As afternoon classes at Walden Theatre let out for the day, some kids might be yelling and talking and laughing, but most days there is a group of kids getting ready to rehearse.
Inside Walden’s performance space, director and teacher Hallie Dizdarevic begins her rehearsal by gathering the students into a circle. She lights a candle and she asks the actors to “candle in.”
It may be an unlikely choice for a student production, but this week the Walden Theatre is presenting a new version of Franz Kafka’s classic novella, “The Metamorphosis.”
Before the 15-person student ensemble got ready to tackle the complex philosophical issues Kafka lays out in his existential classic, the actors got their own problems off their chests. One young student pointed at the large zit on his nose and said, “I look like Rudolph,” before adding, “Gonna be a tough day tomorrow, I have a funeral.”
After the students let go of their own crises, they turn their attention to Kafka’s novella and the protagonist’s pretty substantial problems. “The Metamorphosis” is, of course, the story where the central character, Gregor Samsa, wakes up one day and discovers he’s been transformed into a cockroach.
To tackle this complicated production, Dizdarevic turned to someone she’s adapted work with before: Steve Moulds. Moulds is an up and coming playwright on the national level, with credits in Chicago, Minneapolis and in Louisville, at Actors Theatre.
The pair worked together to pick out a project.
“We kinda just looked through the JCPS curriculum, and what they read every year, and immediately ‘Metamorphosis’ jumped out,” said Moulds.
The story has been on stage many times before — perhaps it’s the inherent theatricality of a giant cockroach. It also contains themes that wrestle with life’s larger questions. In other words, it’s not only a challenge for the student actors but also the adults adapting the production.
Moulds said when he wrote the adaptation of Kafka’s famous work, he ended up thinking about how the students would relate to the piece, as well as its possible connections to his own life.
The process began with Moulds and Dizdarevic rereading the novella and writing down thoughts and ideas that jumped out at them. This exercise yielded some simple things, like lines of dialogue or narration that the two found moving or important. But it also uncovered larger questions and observations about the work.
“Mine were all focused on money and how transactional relationships are poisonous to a family,” Moulds said.
Another strong theme that emerged centered on health care.
“Illness in a family can destroy the fabric of relationships,” Moulds said. “Taking care of someone for a long time is such a burden, it dehumanizes the sick person in the eyes of their loved ones. We went with both those themes for this version.”
For Dizdarevic, teaching this version of “The Metamorphosis” is about thinking in new ways.
“I feel like in any art form, including literature, you need to know the rules in order to break them,” she said.
While the broader philosophical questions of Kafka may not have a single answer, this adaptation is likely to get the teenage actors — and their audiences — talking.
Walden’s production of Moulds’ new “Metamorphosis” will certainly get the classic on its feet. All six of them.
“The Metamorphosis” runs through Jan. 30. For more information, visit Walden’s website.
Photo courtesy of Walden Theatre.