Known for her sharp dialogue, cultural references and wit, Rachel Teagle’s latest effort, Alice in Wonderland – a most curious dream, continues that tradition while also reaching into new areas. The show has been delighting both adults and children at Serenbe Playhouse with its unique staging, humorous dialogue and entertaining story. In this Feature Q & A, Teagle gives readers a glimpse at the creative process for the production.
What inspired you to write a new version of Alice in Wonderland?
This was a script written specifically for the Serenbe production. After Ugly Duckling went so well, we were eager to work together again, and when Alice came on the table, I was very much on board. I think it fits in beautifully with our “Season of Dreams,” and serves as a really lovely introduction to the rest of the plays this season. In some ways, going to Serenbe is like going down a rabbit hole; as soon as you turn off of Atlanta Newnan Drive, you’re going into a whole different world.
What was the writing process like for this play?
Honestly, it was like pulling teeth. This is a story that’s notoriously difficult to adapt, because the book is structured against a traditional arc. It’s almost Beckettian – Alice goes into another world and has encounters with strange creatures simply because she is there, not because she’s driven to or has some overarching action behind her. It’s an integral part of Lewis Carroll’s rebellion against traditional children’s fiction. On paper, it’s a beautiful and engrossing journey, and I think that there’s a great deal of charm in simply wandering through Wonderland, but aimless wandering onstage is much less successful. So I had to find the heart of the story and give Alice a reason to journey through Wonderland.
Did you write the play knowing it would be performed outdoors?
Absolutely. One of the goals of Serenbe Playhouse is to be environmentally conscious, not just in reusing building materials and trying to leave a small footprint, but also in making the audience literally conscious of the environment. There’s something magical and primal about outdoor theater. It connects audiences to the root of the art, this play especially.
Is it different from the story that we are used to?
It’s very true to the spirit of the book, but it does diverge from the storyline a bit. The biggest divergence is the addition of the Players. This version of Alice is a play within a play that foregrounds the fact that you are watching these people make a show. The Players serve as narrators, as characters, as musicians, as scenery; you really get to enjoy watching them work. And in a way, all theater is self-conscious, I don’t know that we ever fully forget that we are watching a play, but by bringing the actors to the forefront, I think it also allows the audience to engage their imagination and be complicit in the act of creating Wonderland.
Did you have a theme or message that you wanted to get across in the story?
For me, this is a story about imagination, and the power and solace we can find inside our own heads. I think that as children we are very fluent in the language of nonsense. But, as we grow up and enter the “real world,”we get out of practice. I think we need to keep in touch with our own sense of wonder and the ridiculous, because there’s something powerful in being able to laugh.
Do you have a favorite moment in the play?
As a writer, and a literary nerd, I am especially proud of our Robert Frost moment. Lewis Carroll uses a lot of poetry throughout his work, and most of which are parodies of contemporary children’s verses, most of which were very strictly moralistic. This is largely lost on modern audiences. I certainly had no idea until I began researching for this play, and I think there’s a lovely sort of justice in more people knowing “‘Tis the voice of the Lobster” than “‘Tis the Voice of the Sluggard.” Because I think this anarchy of nonsense is so crucial to the original text, I sought to translate it in a way our audiences would understand. So, I played Lewis Carroll with a poem that we would be familiar with in the hopes of recreating a Victorian audience’s reaction to the original book. So, that’s my favorite moment as a writer. As an audience member the first night, the entrance of Alice almost made me cry in the best way possible. Watching the show come together in front of me was definitely my favorite moment.
How was the area for the staging of the production chosen?
The forest glen area was a space we had used before for my solo show Rachel Teagle Believes in Ghosts, and it worked so well (seriously, look at how beautiful these photos turned out – http://www.serenbeplayhouse.com/about-serenbe-playhouse/photo-gallery?album=1&gallery=3) we decided to use it again. It’s almost a natural amphitheater, and the hills behind the playing space provide a really beautiful elegant background. You really feel like you’re in the middle of somewhere enchanted instead of a five-minute walk from a cafe. We also had baby armadillos watching our dress rehearsal, which I don’t think you get with many other spaces.
What can audiences expect with the staging?
They shouldn’t expect plush red seats, or really even seats at all. It’s a festival style production, so audience members are encouraged to bring blankets and lawn chairs. There’s nothing like sitting on a blanket in the woods watching a play.
What are your impressions of the production?
Overall, I think it’s lovely and warm and weird and wonderful. I am so proud of the cast and crew and all they’ve accomplished. I’m extremely proud for our young heroine Skylar, who has held her own against some very talented young professionals, and of our hard-working intern company who inhabit their roles so beautifully. I’m especially pleased that Serenbe is giving their interns a chance to be in the spotlight and showcases their talents in such a big way.
The Ugly Duckling was very well received. What are your thoughts about the success of that production?
I was so blessed and pleased with the success of Ugly Duckling. Working with Brian Clowdus and Joanna Brooks has been a huge highlight of my career so far, and seeing the elements of beautiful modern dance in this larger than life setting come together with text I had written was positively transcendent. It was a wonderful experience, and a great step forward into the wider arts arena for me. But at the same time, it’s a little nerve-wracking to know that we have to live up to that. But that’s a wonderful problem to have, and I know that the team working on Alice is doing great work. We brought back Brandon MacWilliams who designed the beautiful Japanese-inspired costumes for Ugly Duckling, to work on Alice and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and his aesthetic is so strong that it elevates the work around it. The mask work in Alice is so interesting and so lovely and the actors use them so well that it makes you want to run home and grab the paper mache or poke holes in a paper plate and create something wonderful too. In terms of dialogue, Alice is a very different piece than Ugly Duckling, but I do think you’ll be able to tell that they come from the same brain. It’s sillier and punnier, and definite shares some of that trademark Rachel Teagle wit.
Are there any other thoughts you would like to mention about the play or the process of writing it?
When working on the script, I used a hardcover edition of Alice in Wonderland and Through the Lookingglass as a reference, and in the frontispiece my mom had written, “To Rachel on her Eighth Birthday With Love,” so this is a story that has been an integral part of my childhood, and I can only hope I’ve done it justice.
Alice in Wonderland runs through July 28, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream runs June 28 through July 15 at Serenbe Playhouse. For tickets and more information, please visit the theater’s website.