NOVA Center for the Performing Arts -- Billings, Montana

Gazette Article: Review of The Giver

September 20, 2013 3:00 am • By Jaci Webb

Two veteran stage performers are taking on one of the most important tasks of their theater career — bringing a much-loved young adult science-fiction novel to the stage.

Dawn Carter and Kelsey Steffan are working with the Youth Conservatory at NOVA Center for the Performing Arts to produce “The Giver,” which opens Sept. 27. Carter is directing the show, which runs through Oct. 6, and Steffan is assisting. It will be performed in the Black Box at NOVA. Call the theater at 591-9535 for tickets.

Carter said she had the choice to use a combination of adult and youth actors in the production, but she opted to use only youths since this is their tale.

“It’s got a vulnerability in it, just like these actors,” Carter said.

The novel, written by Lois Lowry, is a popular read by sixth- and seventh-graders and some members of the cast said it is their favorite work. Lowry’s story is set in a society where pain and personal choice are eliminated from the characters’ lives, creating a place of “sameness.” Instead of building a utopian society, their world becomes the opposite, a dystopian place. The 1993 novel won the Newbery Medal in 1994, despite criticism by some that the book’s subject matter is too complex for early teen readers.

“The message is differences are important,” said actor Mackenzy Gilsdorf, an eighth-grader. “I liked the book and am excited to see it come to life in 3-D.”

In the work, the government controls everything from what an individual’s profession is to whom each person marries. The Receiver of Memory keeps everyone’s memories so they don’t have any. An 11-year-old boy, Jonas, has been selected to become the new Receiver. Through Jonas, who is played by Tyler Shackelford, the audience will recall the euphoria of experiencing love. But there are painful discoveries, too.

Carter believes that her youthful cast, which is made up of middle school and high school students, is just the right age to be struggling with choices and asking important questions about life. The play serves as a parable for what happens when we don’t get to choose.

“What I love about this story is that it asks more questions than it gives answers,” Carter said. “One question is ‘What should the role of government be?’ ’’

At 17, Matthew Hagen is the oldest actor in the drama. He plays the Receiver of Memory, who names a replacement and then calls himself The Giver. Hagen said his character has taken on all the pain and the joy of an entire society.

“They have taken so much away, but it is the choosing that is important,” Hagen said.

To prepare for his role, Hagen set up a row of boxes, assigning a different emotion to each one. Then he ran through the emotions that he must show on stage because his character is the only one left who can feel anything.

Carter plans to use a minimalist set and monotone costumes since the citizens of this world cannot choose colors to wear.

Actor Danielle Dupree said the play shows how a society might exist in the future. She hopes not.

“The question is, ‘Would you rather fit into the world or stand out?” said Dupree, a seventh-grader.

During rehearsal last week, Jonas tells his mother, played by Shannon Sheehy, about a dream he had of a girl he has a crush on. His mother told him that he must take medication to keep him from thinking about this girl because the town elders will tell him who to marry.

In another scene, Jonas and the other 11-year-olds stand nervously awaiting their profession at the Ceremony of the Twelves.

“You 11s have spent all your time learning to fit in,” the announcer tells them. “Today you are 12 and we honor your differences. Thank you for your childhood.”

Each 11-year-old is then assigned an occupation, including birth mother, recreation leader, and in Jonas’ case, The Receiver of Memories.

Carter praised her actors for giving so much heart to the production.

“There are great moments and that is the first step to having a great show,” Carter said.
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