It’s amazing, really, how good, old-fashioned storytelling can conquer imaginations in a day ruled by Facebook and Twitter.
It makes people want to forgo cyber communication for at least a little while to talk face-to-face. Or, at least, to call a friend instead of texting.
“It makes you realize that when you say, 'Oh, I talked to him yesterday,’ I wasn’t really talking,” Jacob Miller said.
Miller plays the character Martin in the LSU Department of Theatre’s Mainstage production Shapeshifter. The play opens Wednesday, Sept. 21, in the Claude L. Shaver Theatre in the LSU Music and Dramatic Arts Building.
Its title, alone, stimulates the imagination, especially with Hollywood producing so many popular superhero and mutant series in recent years, among them The X Men and The Fantastic Four. Characters possessed super powers in these stories, which either caused or enabled them to change shape.
But the only super power working behind the scenes in this story is imagination.
Really, that’s one of the most powerful - and magical - ability possessed by anyone. And 12-year-old Midge has been blessed with an abundance of it.
Midge is Shapeshifter’s main character. She’s played by Emily Rodriguez, a senior theater major from Pineville. Miller also is a senior theater major from New Orleans.
“My character takes on a grandfather role to Midge,” Miller said. “He’s not her grandfather, but that’s the role he takes.”
“She’s 12, and she’s recently lost her mother,” Rodriguez said. “She’s going through a lot, and she starts telling these stories.”
The stories are contagious, drawing people in from every part of the Scottish village. That’s where playwright Laura Schellhardt set this story, Scotland’s Orkney Islands.
“She was always fascinated by the Selkie myths that originated in the Orkney Islands,” Joanna Battles said. “She loved the people and their strong tradition of storytelling.”
Battles is director of this production, which also has a sentimental element for her.
Schellhardt was a fellow student when Battles was working on her master of fine art degree in acting at the Brown/Trinity Consortium in Providence, R.I. Schellhardt was working on this play at the time.
“We read it in one of our classes, so I was a part of its incarnation,” Battles said. “She worked on it for about 10 years. The play haunted me, and I wanted to come back to it.”
Shapeshifter made its debut last year in Rhode Island. The LSU production will be the regional premiere for this story, which is set at the turn of the 19th century.
“There is no set time for its setting, but we chose the turn of the century, because there were less distractions at that time,” Battles said.
This is where the subject of computers, cyberspace and even video games comes up. Distractions are everywhere, and entertainment is readily available. Television even offers the extra dimension of 3-D to give its audiences a virtual reality experience.
If all of this was available during the time of the play, would a 12-year-old Midge really choose imagination over talking to her Facebook friends as a respite?
Again, Shapeshifter focuses on the people of the Orkney Islands, home to a strong, proud and resilient culture that forms close-knit ties to survive the harsh and unforgiving climate of the Northern Scottish Isles.
The folklore of the Selkie myths, as well as the Swan Maidens, are retold as Midge grieves the loss of her mother, weaving fantastical tales of women who shape-shift from seals to swans to dragons.
The story explores love, forgiveness and, ultimately, acceptance of that which cannot be shifted - the truth.
“Midge is the only child in the village,” Battles said. “All of the villagers are involved in her story.”
Now, this is where the true challenge enters the stage. Rodriguez is 21 years old, and she must revert not to her teen years but her pre-teen years in this story. Add to that a Scottish accent, and Rodriguez had her work cut out for her.
“When I auditioned, my accent was more British than it was Scottish,” Rodriguez said.
“I went to the audition to get some experience in auditioning,” Rodriguez said. “I thought I would get some feedback that would help me.”
She ended up landing the leading role.
“I was excited,” Rodriguez said. “Initially, I didn’t connect with a 12-year-old, but I started trying to see the story from a 12-year-old’s point of view. This is what’s great about this story, because you’ll see it from the perspective of each character.”
One of which will be Miller’s character, Martin.
Now, his challenge is opposite that of Rodriguez’s. He is playing someone who is at least 20 years older than himself, but that hasn’t been too much of a problem. Miller has played older characters in other LSU Theatre productions, and Scottish dialect seemed to be second nature to him.
“I’ve always liked speaking in other dialects,” Miller said. “The Scottish dialect is one that I’ve practiced, so I was used to speaking in it.”
But the true stars of this play are those found in the stories told by its characters, stories that will appeal to children, as well as adults.
There’s nothing scary in this play. There’s no foul language, either. Listening to the stories as they’re told on stage is almost like listening to a book read aloud.
And there’s nothing in the world like having someone read a book to you, because it’s your imagination that forms the pictures, placing you in another place and time.
As a result, the characters’ experiences become part of your own. No three-dimensional cinematic image can top this.
Midge’s story unfolds in the midst of these shape-shifting tales. Yes, she is grieving and must come to terms with this. But this, too, is part of the experience.
“This is a play that parents can bring their children to, and I hope they do,” Battles said.
“It’s the story about Midge and this village, and it’s a story about storytelling. But it’s also a story about how we used to communicate, how we used to talk to each other.”
This might inspire audience members to visit in person instead of communing on Facebook, and to call instead of texting.