One of the most bankable Hollywood trends these days is turning books into movies. The Bradley University Theatre Department has a slightly different take on it: They’re bringing some of the best novels of all time to the stage in "The Season of Great Novels."

From Page to Stage

Although it seems as if it would take a great deal of planning to concoct a season like this, Bradley University Department of Theatre Arts Chair George Brown said it started more or less as a fluke. "Using a theme to tie a theatre season together isn’t a new idea; it’s been used in the professional theatre for years. It just happened that several of the plays we were looking at for this season were all based on great novels. When we saw the connection, we started looking for other titles in that theme that excited us."

What they ended up with was a wonderfully ambitious season: Big River-The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Dracula, A Christmas Carol, a children’s theatre production of Treasure Island, The Odyssey, The Time Machine, and Pride and Prejudice.

With three of the productions under their belt, Brown said it’s safe to say the season is a hit. "Our numbers are up from last year, including subscribers. The audiences are enjoying themselves, which is important for promoting the next show, and everyone we talk to enjoys that we were able to tie the season together. As I jokingly tell the audience, ’Here’s a chance to see all of the great novels we should have read in high school.’"

Bradley’s last production, A Christmas Carol, was actually performed as a radio play. "It was a holiday gift to our audience," Brown explained. "It was innovative in that we presented the show as Dickens did himself-as a dramatic reading. We added sound effects live via a group of Foley Artists-banging trash cans, slamming doors, walking on steps, etc.-and a holiday choir added a little more holiday cheer. We ended the evening with a sing-a-long where we got the whole audience singing and acting out the 12 days of Christmas. It was fun to watch."

He said the spring production of the science fiction classic, The Time Machine, will be presented in the same format. "We came up with the idea of doing radio plays to add two more performance events into our season without stretching our designers and technicians to the limit. We have no plans, as of right now, to broadcast the shows, but if the sound quality for the recording came out clean enough, I would like to cut a CD or DVD to give to our friends and supporters."

Currently, the Bradley Theatre Department is preparing for The Odyssey, which will be presented February 26 to March 7. "The Odyssey is a tremendously challenging production," Brown said. "However, it’s a joy to work with such rich language and such highly creative and dedicated designers, technicians, and actors.

He said this stage version follows Homer’s story line-with a few theatrical twists. "Adapted by Nobel Prize-winning poet Derek Walcott, the play blends the ancient with the modern, the Greek with the Afro-Caribbean, and the theatrical with the tradition of storytelling. Walcott is from St. Lucia and has been fascinated by the Odysseus story his whole life. When I was managing artistic director of Island Center for the Performing Arts in St. Croix, I was introduced to the beauty of West Indian drama and the writing of Walcott. For me, this is an exciting journey into our multi-cultural world, where theatre has the ability to explore what makes us culturally unique, as well as what joins us together as humans."

Brown called The Odyssey an experiment, marking Bradley’s first global production, wherein they focus on one cultural group and explore it. "In the case of The Odyssey, we’re actually exploring two cultures-Greek and Afro-Caribbean. This is a wonderful opportunity to see the world through the eyes of a different group of people. One of the things that makes Bradley special is that we have the resources to bring guest artists to teach our students. To give us a strong foundation on which to build this production, we’re bringing in several world-renowned artists. Chuck Davis from the African American Dance Ensemble will work with our actors in traditional African dance and ritual. We’re also bringing in one of America’s leading directors, Mary Zimmerman, creator of Metamorphosis, to share with us her uniquely theatrical approach to staging classical stories.

"To assist on the technical side, we’ll have Alyssa Ravenwood in residence to teach mask-making-needed for The Odyssey and then to cap off the cultural exploration. We’re also proud to have Costas Castanis from the Greek National Theatre performing-in both English and Greek-a one-man show based on classical Greek roles he presented at the ancient theatre in Epidarus," Brown said.

Theatre and the Bradley Student

While enjoying a theatrical experience at Bradley, audience members may forget that they’re seeing more than just quality entertainment-it’s also student talent and achievement on display. Brown described Bradley University Theatre as a comprehensive educational theatre program focused on educating theatre artists and their audiences in the intellectual foundations, global traditions, and creative processes of the art of theatre. "The department consists of five full-time faculty, active in both the academy and the professional theatre, and approximately 70 theatre arts majors studying performance, production, or theatre/speech education."

The department presents four to seven mainstage productions each year, plus several additional shows in Lab Theatre, he said. "We primarily serve our students’ educational needs in casting, but we frequently use guest artists to fill special needs. Recently, we had the privilege of having Sam Hardimon join us to play Jim in our production of Big River."

Brown said Bradley is capable of offering students experiences not available at many major research institutions. "First, due to the size and scope of our program, students are able to take leadership roles and actively collaborate with faculty from their first semester in the program. We have students directing and designing sets, costumes, and lights on the Meyer Jacobs stage, as well as opportunities to act and stage manage. We also have a 75-seat Laboratory Theatre that allows students a full range of opportunities to experiment and grow as a theatre artist."

The Theatre Arts program is enhanced by the Iben Lectureship, an endowment that allows Bradley to bring in leading theatre artists of national and international reputation to work with students and share knowledge and experiences. "Recently, we hosted Ed Stern, managing artistic director of the Cincinnati Playhouse, who shared with our students current trends in the regional theatre that will affect their future. And we’re proud to be hosting Mary Zimmerman in February and Costas Castanis in March. The Iben Lectureship also allows us to bring international artists to further our global mission. In past years, we’ve had guests from Russia, Latin American, and Europe," he said.

In addition to the Iben, faculty and students have access to cutting-edge technology with which to experiment, including the Internet2. "This past August, faculty and students from Bradley collaborated with colleagues from the University of Central Florida in a unique performance of Antigone, where actors in both Orlando and Peoria performed together to audiences in both locations utilizing the Internet2 as a performance conduit," Brown explained.

"In essence," he continued, "what Bradley University Theatre has to offer our students are opportunities to learn, lead, explore the world, experiment with technology, and grow as a theatre artist."

Indeed, he said the students have been the best part about staging The Season of Great Novels. "We’ve seen them get excited about creating dynamic theatre based on titles our audience is very familiar with. Because of that familiarity, our challenge is to not live behind those titles, but to bring those stories to life in a dynamic, theatrical, and enjoyable way."

In addition to the exceptional 2003-2004 season, the Bradley Theatre Department also hosts a fall and spring film seminar this season. "The department teaches film study courses at Bradley, and to augment the program, this year we started offering a series of film seminars taught by Jim Langley. In the fall we watched and discussed To Kill a Mockingbird, Frankenstein, and Gone With the Wind. This spring we present Moby Dick, From Here to Eternity, and The Godfather. All of these films were chosen to keep in the theme of the Great Novels," he said.

Only halfway through this season, it’s not too early to think about next season’s lineup, and Brown said it again will be something to talk about. "Next year is the 25th anniversary of the Hartmann Center for the Performing Arts, and we’re planning a wonderful celebration. While I can’t reveal any specific details yet, it includes some very special guests and lots of exciting theatre."

Tickets for The Odyssey cost $12 for adults, $10 for seniors and Bradley faculty and staff, and $5 for students. For more information, call 677-2650. AA!