BWW Interview: Kevin Alvarnaz of BRIDGE TO TERABITHIA at DreamWrights
I remember reading Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson in fifth grade. It was one of my favorite Newbery Award winning books because of its themes of friendship and acceptance and its very real exploration of loss and grief. The book was published in 1977 and won the Newbery Award in 1978. Over the years the book has been plagued by censorship for a number of reasons-promoting secular humanism, questioning Christianity, using borderline offensive language, and portraying the death of a child. In the story, two children, Jesse and Leslie, become friends after Jesse loses a race to Leslie. Leslie loves to read, and Jesse loves to draw. Together they create an imaginary kingdom called Terabithia where they can be themselves and escape from the bullies at school and the tediousness of chores.
A talented group of young actors will be taking the stage at DreamWrights Center for Community Arts to present this timeless novel. Director Kevin Alvarnaz took a few moments to talk with Broadway World about their production of Bridge to Terabithia.
BWW: Take a moment to introduce yourself to our readers.
Kevin: My name is Kevin Alvarnaz, and in my normal everyday job I am the Director for Community Health and Wellness for WellSpan here in York and across the region. I am also a board member here at DreamWrights. I have been involved in over 20 productions at DreamWrights in some capacity over the last 5 years.
BWW: What was the most challenging part of directing this show?
Kevin: There were a couple challenging parts of the show. The first is we have 14 cast members up on stage for this, the majority of which are under the age of 13 so that lends itself to a really interesting dynamic. I wanted to stay true to the story that Katherine Patterson wrote and use kids that would represent those fifth graders discussed in the story. So it's really focused on kids that were between 9 and 13 years old. The other challenge is that there are a lot of scenic challenges of the show. Without giving away the crux of the show, there is some swinging that needs to happen on a rope, and how do you show that on a stage and how do you encourage kids and make sure they feel safe swinging on a rope that's a couple feet above the stage. So there are some logistical challenges that every show runs into, but this one was a little bit different, and think we represent it well.
BWW: I had the opportunity to preview Act I, and the heart and enthusiasm with which these young actors approach their characters is wonderful to see. The school scenes really transport the audience back to when they were in school making new friends, trying to discover who they are, dealing with bullies, and learning lessons from books and social interactions. When Jesse and Leslie first create Terabithia, the audience remembers the joy of unfettered imagination.
BWW: I remember reading the book and being drawn into the imaginary world that the children created. How will your audiences experience Terabithia?
Kevin: Hopefully it's a lot through the storytelling that both Leslie and Jesse do. But, as they engage in their fort or their stronghold, they have these opportunities to kind of build that stronghold as they're acting and singing the songs. So, there are different components that are laying on the stage that they use each night differently to create that look and feel for what their stronghold looks like. We've also used lighting to help with that, to really demonstrate the creative side. Lark Creek, which is where most of it takes place is really an impoverished rural area, and Terabithia comes to life as that imaginative piece. So, we try to bring that out a bit more in light verses the more neutral colors in the Lark Creek side.
BWW: The first thing I noticed when looking at the stage was the set for Terabithia. The trees are majestic even without the lighting. With the lighting, they take on a touch of the fantastic. The song that Leslie and Jesse sing as they create Terabithia in Act I adds to the magic, showing us what their kingdom looks like.
BWW: Some of the themes in the story are emotionally charged-bullying, abuse, and of course the death of a child. How have you worked with the cast as they approach these difficult topics?
Kevin: We've had some really good conversations about that. One of those key conversations when I was asked to direct the show, I first gravitated toward, how are we going to handle the death of a child, especially among these kids who now have to portray it and to represent it as best they can. Especially for those who have never experienced that sort of a loss. So, I reached out to Olivia's House, which is a grief center for children here in York and talked to them about the story. I found out that one of their bereavement specialists was also drawn to this story-it was a story that had a huge pivotal impact on her growing up. We invited them to come in and talk to the kids. So right from the initial read through of the story, she came in and explained to the kids the bereavement process. But not just that, she was able to connect it to the different stages that Jesse and the family go through. She was able to help connect the emotions to the lines in the story. I was as much as possible trying to find ways to help the cast bring that home. It's really difficult to do if you've never experienced that loss, but the hope is that they are better able to articulate it than they would have been able to without help from Olivia's House.
BWW: Tell us a little about the importance of the theme of friendship in the story.
Kevin: Ah, great! There are so many themes that Katherine Patterson included in this book, but friendship is huge because Jesse feels lost and disconnected and not wanted before he meets Leslie. And Leslie kind of brings out this playful imaginative spirit in this ten-year-old boy. They form this unique bond. It's not a romantic relationship; it's just a desire to be with each other. But because of that connection, they are able to endure the daily life circumstances of Lark Creek-whether that's the pressure to conform to what the other kids are doing, whether it's the bullying issues that they feel. Even Leslie has to learn to accept other people. Her interaction with Janice later in the story shows how she felt threatened by her, but suddenly wants to understand her better. I really think it's a message for all of us today. That the friendships that we create in our lives have impacts for long periods of time. So, how do we develop those friendships? That's my hope for the audience, that they'll see these friendships, and they'll be inspired to create friendships with others that have impact-that they're not superficial relationships. And you can see that in the story-Jesse is heart-broken when the tragedy happens, but he realizes the impact that Leslie has had in his life, and he wants to carry that on and share that with others.
BWW: What do you hope audiences will experience when they see your production?
Kevin: My hope is that they'll be able to connect with Jesse and Leslie because there's a little bit of Jesse and Leslie in each of us. We have gone through trying experiences in life, we've had those friendships that have helped move us through those difficult circumstances. And my hope is that it will be an inspiration to be better friends and to realize that each of our lives have an impact, even if it's for a short period of time. It might be through listening, holding someone who is going through a trauma, offering reassuring words, whatever it may be, we have that impact.
BWW: If you could bring any imaginary world from film or literature to life, which one would you choose?
Kevin: That's tough because some of the productions that I've been in here involve various imaginary worlds, like The Hobbit. I'm really not sure. There's so much that's out there that you could pull from, I can't pick just one that I would want to bring to life.
Bridge to Terabithia is a beautiful show to catch at DreamWrights Center for Community Arts from April 13-22. Visit www.dreamwrights.org for tickets.