The Soldotna High School drama group’s spring play will take audiences into “The Giver,” a classic young adult novel by Lois Lowry about conformity, empathy, and the defining role of suffering in human experience.
Sarah Erfurth, a Soldotna High School English teacher and drama club adviser who is co-directing the play with SoHi graduate Logan Parks, said the play had been brought to her attention by a student. She chose it for its wide appeal.
“I’ve always really liked the book growing up,” Erfurth said. “It’s a nice iconic story that I think a lot of people really latched on to. I wanted to do something that people would recognize the name of, that maybe they would be drawn to because of a sense of nostalgia, or because they’d like to see the storyline again.”
Published in 1993, “The Giver” has long been a staple of young adult reading. For those who missed it in middle school, “The Giver” takes place in a fictional culture of conformity whose members feel only neutral emotions. Memories of strong emotion are experienced by only one member of the community: an old man called the Giver, who gives his memories of pain and pleasure to his young apprentice, the story’s hero. In the book, he is a boy named Jonas. For SoHi’s production, the genders of some characters were changed to fit the available actors. On stage the hero is Joan, played by SoHi senior Kayla Haeg.
Although Haeg has been in the drama group for her four years of high school, her role in “The Giver” is her first lead. The performance requires pantomime and extensive monologues.
“This is my last role in high school,” Haeg said. “And I was… a co-star in the last play we did, which was a comedy, but this is my first big role. I’m really excited.”
The play’s co-director is also performing a first-time role. Logan Parks, who graduated last year from SoHi and is pursuing a professional career in film acting, said his first full-production directing experience has taught him the importance of unseen work on small details.
“It’s crazy what goes on behind the scenes, compared to what goes on when you’re just an actor,” Parks said. “You have to make sure everything works together.”
The other lead character — the eponymous Giver — is played by another experienced student actor, SoHi Senior Logan Schoessler, who also said the role was a new experience for him.
“I’ve never played anyone elderly,” Schoessler said. “… It’s very different from what I’ve done. You definitely have to get a uniform walk, being a very old person with faulty legs. And trying to say things with a certain aged wisdom, like someone who has experienced a lot. It’s just difficult to encapsulate something you don’t have much experience with. Because I’ve definitely never been an old person.”
The citizens of the Giver’s community have been conditioned to literally see the world in black and white, but as Joan learns pleasure and suffering she also learns to perceive color. The entrance of color into a world with no words for color is one of the book’s difficult surprises. On stage, the effect is perhaps still more difficult. To change a monochrome world to color, props were created in black-and-white and color pairs. But much of the transformation will come from the lighting.
Kenai Peninsula School District theatre-lighting specialist Rusty Singleton created the light effects that bring color and hint at the emotional content of the Giver’s memories. Singleton, who has previously created light displays for dance performances and other theatre productions, said some of the effects in “The Giver” gave him creative freedom. Although many scenes rely on precisely programmed lights, others allow him “to fool around and ad-lib with it, but as long as it fits in the context of the story, it works.”
Most of the emotional memories that the Giver telepathically transfers to Joan — such as her vicarious experience of a sled ride — are conveyed through acting without physical props on stage. This imaginative task falls mostly on Haeg’s shoulders.
“It’s very difficult to convince someone that you’re on a sled going down a hill when you’re sitting on a chair,” Erfurth said. “There’s a lot of (Haeg) having to use her imagination and work with just what she has in her own mind’s eye. And the audience has to believe it, so she has to have believable reactions to things like a rainbow or an elephant, because they are not actually being shown.”
In addition to the exhilaration of a sled ride, the Giver also introduces Joan to pain. In one scene, Haeg reacts to an unseen memory of breaking her leg.
“Ms. E (Sarah Erfurth) had to train me hard,” Haeg said. “There was like a full day of me breaking my leg. Like a full hour and a half of me learning how to look at a sled in bewilderment, and break my leg and scream. Because I apparently didn’t scream right, or it didn’t sound like I was actually in pain, so it’s all just really practicing. If Ms. E didn’t harp on me for a whole hour about breaking my leg, it would be really bad.”
Haeg also studied pain-acting professionals.
“I watched a lot of horror movies,” Haeg said. “A lot of them, to try to prepare for breaking my leg… and I look back on breaking my arm when I was little. But mostly just a lot of practice makes perfect.”
Erfurth said the confluence of joy and pain within the Giver’s memories is an important element of the play.
“Despite the horrible things that the memories involve — warfare, famine, all the aspects of our world we sometimes like to forget — there is mixed in there the fact that you wouldn’t have light if it wasn’t for the dark,” Erfurth said. “You can’t have a perfect society where there’s true happiness unless you also know sadness. So I think it’s a really important lesson that people learn, and I think a lot of people learned it for the first time through texts like ‘The Giver.’”
Although more recent examples of the dystopia genre take their themes from issues receiving greater public attention today — such as “Hunger Games,” with its commentary on youth violence and reality entertainment — Erfurth said the individualist themes of “The Giver” are still a strong part of the present cultural atmosphere.
“I think with today’s contemporary issues — you’ve got feminism, you’ve got LGBT rights, you’ve got all these different aspects of society that people are becoming active in where the importance is on being yourself, recognizing who you are as a person, and recognizing that that’s valid,” Erfurth said. “This play, emphasizing that our differences aren’t negative, really is important still. I think a lot of people can relate to it — to understanding for the first time that you don’t need to change or bury all the aspects of yourself.”