Our local arts organizations spend tremendous time and great energy on professional productions which we had come to take for granted until last year.
But it’s likely that no production has received more love than the staging of the Fort Wayne Youtheatre’s The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.
“I feel like I’ve been directing The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe most of my adult life,” said director Christopher Murphy, who also serves as assistant and outreach director for Fort Wayne Youtheatre. “It’s become my life’s work.”
The reason for such long-term investment is because the performances have been scheduled twice before only to be postponed due to COVID.
Originally intended as the finale to Youtheatre’s 2019-20 season, the shutdown last spring led the organization to postpone until December.
When a spike in virus activity led to another round of limitations, Youtheatre bumped it yet again, this time to its final slot for 2020-21, a full year later than they had originally planned to perform the C.S. Lewis classic.
These performances will feature almost all of those who were set to take the stage in December.
“It has been an amazingly dedicated cast of actors,” Murphy said. “We had our first rehearsal the last week of October, and we continued right up until Thanksgiving week when the restrictions became heavier again. That’s when we decided to pull the plug and took a week off around Thanksgiving.”
The cast didn’t go away at that time. Instead, Murphy used that week to adapt a radio play written long ago by Youtheatre’s former director, the legendary Harvey Cocks.
The radio version of A Christmas Carol was brought back to life with the cast of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe providing voices.
That production was then offered to audiences to enjoy from home.
The cast reconvened in February to begin the third attempt at staging the production at the Embassy Theatre as they’d planned in December.
“In February we were just rehearsing a couple days a week,” Murphy said. “I didn’t want it to dominate their lives. Amazingly we only lost one cast member that we then recast because they couldn’t do the rescheduled times. But since the rest of the cast has been living with these characters for all these months, we can play with it a bit more.
“I’m also the kind of director that likes to change things right up until the last minute. I made a change to the set just yesterday, in fact.”
Murphy has not only seen the cast members stick with a show for six months, he’s seen them do so amid tremendous challenges.
“I have seen such amazing growth in them,” he said. “Because of COVID we had to practice distancing and have half of our faces covered.
“It’s hard to know what an actor is giving you if you can’t see their faces, and they don’t know what you’re giving them back. They’ve overcome those limitations, and it’s allowed them to perform in spite of those drawbacks.”
A Great Collaboration
The Embassy Theatre is the perfect home for the production. In fact, given continued restrictions at many arts venues, it is probably the only home.
“We have a great collaboration with the Embassy, and it’s likely that we could not have done this at all this year if it weren’t at the Embassy,” Murphy said. “That theater has the seating inventory to give us plenty of seats while still allowing for distancing.
“Masks will still be encouraged for the audience, but the stage is large enough to allow for distancing so that many times we can go with no masks. There may be a few times when a larger group is on stage, then we’ll use masks.”
It’s a relatively large cast, with 25 young performers and one adult, Jim Matusik, playing the professor, though it’s not necessarily large by Youtheatre standards. The directors routinely try to fit as many young performers in each show to provide experience.
Murphy contained the rehearsals by doing it in pods for awhile, then as they moved to the theater and had more space, he brought the cast together. Rehearsals were held via a Zoom call when needed.
Murphy said that some of the challenges this cast and production have encountered lend themselves to the heart of the story.
“It’s not a traditional production,” Murphy said. “We’ve brought a lot of inspiration from what kids have been through this past year. That sense of isolation and boredom that kids faced in the English countryside where they’d been sent to avoid the bombings of World War II are similar to what kids faced this past year with COVID.
“As the kids are in the house, they find things to tell the story of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Basically that had always been my concept for this show. Then when I watched old newsreel footage of kids being issued gas masks, I saw a lot of what our kids were facing in 2020.”
Following the three productions of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Youtheatre looks forward to a full range of summer camps which allows the organization some exciting collaborations.
First up, in partnership with Fort Wayne Dance Collective, is a Drama and Dance Camp in June followed by MADD (Music Art Drama Dance) with First Presbyterian Theater.
In July their Rising Stars acting camp will take place at First Pres while they also collaborate on SCORE at the Embassy Theatre.
It’s a busy summer, but considering everything else, it’s a welcome busy for Fort Wayne Youtheatre.
“It’s like going from zero to 100 compared to last summer,” Murphy said.