Fall Down the Rabbit Hole at Shaw’s Alice in Wonderland

Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”

This recognizable quote by Lewis Carroll from the classic storybook Alice in Wonderland are words that Shaw Festival Director, Peter Hinton, doesn’t shy away from. His motivation and flair for thinking outside the box are what sets his productions apart from the mainstream.  As Hinton’s productions create a definite buzz, his 2016 adaptation of Alice in Wonderland, is bound to launch him into an elite category of Canadian directing, playwright, and dramaturg.

The idea for the production of Alice in Wonderland started with a conversation between Hinton and Shaw Festival Artistic Director, Jackie Maxwell. “We were talking about plays that young people and adults could enjoy equally. One of the most read, translated, and influential books of all time is Alice in Wonderland,” states Hinton. “It would have intrigued Bernard Shaw too,” adds Hinton.

The Shaw Festival Theatre, located in Niagara-on-the-Lake, is named after Irish playwright, George Bernard Shaw, and produces plays from and written about his era. Shaw wrote more than 60 plays in his lifetime, 1856-1950. With four different theatres: Festival Theatre, Courthouse Theatre, Royal George Theatre, and Studio Theatre, The Shaw Festival is the second largest repertoire theatre in North America.

Intrigued with the story of Alice as it looks at society from a child’s point of view, Hinton was eager to adapt Alice for the stage. “Wonderland is a story that children continue to love today. For me it is a great work of literature, a great story about growing up. Sometimes children have very simple questions in an adult complicated world,” says Hinton.

Alice in Wonderland has a broad appeal as it also speaks to an adult audience. “Any adult that were to read it now would be utterly engaged,” explains Hinton. “Wonderland is an allegory for adults. Alice is a story that asks the question ‘Who am I?’” states Hinton. “The question ‘Who am I?’ is in every great classic play like Hamlet and Hedda Gabbler.”

Hinton also contemplates the impact the story has had on society in general. “How many times have we used the expression, ‘I really went down the rabbit hole?’” asks Hinton.

Although Hinton has adapted other plays, novels, and short stories, Alice in Wonderland presented a few challenges. “As a director, one challenge was to make it equal to what people imagine when they read the book,” states Hinton. “Everyone has a picture of the Mad Hatter in their head and some will come to the theatre with a notion of the original illustrations from 150 years ago.” Despite any kind of hesitation, Hinton was confident that his ideas could be realized by the staff and actors at the Shaw Festival. “I knew I could adapt Alice because I had people skilled in the manners of the time.”

Hinton has an incredible team behind him consisting of 21 actors, 67 crew members, and three managers. “A huge assembly of people have helped make Alice come to life,” adds Hinton. “It is a live show with 19 songs. It has the scale of a musical and the precision of a play. It is fantastic it has a component of mystery throughout the performance,” explains Hinton.

With costumes that start as a pattern out of large brown paper and turn into spectacular works of art, Alice in Wonderland has six different teams of tailors working diligently to fit each actor into their custom-made costumes. From start to finish, each costume takes between 100 to 150 hours to construct. “All the costume designs reference the Victorian era,” states Sydney Cavanagh, Head of Wardrobe for the production and former Assistant Head of Wardrobe for the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics.

Walk through the wardrobe department on any given day and you will be delighted to see the magic of Alice come to fruition. From a green lizard’s head made out of a bowler hat to hand made feathers on a bird’s costume, every detail of each costume is exquisitely thought out and executed. Audience goers will be treated to the best that costume and design has to offer as this production pushes the boundaries of costume design. All the face cards in the Queen of Hearts Army first had the top of their costumes tailored and then the upper torso of the actors in costume were professionally photographed. Next, their picture was printed onto fabric and sewn to the bottom of the costume creating an exact reflection of themselves. “When projected onto the backdrop it will look like thousands of face cards,” explains Cavanagh.

“With Alice so many things had to be invented. They didn’t come from the props department,” says Hinton.

Hinton has embraced technology in the theatre and in recent years found creative ways to incorporate it into his productions. The technology witnessed in last year’s productions of Pygmalion and Touch the Sky were on a much smaller and complementary scale when compared to the technology needed to make Alice in Wonderland come to life. “With Alice,  we have characters that are all projection,” explains Hinton. “Alice has to grow, she has to swim in a pool of her tears, there are mythical creatures, and an entire deck of cards has to come to life.” With this many facets to consider, it is no surprise that the design of Alice in Wonderland has been years in the making.

A commitment to striving for excellence is where Hinton and his team shine as they have found the perfect match between modern technology and good old fashioned theatre acting and costume design.

Hinton’s impressive career has taken him across Canada and since 2012, he has found a home among the local wine and talent in Niagara-on-the-Lake. “My proudest moments have been my times here at the Shaw. The Festival is a true national treasure,” states Hinton.

From rehearsal rooms to prop and costume fittings, take a tour back stage and see the creativity and elbow grease that has gone into this year’s production of Alice in Wonderland. “It is unlike anything I have ever done before,” concludes Hinton as this is the first time a commissioned piece is taking the main stage at the Shaw Festival.

For Hinton and his team, the Shaw Festival’s production of Alice in Wonderland will truly be a trip “down the rabbit hole” as director Hinton explores new concepts in order to give his audience a surreal and delightful experience. The show runs until October 16th.

Written By: Jill Tham

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