In our changing world, where images from around the globe come to us from all directions, diversity is the norm rather than the exception. It is hard to imagine a world where nothing diverges or varies, but such a world exists in Lois Lowry’s Newbery Award-winning novel “The Giver.”
Recently, the Indiana Repertory Theatre brought the story to the stage. But unlike a lot of books written for children, this one comes with a lot of controversy stemming from some of its subject matter. Infanticide? Check. Euthanasia? Check. Sexuality? Check. Unsurprisingly, because of these issues, “The Giver” is one of the most banned books in the country.
Set in what at first appears to be a futuristic, utopian community, “The Giver” starts off on a troubling note, as Jonas, the 11-year-old protagonist, wonders about a strange plane he sees flying over the community. Jonas also is anxious because it’s almost time to receive his life assignment. In a ceremony, all children in his class find out what they will do as adults. Most receive assignments such as Instructor or Birthmother or Nurturer. Jonas finds out that he will be the Receiver of Memories for the community.
Jonas is gifted with the ability to see flashes of color in what is otherwise a black-and-white world. Given his talent, Jonas is selected to receive memories from the Giver, an elderly man charged with keeping a record of the past. While being mentored by the Giver, Jonas learns of the harsh reality of his world.
Given the level of controversy surrounding the novel, it is difficult to imagine a successful staging. The IRT, however, did just that -- with a cast consisting almost exclusively of youth. Running from Oct. 23 to Nov. 21, there were many showings of the play, including nearly 70 for Indianapolis students, as many teachers included it in their lesson plans. There also were discussion groups held after productions for audience members who wanted to explore the story further.
Y-Press conducted a roundtable discussion with cast members Garrett McKenna, Maggie Williams, Reilly Crouse and Anna Miller to discuss their take on the novel and their experiences with the play.
Garrett played the lead role of Jonas. An eighth-grader at St. Lawrence Catholic School, he has been involved in acting for years.
"I saw my uncle in a show down at the Scottish Rite and I got to meet all the actors, and I thought it’d be really cool if I was an actor," Garrett said.
After enrolling in a weeklong acting camp, Garrett began volunteering his talent in various shows across Indianapolis, though “The Giver” was his first paid position. Having talked about the novel in depth during post-show discussions, Garrett believes Lowry intended the book, which was published in 1993, to serve as a cautionary tale.
"It might be a warning because we’re getting so much new technology, that it won’t be long before we know how to control the weather or control when people are born or what race or what eye color, what hair color they have," he said. "And if it’s just sameness all the time and nothing out of the ordinary happens, that wouldn’t be fun."
Playing the role of Fiona, one of Jonas's peers, Maggie Williams is no stranger to acting. Now a seventh-grader at Hoosier Academy, Maggie took her first acting course at age 5 and had her first professional role at age 8. She says her role in the IRT production was made easier by her ability to relate to her character.
"I can relate to Fiona," she said. "She’s a young girl. She has boy problems. She has a crush on Jonas. And I think just about every girl that age can probably relate to that."
One the most enjoyable aspects of performing in “The Giver” was the young audiences, the cast agreed.
"I think it’s really cool because we had a lot of student matinees where people come on field trips," Maggie said. "It’s probably cool for the kids to see someone their age, acting."
Reilly Crouse, who portrayed Asher, another peer of Jonas's, is a sixth-grader at Greenwood Middle School. While he attended IRT’s four-week summer conservatory, this was his first professional role.
"My sister says that she thinks Asher is a ditz, a dumb person. And she said I got picked because I’m the exact Asher," he said to laughs.
Anna Miller, a fourth-grader at Lantern Road Elementary in Fishers, played Lily, Jonas's loquacious little sister. Anna began acting at her mother's urging and then continued to take classes; “The Giver” was her first professional show.
Anna, too, found her job made easier by her character's personality.
"I think Lily is a very talkative little girl. She’s a fun role to play, she’s still learning."
Reilly was the only actor not to have read “The Giver” and so the play was his first experience with the novel’s thought-provoking world. While he is not a proponent of banning the book in schools, he says he can understand why that might happen.
“I think it’s mainly because of the release and the wanting,” he said.
The release is the euthanasia of undesirables. It happens to the elderly near death, but it also happens to people who disrupt the common order, either by being unruly or an anomaly. In one highly disturbing scene, one of a set of newborn twins is released.
“I think the main reason that they’ve banned this in schools is the infanticide," Garrett said. "I mean, they can kill anybody if they break a rule, but mainly when they’re killing children, especially infants, that’s really creepy and I think it’s twisted."
The novel’s treatment of sexual desire, or stirring, is another point of controversy. Though it is only alluded to, the book makes clear that it is not tolerated.
“They have pills for that,” Maggie explained.
The actors agreed that on the surface, life as portrayed in The Giver might be desirable.
Reilly asked a group of students just that question in a post-production discussion. “I said ‘yes’ because as Asher, he never learns about release. So it would be the perfect place to live,” Reilly said.
“If you didn’t know any better, you wouldn’t have any objections. You wouldn’t know what you were missing,” Maggie added.
But in the end, they’re glad they only had a short visit to this seemingly harmonious place.
“Knowing what we have in this life, most people probably wouldn’t want to go live in ‘The Giver’s’ world,” Garrett said.
ASSISTANT EDITORS: Keenen Brannon, 15;
REPORTERS: Libby Bowling, 11; Shanze Tahir, 12.
Copyright 2009 Y-Press