HomeArticlesKate DiCamillo’s Newbery-winning “Flora & Ulysses” hits Tempe stage

Kate DiCamillo’s Newbery-winning “Flora & Ulysses” hits Tempe stage

See Childsplay’s production of “Flora & Ulysses” onstage now through May 20 at Tempe Center for the Arts. Photos courtesy of Childsplay.

How do you create a new world?

A novelist uses language, imagination and skill to make a world that is consistent within itself, and therefore, believable. A playwright invokes the same magic, then gets practical, transforming internal ideas into external things that embody them, using fabric, plywood, paint and speech to create an alternate reality.

What unites all world-builders is a search for meaning and the desire to share their journey with others. Searching and sharing are the engines that drive human culture. Theater is a major player in the world-building business, and emotion is its currency.

Each play is a lean, mean brain-stimulating machine. Every performance is a vehicle that takes the audience on an interactive ride.

People who think that attending a play is the same as watching TV or seeing a film are in for a huge surprise. The same goes for people who say,  “I read the book, so why see the play?”

Going to a play is a wonderfully unique experience that should be repeated as often as possible. It isn’t a “frill” or an “extra.”  It is an important, visceral way to participate in the human community. It is as fundamental to our humanity as storytelling around a campfire and as much a part of our cultural evolution as music, reading and writing.

Kaleena Newman plays Flora in Childsplay’s production of “Flora & Ulysses.”

Besides, it feels fantastic! And that’s why Childsplay and other local theater groups are committed to bringing theater to Arizona’s kids: because it’s a tremendous resource for growing compassionate, connected citizens.

Which brings us back to emotion as currency. Look closely at the word emotion. It buys you more than simple feelings — it’s “e” plus motion. E for energy, e for electricity, e for elemental; and then bam! Motion. Movement.

Emotions are strong, subjective sensations intended to move you, to fire your wiring, to spark you from one state of being to another, to jolt you from inside your head to outside your everyday experience. A good play is a hands-free Vulcan multiple-mind meld. For a small investment, you get great riches in return.

I was sharply reminded of this last week when I was invited to tour the Childsplay space in Tempe and attend a rehearsal of their upcoming production of “Flora & Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures,” the Newbery-Medal-winning semi-graphic novel written by Kate DiCamillo and adapted for the stage by John Glore.

Flora is a 10-year-old comics-lover and cynic who rescues a squirrel from her neighbor’s super-charged, rogue vacuum cleaner. The newly-named Ulysses is magically transformed into an uber-rodent with the ability to fly, lift heavy objects and compose poetry.

RELATED: Kate DiCamillo: The artist and her art

When an arch-nemesis, who happens to be Flora’s divorced mother, attempts a dastardly deed designed to smite Ulysses, the girl calls on her store of super-heroic and criminological lore to organize an all-thumbs rescue squad consisting of her big-hearted dad, his philosophy-doctor friend, Flora’s poetry-loving neighbor, her visiting nephew who suffers from hysterical blindness, and a hostage china shepherdess lamp. (Don’t ask.) Love and hilarity ensue.

It’s a story that I know very well, and I was thrilled to realize that diCamillo’s lyrical, precise language had been left almost completely intact. Her words are beautiful things and deceptively simple, like hydrogen atoms are simple. When read, and especially when spoken,  those tiny atoms split and release awesome feelings. A chain reaction of meaning ignites.

Childsplay’s Dwayne Hartford directs “Flora & Ulysses.”

Childsplay Artistic Director Dwayne Hartford directs “Flora & Ulysses.” He likes Glore’s adaptation as well, and his opinion comes from a place of experience and expertise. In addition to directing scores of plays, Hartford has written or adapted almost a dozen, including another DiCamillo favorite, “The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane.” He knows, from both sides, the choices and challenges of a collaborative art form.

In his role as director, he functions “not as a dictator, but as a funnel, bringing all of the [play’s] elements into one vision.” Some of the struggles particular to “Flora & Ulysses” involved having two central non-human characters, which required some experimentation with narration and puppeteering. The solution turned out to be having actor-puppeteer Tommy Strawser voice and manipulate a life-sized model of Ulysses.

It’s ironic that doing an outstanding job of creating a believable whole by putting amazing effort into all its parts, so that the audience is completely at home in the world of the play, can blind the audience to the staggering amount of work that goes into mounting a high-quality play. The cast and crew make it all look so easy!

D. Daniel Hollingshead, Childsplay’s costume and wardrobe director and unofficial magician-in-residence, designed the wigs, costumes and puppets for “Flora,” which included making, from scratch, four different articulated versions of the squirrel.  He described the life cycle of “Flora & Ulysses” for me.

Childsplay sets its performance schedule a year in advance. Work on sets and costumes begins more than four months ahead of the April premiere date, with multiple design meetings held to finalize plans. The construction work is done in two places — a separate set-development workshop in downtown Phoenix, and the aforementioned enormous work/storage space at the Tempe location dedicated to making costumes and, occasionally engineering what goes inside them.

A month, scheduled five to six weeks prior to “tech week,” is allowed for “builds.” Tech week — about the third week of rehearsals — lets the performers interact with production hardware and allows the crew to work out any bugs. Meanwhile, auditions are held, casting is completed, and the many phases of performance preparation take place, from reading, blocking, line check and working rehearsals to run-through, tech and dress rehearsals. The publicity and marketing efforts roll out concurrently.

My host, marketing staffer Christina Haase, and I arrived at the rehearsal room during the break between acts. A large, sunny place cluttered with props, it was bustling with cast members discussing and re-checking scripts, and crew members repositioning props and making notes on the first act. A long bulletin board on one wall held technical information, rehearsal schedules, photos of the set and colorful sketches of all the characters and each of their costumes. The floor was criss-crossed with multicolor trails of tape lines and geometric shapes to help the performers learn where furniture and other props will be before moving to the actual stage.

Author Kate DiCamillo.

Because this was just the beginning of their second week, things were relaxed and informal. Cast and crew were in T-shirts and jeans, mostly. Introductions were made and I took a seat. I didn’t know what to expect this early into the production process, so I was unprepared for what happened next.  

With very few interruptions for stage directions or line prompts from Stage Manager Sarah G. Chanis, the cast sailed through the second act. Kaleena Newman, as Flora, was perfect — quirky and delightful. (Later she told me that she had been acting for eight years and teaching it for three.) Her supporting players were marvelous as well.

There were no costumes, no make-up, no set, no lighting, no curtain, but the actors’ collective energy was electric, and their characters sparkled. They made me believe, and they brought me to tears. I could swear I that saw a stuffed squirrel fly.

When the cast re-grouped for director’s notes, decisions and adjustments were made. A couple of “rehearsal babies” — mannerisms or speech patterns tried on to flesh out characters — were dropped. It was obvious that everyone was committed to developing their best possible performances, and that they knew exactly what to do to get there.

Holy bagumba! Imagine how great this will be when they’re done practicing.

RELATED: Live theater starts conversations, builds communities




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