GTA’s WonderQuest presents a modern take on The Ugly Duckling

Get your ducks in a row and waddle on down to see The Ugly Duckling presented by Gainesville Theatre Alliance’s WonderQuest. In this original play, a misfit duckling leaves the nest in search of adventure, family, and his own identity. The new script has its world premiere, Friday, Sep. 27 at 7:30 pm in Brenau University’s historic Pearce Auditorium, 200 Boulevard NE, Gainesville.

WonderQuest is the annual Theatre for Young Audiences offering of Gainesville Theatre Alliance, and a recipient of the Southeastern Theatre Conference’s Sara Spencer Award for Excellence in Child Drama. Gainesville Theatre Alliance is a nationally acclaimed collaboration of the University of North Georgia and Brenau University, theatre professionals and the North Georgia community.

A new one-act play for young audiences, The Ugly Duckling is inspired by the Hans Christian Anderson story of the same name. Playwright and WonderQuest Director Gay H. Hammond, whose fairy tale rewrites include The Little Mermaid, The Princess and the Frog, and Sleeping Beauty, is no stranger to adaptations. “Interestingly, most of our memories of the message of The Ugly Duckling differ from the original tale,” says Hammond. “The story has an unacceptable amount of cruelty depicted. I wanted to create a new version that illuminated what we remember of the original: that we should be kind to those who are different, rather than judgmental, and that we all grow into that which we must be.” Relentless in her storytelling quest, Hammond transformed this tale into a hope-filled adventure through the dazzling, often dangerous world of the pond, following the “ugly” Duckling-Dear as he searches for a home. Along the way, he encounters a host of hilarious characters, including prim and proper herons, cunning and cowardly mice, and lithe and lovely swans.

Although the actors are playing animals, Hammond, who is also directing the production, insists on their staying grounding in humanity. “Watching actors free themselves of ‘human’ expectations in their movement and voice, while still seeking to anchor the characters in ‘human’ connection is wonderful,” says Hammond. William Venson, a sophomore GTA student, is cast in the role of Duckling-Dear. “The most challenging part about playing an animal,” Venson says, “is getting down specific movements and understanding how the animal you are playing actually moves in their everyday life.”

Assistant costume designer and senior GTA student, Kai Delap approaches the puzzle of humans-as-animals with pride. “[The challenges] are having the characters look like animals without being creepy to the kids,” Delap says. “To get around that, we wanted to ‘suggest’ animalism, rather than direct realism. But that comes with its own set of challenges, like, how human can we make the actors look without losing character?” None of the actors will be in fursuits; instead, Hammond and the design team have chosen a distinctly Regency [era England] aesthetic for their costumes. Hammond explains, “We took Regency as a jumping-off point because of its excellent ‘storybook’ visual qualities, as evidenced by the work of beloved illustrator, Kate Greenaway. We found that many of the elements of status (ducks are not so elegant as swans, for instance) and silhouette were clarified through the Regency setting. At the same time, other characters (Molly Mouse and Mama Duck, for example) were able to borrow from earlier and earthier periods like the Georgian or even rather Baroque (Mandarin Duck).”

Set designer and GTA alum, Celeste Morris chose to stick with a watercolor aesthetic, softening an intricate design of moving set pieces, to add to this storybook-come-to-life feel. Hammond says, “Moving set pieces are always challenging, and this show has quite a few. However, because our concept involves the characters themselves being engaged in reshaping their environment, our creative challenges add to the success of the production.” To create seamless transitions between scenes, the actors will be moving the set pieces as life on the pond progresses.

With a rehearsal period of roughly three weeks, the production team is scurrying to make magic happen on stage. “TYA (Theatre for Young Audiences) as a form is usually highly-energized, with a lot packed into a shorter time-frame,” Hammond elaborates. “Our rehearsal period is shorter, so our work needs to be very focused, with an emphasis upon rapid choice-making. Also, theatre for young audiences–like Elizabethan theatre–needs to focus on embodying all the language and emotion into physical expression, not just vocal. Children are used to figuring out things from context and body language, so actors must make sure their bodies are ‘telling the truth’ and not weakening the impact of the dialogue. I also think that Theatre for Young Audiences has a higher charge, to be honest, to engender compassion, and to speak directly to as many kinds of young people as possible. I think that all theatre should do those things, but Theatre for Young Audiences especially.” Venson adds, “My favorite part [of this production] is seeing all of the cast members bringing their choices to life, creating their specific animal, and bringing some of themselves into the character.”

WonderQuest differs from other GTA productions in that most of its performances aren’t for the general public. The bulk of WonderQuest’s shows are performed for close to 6,000 North Georgia school children every year during school matinees. Hammond says, “Live theatre empowers those who are small, comforts those who are struggling and inspires those who are reaching. It lights a fire in the brain and heart. Live theatre is unlike anything you will find in a ‘screen’ experience. The ‘shared breath’ of being in the same space at the same time listening to and feeling with other people is a true communion, which creates empathy. Empathy is necessary to our human condition because it is empathy–feeling what others feel–which enables us to show mercy, to grow as human beings, and to create and sustain civilization. At what age is this experience not important?”

This hope-filled show, written for the child inside each of us, absolutely shouldn’t be missed. The pond comes to life Friday, Sep. 27 at 7:30 pm, with family performances at 7:30 pm October 4 and 5, and matinees at 4:30 pm Sep. 28 and 2:30 pm Sep. 29. A free Meet-The-Actors Reception follows the Friday, Sep. 27, 7:30 pm performance, and a free Ice Cream Social follows the Sep. 29, 2:30 pm matinee. Tickets can be purchased at GainesvilleTheatreAlliance.org, or by calling the box office at 678-717-3624, Monday – Friday, 10 am to 4 pm.

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