SA: The department had decided that they wanted to do The Hobbit as part of their season and then I was approached to see if I was interested in directing it. I made a presentation of how I wanted to do it and they accepted that presentation.
Part of my issue was that the translation or adaptation they were using was written for a children's theatre in Manitoba in 1999. I felt we had to update it and become a little darker and serious in our approach because I think that the audience in 1999 is different from the audience now, especially for young people.
People now are watching video games, they're avatars in live stuff on video , and they've all watched Lord of the Rings 37 times and know it inside out and they're all mildly crazy about the idea of the Hobbit movie in two years, so I needed to have something that had more weight and depth to it. That was my biggest problem and I think we conquered that: we approached it with a style that will be entertaining to kids but it will also be entertaining for adults.
tV: What were some of the biggest challenges you faced with this production?
SA: I think the biggest challenge was that, endemic to the story, we have fantastical items like Smaug the dragon, and we have trolls and goblins, and even in the script Gandolf take his staff and blows up a goblin king and the eagles come and fly them all away.
In the adaptation one of the central characters had little figurines that she lifted out of her pocket: those were the eagles. I just looked at that and thought that was really children's theatre and very lame. We had to come up with great ideas on how to do flying and create smog and so I've taken a core group of twelve actors here at the theatre and and we worked them from the physical side.
They're what we call the Kuroko group. In Japanese theatre the Kuroko are basically the stage managers. They're on stage, they all wear the same color gray, they exist and they don't exist.
If a lead character needs an umbrella or a fan they give it to them. The convention is they don't exist or in our same convention here they create all of those characters and lots of other things. They double as extra dwarves, elves in one scene, goblins in another.
They're completely blacked out: we never see their faces, they're anonymous. That was our biggest challenge.
There's a Japanese sensibility to the whole show. When you look at it I'd probably have to point it out to you, but there's a lot of Japanese influence in the style of the way we built the set, and what it looks like, and the costumes and the appliques of the materials, and we've used that as a sensibility as an underlying theme through the design.
Also from a technical point of view building a stage in the theatre, in the house, right around where the audience is sitting. I wanted this journey play, which is what this is (Bilbo Baggins and the dwarves go on a journey to get their treasure back), to come off of the stage and spill into the audience.
There's a huge stage in the middle of the theatre and the troll scene takes place there, the Gollum scene takes place there, there are lots of scenes that take place there.
In The Hobbit a group of thirteen dwarves come with Gandolf the wizard to find Bilbo (the hobbit) because he is the missing element that they need use to go and steal the jewels and get rind of Smaug the dragon. That's the basic premiss of the story only in this adaptation there are five dwarves.
tV: Was there anything that took you in a direction that you didn't expect?
SA: When you're dealing with students who are all from twenty to twenty-four, except for one student who is a bit older, you have a cast who are to portray characters like Gandolf, who is supposed to be 150. I'm obviously not going to have an adult play Gandolf: I have a twenty year old guy.
I've had to adjust our thinking regarding those kinds of things. That was one of the surprises: having to find a younger more vital way of doing it.
Also, because it's students I decided that lots of parts would be played by women, playing men. Half of the dwarves are women and all of the elves are women. In their development as actors they've had to find everything masculine about themselves. That has been a really interesting surprise. Gollum is played by a woman. It's been an interesting surprise, how the shifts in the play go in that direction.
I'm sure there'll be more surprises once we get into technical rehearsal.
tV: Well that also is very Japanese: for women playing the roles of men.
SA: Yes, and it isn't an issue. It's not like there's a sexuality about them. Even to the point where I had the costume department to make codpieces for the women so they would understand that they couldn't sit in certain ways and that they had to walk in different ways because they were now equipped as men.
tV: How have they adjusted?
SA: They adjusted. The women loved it. Of course they loved it! They laughed and laughed and laughed until they couldn't stand up when they first put them on. Now they're used to them.
tV: The set is quite elaborate. How long has it taken to put it all together?
SA: They've been putting it together for a coupe of weeks. It's had its first coat of paint and the painters will come in as we're working through and start to do all the fine detail. The same for the stage in the centre.
We talked about all of the issues we wanted to deal with and it's a huge piece of machinery now. There are pieces missing right now: on the tower stage right, which is the audience's left, there's a cargo net that extends down and touches the floor quite like an obstacle course would look. We use that for the spider web and all different kinds of things as well.
The whole concept when I first started to discuss it with the designer was, let's just take a jungle-jim/obstacle course and see if we can develop it into a set. This is what we've ended up with.
There are two remarkable entities as well. Kevin Michael Cripps, who is part of the department here at Capilano University, has written an entire score for the play: ala a film score. He came to the rehearsals right from the beginning and he would watch rehearsal and he would go away and write music. The entire play, other than I think two small scenes, has a complete music score that the actors have to work with.
There are projections as well. We use a lot of video projections that will actually move and show movement, that are quite remarkable as well.
tV: You mentioned that you adapted it from a children's version to a more adult version. Was there any messaging added?
SA: No, I think what we did was... first of all in Kim Selodys adaptation the trolls speak with an English accent and there are a lot of English references and there are a lot of really cute things. I went back and re-read the book and started to think about all of the ways of darkening the piece.
I think it's in the content in the sense that I think that Bilbo at first begins his trust of Gandolf and the dwarves because they're all older of him and they're adults and he's a young man. He goes on this journey with them and he trusts them and he thinks to trust those people he believes should be trust-worthy like the elves etc..
He doesn't trust, of course, trolls or goblins or anybody like that but then as the journey progresses he begins to understand that they all have other motives and agendas. He suddenly realizes that he has to take control of his own life and become his own deciding factor in what he does: his own moral compass.
I said to the students when we started the play, “I want you to think about when you all first came here to Capilano University and you were all excited about going on a journey through this experience.”
Going to the theatre school and doing all of that, and then after six months of eating KD (Kraft Dinner) and not getting any sleep, you suddenly think, “Am I doing the right thing? Is this really right?” That growth factor. Then suddenly you come out after three years and go, “I know I made the right decision but it's because I got involved in my own life”. That's the journey of this play. It's just like what they're doing here at school.