Not a whole lot of people think of Animal Farm, George Orwell's classic 1944 indictment of the Russian Revolution, when they think of putting on a play.
Julie Tattershall is not most people.
As artistic director for Clark Theatre, as well as director of Clark's latest offering, she found Ian Wooldridge's adapation of Orwell's novella on the list of plays on Clark's season docket, and it was put there by teenagers.
"Every year, one of the staff members will read some scripts and puts together a list," Tattershall said. "Then the kids vote on them and choose. So the kids chose it." Perhaps food for thought for those naysayers who talk about how these kids today only care about Facebook and video games and the confounded interwebs.
As most of us remember from high school, Animal Farm tells the story of the animals of Manor Farm, their rebellion against humans, and their slow return to the oppressive ways of those very humans. Sounds like a good idea for a play, right? As it turns out, it's not a hugely popular show, at least in terms of frequency of production.
"It's mainly been done as a touring production with adults playing the roles. They do it at schools and places like that," Tattershall said.
Talking about the play with Tattershall will get some knowledge dropped on you pretty quickly, due partly to the fact that part of the cast's work has involved straight up learning about stuff: "I made them all do research on their characters and what they meant in terms of the Russian Revolution, and we looked at how these characters are still very much present today," she said.
And while there isn't a Russian Revolution currently underway, we still live in a world where the types of things Orwell was railing against -- disappearances, dictatorships, government-sponsored misleading information -- are still present.
"We've talked about misinformation, inflated facts, and that, you know, your government can lie to you," she said.
Giving information like this to teenagers invariably results in more than a few shattered expectations.
Tattershall points to the example of Boxer the horse. He's literally the workhorse of the new incarnation of the farm, and he vows to be the hardest worker of all. When he falls ill and can't produce for the higher-ups, he is hauled off to the slaughterhouse. The animals who realize that he isn't, as they're being told, going to the hospital, are lied to in order to be pacified.
"That feeling, that betrayal -- that made for some interesting discussions. It was very much an eye-opening experience," Tattershall said.
Maggie Savage is a student at Tulsa's Booker T. Washington High School and plays Napoleon, the pig who ascends to the head of the farm's leadership in the absence of the humans. She recently spoke of discoveries of her own, particularly in terms of people's perceptions of themselves and their actions.
"I didn't have a good perspective on it. I knew I was portraying Stalin, and I know he was evil," the 17-year-old said. "But then I talked to Julie about it. She was like, 'You can't just be evil. People don't just act evil. They think they're justified. They think they're right. They don't have any doubt.'"
Armed with this realization, which is perhaps as stunning a discovery to a young mind as the aforementioned sense of betrayal, Savage settled in to the role, though it is somewhat out of her comfort zone.
"I'm usually very, like, the damsel-in-distress type. I'm usually the happy one that prances around the stage. So this was very different for me. But I was excited," she said.
"I really started to feel good about what I was doing with the character once I just realized that she [Napoleon, here a female due to the actor's gender] is justified in her actions, at least in her mind. She's right, as far as she's concerned. She doesn't think she's evil," Savage said.
Tattershall echoed her sentiments.
"Once she got the concept that I'm right, with no empathy and no discussion and no doubt, and I can create evil in the world, then her character really made progress," Tattershall said.
One of those magical theater occurrences happened during the rehearsal process, one that brought the play's subject matter very close to home. During one of the informal lectures that Tattershall held with and for her cast members ("The kids called them 'Fireside Chats With Julie'"), a direct line to the Russian Revolution emerged from one of the young actors in the show.
"Her great-grandfather was killed during the Russian Revolution," Tattershall said of the unnamed performer. "His son escaped through Canada and married a Russian peasant, so you had a Russian aristocrat and a Russian peasant get married in Canada."
It was enough of a happy accident to seem like much more than just that.
"This kid showed up not having any idea, really just like, 'Oh fun, a play about animals,' and this amazing connection just materialized. So now this bunch of kids in the middle of Oklahoma are connected by this play to the Russian Revolution -- two degrees of separation. It was a great thing to happen for us. Really. Synchronicity," she said.
Cast members range from age nine all the way up to the 17-year-old geezers. Directing kids isn't much different from directing adults, Tattershall said.
"The biggest part of it is getting them home on time during the week," she said.
She must be doing something right, as her actors are eager to return, perhaps most notably, Ms. Savage.
"After this, I hope I get to do a few more things with Clark, because I love it here," Savage said.
Animal Farm, presented by Clark Theatre, concludes its run this weekend at the Henthorne Performing Arts Center located at 4820 S. Quaker Ave. Performances are Friday and Saturday at 7:30pm and Sunday at 2pm. Tickets are $7 for students and seniors, $10 for adults at the door. For reservations and more information, call 918-746-5065.
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