Bringing the Wonder Back to Alice

05/26/2015 01:17 pm ET | Updated May 23, 2016

(Photo: Joanne Rendell)

It's a warm spring evening in Central Park and a group of teens are gathered at the Alice in Wonderland statue, just up from the boating lake. For most of them, frolicking on the iconic statue is probably something they haven't done in a while. But today the teens don't hold back. They're scaling the slippery toadstools, patting the White Rabbit's ears, and vying to perch like Buddhas on the Mad Hatter's top hat. They are their kid selves again.

The buoyant mood is because this crew of homeschooled teenagers, ranging in age for 11 to 18, is celebrating the fact that just under two weeks ago they did something quite remarkable. In an off-Broadway theater on 43rd Street, they staged a production of Alice's Adventures of Wonderland in a sold out weekend run. The show was entirely teen-directed, acted, and produced. Parents and other adult friends played an important supportive role, but for the most part everything - from the lighting to props, the stage managing to ticket sales, the choreography to the character development - was done by this group of New York teens.

It's fitting that the cast and crew are now capering like seven-year olds on the statue. "For me, Alice is not about madness, it's about childhood and dreams," says fifteen year old Leo Lion, as he looks on. Leo founded Firebird Youth Theater three years ago and has directed all three of the company's shows, including Alice. "I wanted the show to capture the imagination of childhood, just like Lewis Carroll captured it in the book."

With its simple yet whimsical props and costumes and its clever, playful staging, Firebird's production of Alice did indeed capture the childhood wonder of Wonderland. When Alice (played with a delightful mix of innocence and fearlessness by twelve-year old Leigh Stern) fell down the rabbit hole, her descent was staged sideways on, from the audience's point of view. Alice sat on a stage box flailing her legs and arms, framed by a hula-hoop decked out in foliage, as she considered aloud whether she might "fall right through the earth." A big disc painted with a hypnotic spiral spun behind her and two cast members paced up and down on either side, holding shelves with books and teacups. Altogether the scene skillfully suggested the dreamy, bizarre, and dizzying fall into Wonderland, but also the wondrous way that children, perhaps playing in a park, might stage the famous fall.

Fifteen-year old director, Leo Lion (Photo: Katherine Bourbeau)

Alice has always been one of Leo's favorite books and honoring the Lewis Carroll original was very important to him. Leo adapted the story with the company's sixteen-year old stage manager, Thomas Pflanz. They produced a script that stays very close to the book, not just in the characters and scenes but also in the language. According to Leo, "Disney derivatives of Alice, and even avant-garde stage versions, tend to overlook the beautiful writing, and especially the funny and clever dialogue."

The props, sets, and costuming in the show were similarly loyal to the original. Leigh and her mother Irene Stern worked together to produce an Alice dress that was an almost replica of the dress drawn by John Tenniel in the original illustrations. The Mad Hatter's tea party was also staged in a way that is deeply reminiscent of Tenniel's drawing of the same scene, with the Mad Hatter, Dormouse, and March Hare sitting in a line beside the bemused and unimpressed Alice.

And when eighteen-year old Sydney Harris began creating the show-stopping Dodo puppet, she returned to the original book. "I wanted to capture the huge, rotund shape of Tenniel's dodo bird."

Sydney also composed the music for the show and was delighted to find that Carroll's poems translated easily into song: "His poems have a distinct rhythm and they stick to it." Sydney researched traditional music used in the 18th and 19th centuries for quadrille dancing and then produced The Lobster Quadrille: a highlight of the show that was sung and danced by PJ Lodin (15), as the desolate yet hilariously diva-like Mock Turtle, and Alioune Fall (15), as the cheeky cockney Griffin.

Research was a big part of the process not only for the scriptwriters and the creative team. The cast put time into researching their characters. PJ discovered that Mock Turtle soup was turtle soup made with beef when funds were short. For PJ, this connected to the way that "everything about the Mock Turtle and his stories is just a bit off."

Other actors did research outside of the text too. My own eleven year old son Benny Rendell looked into stories and pictures of Prince Albert (alive during Carroll's lifetime) to embellish his character: a dotty yet slightly sinister King of Hearts. Fourteen-year old Emily Mondrus, who played a perfectly panicked White Rabbit, turned to Harpo Marx who she felt offered something rabbit-like that she could bring to her role.

Emily also discovered something about herself during the show. "I became a rabbit!" she recalls. "For the first time ever, I wasn't conscious of being on the stage, I wasn't thinking about what people would say about me. I was simply the White Rabbit." Even though this wasn't a professional or adult-led production, Emily achieved something that even the most seasoned actors hope for and work toward: being present and real in their fictional role.

I asked some of the cast and crew how Alice compared to other shows they'd done. Jeremiah Burch, who played a deliciously dormant Dormouse, has been in a number of TV shows, films, and professional productions. "Leo has been doing this a while now and he's very professional, so we all respect him and he respects us." It seems most of the cast and crew agreed that even though they were taking direction from a fifteen year old and being stage managed by a sixteen year old, it felt no different from more standard adult-led productions.

In fact, sometimes it was better. Leigh felt that the teen environment gave her room to really explore being Alice and she felt comfortable making suggestions and having her own voice heard. Fourteen year old Isabelle Pflanz, who played a fearsome Queen of Hearts and a hilarious semi-comatose frog, said that in Firebird productions "everyone gets much more of a say and we bond much more to the show."

"Bonding" is a word that comes up again and again as I talk to the cast and crew while the spring sun begins to set over Central Park. Destiny Vega, a stagehand for the show who is eighteen years old, talks about the company becoming "one big family" over the course of the production: "We had our arguments, our laughter and our cries, but we bonded really tightly." Destiny's fellow stagehand, sixteen-year old Daniel Zuzworsky, enjoyed the camaraderie too and said the production allowed him to really connect with old and new friends alike.

Firebird's resident comic PJ Lodin was the only one not to talk about the connections formed during the show. Indeed, he claimed that because the cast are a group of "freakish, undersocialized homeschoolers" who are fearful of going outside or making friends, the whole show was done using avatars while each cast member was plugged into a giant techno-vat in their own homes (PJ also claimed that director Leo gained the respect of his peers by wrestling to death a giant bear!).

Bears, avatars, and jokes aside, PJ raises a good point about stereotypes and expectations. Leo describes how he often faces "a healthy dose of underestimation" when he tells people what he and Firebird Youth Theater are doing together. "People say homeschoolers are afraid to do anything social, or that teens in general can't get something done," eighteen-year old Sara Margolis also points out. Sara is the oldest member of the ensemble, who played a number of characters and did some incredible acrobatics during the show's imaginative croquet sequence. "But we did it," she adds with a grin. "We put on a show, a really great off-Broadway show."

The sun has gone and the teens are sitting on a wall overlooking the statue, which has now turned to shadows. They've moved on from talking about Alice. They're discussing what will be next. No final decision is made by the time everyone leaves the park, but the cast and crew unanimously agrees: there will be another Firebird show soon.