initially on a boy°¶s school before being staged professionally. He apparently was deeply affected by meeting the young actors and seeing a live performance of the graphically depicted story. Honestly, it is one of the best scripts I have ever worked with.
Who is the audience for the play?
We are recommending this play for all audiences thirteen and up. For those unfamiliar with the novel, some of the play°¶s action upsets really young children. We have one of the best fight directors in Dallas Eric Domuret, who choreographed °ßThe Miracle Worker°® at Dallas Children’s Theatre, and he done as amazing job with our young actors.
How did you find a way to produce the play here?
All my ideas started coming at once when I saw the news reports after Katrina hit; the looting in New Orleans and the lawlessness were particularly horrifying. Friends and family in Louisiana emailed me about the conditions and their own roles in helping families and children get resettled. So I started developing a funding proposal directed to the UK Arts Council. A few days after we moved to Dallas, I took my project proposal to Robyn Flatt at Dallas Children’s Theatre. She agreed to support me in an initial staged reading, in April 2007, a great success.
Due to scheduling and funding timelines she was unable to guarantee a space for a main stage production for eighteen months. Meanwhile, thanks to the support of the Office of Cultural Affairs and the Bath House Cultural Center, we had an opportunity to open the show in January 2008. This meant we could keep many of the original cast members. So we asked Robyn for her blessing to move it to the Bath House and partnered with Risk Theatre Initiative, which is co-producing it and has been our true guardian angel. It was important to me and to everyone involved that this project remain timely and that Katrina not be too distant a memory for our young audiences.
Does it present particular challenges in production, and how have you dealt with them?
Along with the lack of resources, there has another significant challenge with this production. We are bound by copyright not to alter a single word of the play. For example, the novel is set on an unnamed desert island and there are many references to the island, the jungle and the beach setting. I think we have successfully resolved many of the staging and effects issues, however, audiences should not expect specific reference to New Orleans any more than Shakespeare refers to Iraq when his plays are set in contemporary landscapes.
How will this production appeal to Dallas audiences?
I think our production will definitely strike an important nerve with Dallas audiences. Even at the staged reading in April at DCT, where we used slide projections and very minimal sound design, the Katrina aspect really seemed to impact the audience profoundly.
What was the audition process like?
We had a very strong response with the open audition call. We ended up auditioning and recasting five of our original actors from the DCT staged readings. However, two of the actors had grown several inches and are now playing different roles! All of our cast members have enviable and extensive stage experience. Most are veterans of Dallas Children°¶s Theatre, Dallas Theatre Center and Shakespeare Dallas productions and the FIT festival. We interviewed them all thoroughly and they were asked to perform monologues and cold readings of the script as individuals and then perform in a group environment. Two actors actually auditioned while we were already in the rehearsal process. We threw them in the deep end much in the same way the characters first meet in the play and watched the other actors and how they responded.
How have you handled the life and death issues of the play?
At the DCT in April, we really worked hard to make sure the °•deaths°¶ were not going to be too hard for these kids to handle. We talked extensively about Katrina and the effects of the storm. We also talked about their environments at school and the other students who bother them. What they witness, what injustice they act on or choose not to act on. We talked about social exclusion and power and violence. The actor who plays °ßSimon°®I was most worried about since he is a very gentle boy by nature.
What has been your rehearsal process?
The rehearsal process has been very carefully managed, and we
role-play a great deal. We work in the dark a lot with flashlights. We try and create real environments for the storm and then we stop and check in with each other every so often. This cast is particularly extraordinary in the way it supports one another. Assistant director Julie Bice, who has been with the project since February 2007 and was instrumental in helping develop the readings at DCT, and I have worked hard to get to know the children really well as people. I think the friendships forged in this experience are going to last for a long, long time.
Who makes up your set/lights/sound/costume design team?
Our award-winning designers include Tom Parr IV (set design), who is also a Producing Director at Risk Theatre Initiative. Russell Dyer (lighting) has extensive credits region-wide and at the Bath House venue. Floyd Kearns-Simmons (his last project was °ß The Snow Queen°®for Undermain Theatre) is our sound designer and has composed some amazingly fresh, original compositions.
Have you had funding challenges?
Although the funding issues have been difficult, we felt it was more important to move forward with very, very few resources in 2008 and reach an audience that could really remember and connect the current events rather than wait for a fully funded project in 2009 or even 2010, which would be too late for many currently in the 11-17 age group.  
What one main thing do you hope an audience will take away from seeing this show?
Our ultimate aim is raise social and cultural awareness for the youngest victims of Katrina and show how quickly society can unravel and give way to the savagery of human nature.  Without better education in conflict resolution and a stronger community and government response to what is currently a very desperate situation for many students, we can°¶t hope to help the thousands of socially excluded and victimized children currently in our Dallas area schools.

This Royal Shakepeare Company stage adaptation of the award-winning book, The Lord of the Flies, by William Golding, will be  performed by young Dallas actors January 9-26, 2008 at the Bath  House Cultural Center near White Rock Lake, 512 East Lawther  Drive (at Northcliff and Garland Roads) in Dallas TX. PublicWorks Theatre Company & Risk Theatre Initiative (in association with The Dallas Children's Theater) co-present the definitive adaptation by Nigel Williams of the novel, this time set in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.  Eleven schoolboys are stranded and left to fend for themselves, young survivors in a precarious new world-under the pressures of raw nature. The play's theme of conflict resolution in the face   of natural disaster provides a powerful and relevant issue for Dallas area teens.
Recommended for audiences 13 and over.
 Tickets are $15 adults, $10 students/seniors and group discounts.   
Call 214-774-7242 to reserve tickets. Performances are 7:30 pm   Wednesday & Thursday, 8:00 pm Friday and Saturday.
The pay-what-you- can performance on Wednesday January 9 will benefit Ya/Ya Teen Project in New Orleans. In 2002, YA/YA was a guest on The Oprah Winfrey Show as a recipient of the Angel Network "Use Your Life Award."
See www.publicworksdallas.org for more information.

Alexandra Bonifield, arts advocate, critic and journalist
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Freelance writer, arts advocate and NEA Fellow in theatre criticism, progressive activist and independent blue-stocking, loves Guinness and strong coffee, early sunrise in the Sierras, most 4-leggeds; will work and pray for Sustainability & Peace....
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