It was last season during Manchester University’s production of "Lord of the Flies" that John O’Connell discussed his theater idea with director Joel Froomkin.
O’Connell, dean of IPFW’s College of Visual and Performing Arts, wanted to stage "Lord of the Files," a brutal, heartbreaking story about deserted school boys, with actual middle-school-aged boys for a new Youtheatre production, which opens today.
He says Froomkin had one question: "Are you crazy?"
"I said I might be," O’Connell says.
"Lord of the Flies" is about a group of school boys abandoned on a deserted island after a plane is shot down during a raging war.
What starts out as a tale of survival turns dark as the boys lose their sense of civility and resort to violence and even murder.
Leslie Hormann, Youtheatre executive director, says 45 boys auditioned for the show. There are 12 boys in the cast, ranging from 11 to 14 years old.
But, let’s face it. Boys will be boys. Their attention span is short. O’Connell, the director of the show, says most of the boys remain onstage during the show, and it can be a challenge to focus.
But when it all comes together, how much more shocking is the feral transformation of young boys when it’s performed by an actual child?
O’Connell believes it will be worth it.
"When we watch college kids do ‘Lord of the Flies,’ we have to suspend our disbelief even further, and go, ‘OK, this 18-year-old is supposed to be 12.’ But we don’t have to now. The audience has to suspend their disbelief in the actual convention of the theater, but they don’t have to suspend their disbelief in the fact that they’re watching 12-year-olds beat 12-year-olds," he says. "All of the schoolyard stuff that we hear about, you see in this play."
O’Connell first worked with Youtheatre for IPFW’s production of "Oliver!" in 2013, and he says this time he wanted to challenge the all-boy cast in ways they haven’t been challenged before.
"When they were in ‘Oliver!’, they all had a passion for being in it, and I wanted to reward them with something that had a little more meat to it, a little more substance," he says.
With a PG-13 rating, Hormann acknowledges that "Lord of the Flies" is a departure from the theater’s more upbeat productions, but it also gives young actors a serious piece of drama accompanied by a university-level professor as the director.
It also fosters more community outreach. The theater has partnered with the Center for Nonviolence to host a post-show discussion, as well as provide information on the organization’s services.
"I think it’s such an important topic, and I think Youtheatre has a responsibility to introduce some of these issues (of bullying) that children deal with every day at school," Hormann says.
O’Connell says the show stays true to the story and doesn’t hold back. Now, he’s working to get his young actors to get to that place.
"I’m having a hard time getting (the actors) to connect to the reality of that brutality. I think as we move closer to the performance, and the lights are there, and the costumes are there, the makeup, I think they will understand what they’re doing," he says. "They haven’t really invested themselves in the weight of what the play is doing."
But that doesn’t mean they’re not catching on, O’Connell says.
There was a spark one night at rehearsal when O’Connell asked the cast to go back to a particular "beat" in the play. They knew exactly where to start.
"Sports exercises their muscles, and school exercises their mind and theater exercises their imagination," O’Connell says. "Don’t we want people in the world who have active and creative imaginations?"