Cherie Messore Previews

First Look: ‘1984’ by George Orwell at Kavinoky Theatre

In Harper Lee’s novel “To Kill a Mockingbird,” Atticus Finch tells his young son, “Real courage is when you know you’re licked before you begin, but you begin anyway and see it through no matter what.” 

Loraine O’Donnell, Kavinoky Theatre’s executive artistic director has lived with this sentiment the past week, since another production company sent her a ‘cease and desist’ email which pulled the plug on Kav’s production of “To Kill a Mockingbird” a scant two weeks before opening night.

To recap, there is a legal dispute brewing over the rights of the stage adaptation of this beloved American novel. Kavinoky had a signed contract to mount the 1969 Christopher Sergel production. Even though this is not the adaptation currently on Broadway, the production company who owns those rights has threatened legal action against any theatre company – professional and community, around the world – if other productions are mounted during the Broadway run. Read the full story here.

O’Donnell and director Kyle LoConti had to pivot. Quickly.  Pulling a production from the season schedule was not an option.

“It’s very frustrating,” O’Donnell sighed.  “We started thinking about what show can we do with this existing, beautiful set?”  Then she had a brainstorm: why not stage the 2013 adaptation of George Orwell’s dystopian drama “1984.”  It’s a classic drama, it’s in schools’ curricula (this is important as many local schools had already booked weekday ‘Mockingbird’ performances), it would be a regional premier, and its brief stay on Broadway ended in October, 2018. And the content couldn’t be more timely: fake news, propaganda, corrupt government, and Big Brother watching over all. “I’ve had this in my thoughts for years,” O’Donnell said.

O’Donnell and LoConti made the decision to push the start date back a week to March 15, too, which will allow an extra week of prep without throwing the balance of the season off kilter.

This version of “1984 by George Orwell” was adapted by two Brits, Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan, “who became entranced with the novel’s appendix, which hardly anyone reads,” says O’Donnell. “The play begins when the year 1984 ends and it continues to 2050 in flashes.” Much of the script was developed in rehearsal, from improvisation by the first cast.

LoConti was on-board as director. Almost every member of the ‘Mockingbird’ cast would have roles too, except for the six children (originally cast in two teams of three) and two cast members whose schedules couldn’t accommodate the new run dates.

This sparked another inspiration: instead of tasking the uber-talented Kav set designer David King to start from scratch and build out the stage again, Kav could use its high-tech LED screen panels to full advantage, stretching 20-feet across the entire width of the stage.

Kavinoky’s LED screen is unique in the region, too. The theatre purchased the panels in 2017  (The purchase of the LED curtains are supported by a grant from the Community Foundation for Greater Buffalo with funds from its J. Warren and Charles Donald Perry Memorial Fund) and O’Donnell said at the time that this innovative technology would be a game changer for the theatre. So far the panels were used as accents or complements to full out sets, particularly in “Mamma Mia!” last season and “Sweeney Todd” this season. This time the curtains will be the focal point. “Brian Milbrand, our video guy, is so excited about this, it’s right up his alley,” said O’Donnell.

The plan is to display the propaganda that is central to the story on the LED curtain, and to depict some of the more graphic elements of the script in creative ways. The six children and two adult actors who couldn’t participate in this production, will be seen in cameo videos this way, as well.  There will be live feed cameras on stage, too, to show the characters’ point of view, and screens in the audience, to give an authentic “big brother is watching” you feel to this immersive experience. O’Donnell said the audience “will have the idea of being constantly watched and monitored.”

O’Donnell is quick to praise the commitment and devotion of the cast and the Kav crew, with particular props to LoConti as the director. “Kyle went from directing a beautiful piece of theatre on her bucket list to something she probably didn’t want to direct. And in a very few days, she’s done a lot of research and preparation. She is amazing.”

O’Donnell is enthusiastic. “This will be a quick three week rehearsal period,” she said, “And it’s spectacular play.”

And that, Atticus Finch, takes courage, and the ability to see it through to the very end.

“1984 by George Orwell” is onstage March 15 to April 7. Visit www.kavinokytheatre.com for tickets and details.