Coming of age on the stage

DalTheatre's The Mill on the Floss runs through Saturday

- November 29, 2012

The poster for The Mill on the Floss.
The poster for The Mill on the Floss.

While most Dalhousie students have been retreating to the library to prepare for exams, the fourh-year acting class has been working away on the next DalTheatre production.

Associate Professor Roberta Barker directs The Mill on the Floss, adapted by Helen Edmundson from the George Eliot novel of the same name. The play centres around Maggie Tulliver as she comes of age in a 19th-century town along the River Floss in England. (“George Eliot” was, in fact, the pen name of 19th-century author Mary Anne Evans, who used a male name so her work would be taken seriously.)

“It’s the story of her struggling with the things that come at her in life, which include some pretty big cataclysmic events,” says Dr. Barker, “but also her struggle on a deeper, more personal level.”

The three Maggies

Dr. Barker says that the key to this adaptation is having three different actresses portray Maggie at different stages of her life, from childhood to adolescence to adulthood.

In a minor piece of typecasting, student Maggie Hammel plays First Maggie. Hammel experienced some initial difficulty adjusting to the role, as her character is meant to be between the ages of 9 and 12.  

“I struggled with getting into that mindset, but it’s been a really fun exploration,” says Hammel, who throws tantrums so artfully in the play that you nearly forget she’s a fourth-year acting student and not an actual 9-year-old girl.

Elspeth Bullock, who plays the more restricted Second Maggie, said that it was less of a stretch to get into her character’s head.

“It’s very emotional. You don’t have to do a lot to feel what Maggie is supposed to be feeling,” says Bullock, who connected with her character’s “idea of trying to find out who you are while also pleasing other people.”

Third Maggie, played by Erin Johnston, experiences much of the same inner struggle.

Says Johnston: “This is one of the first characters I’ve related so well to, just the idea of trying to find your place in the world, while at the same time being torn between family and two different loves.”

Floods and fancy dress

Dalhousie profs John Pennoyer and John Dinning designed costumes and sets for the play, respectively, but the majority of them have been made and built by students.

Of the 19th-century garments, Bullock says, “It’s really exciting once everything comes into costume.”

Adds Hammel: “The costumes are fabulous. They’re really beautiful. The costume department has done a great job.”

Dr. Barker notes that the set “is an expression of the mill and has many different acting spaces.”

The multi-level construction allows for seamless transitions between scenes, and is only one of the ways in which the creative and production team has had to be inventive with design.

“We have fabric that’s representing the water. Without any spoilers involved, the play culminates in a flood, so we’ve needed to find ways of representing that visually,” says Dr. Barker.

Halifax actress Ann-Marie Kerr aided the actors with scenes involving physical theatre.

But what exactly is physical theatre? Explains Johnston: “We tell a story with mostly our bodies as opposed to anything scripted. There’s a boat sequence and a dream sequence that aren’t in the text, but we’ve created them.”

Close to the heart

If there’s one thing everyone can agree on, it’s how relatable the play is.

“It’s extremely human and it’s very pertinent to university now because it’s about discovering who you are as a person within the structures that exist in your society,” says Dr. Barker.

“We’ve got a lot of stuff going on, but it’s not a show about the lights and everything; it’s a show about the heart,” says Bullock. “It’s about love between siblings, parents, family and lovers, and I think it’s something that everybody can see themselves in.”

DalTheatre’s The Mill on the Floss runs through Saturday in the Dunn Theatre at the Dalhousie Arts Centre, with an 8 p.m. show each night and a 2 p.m. matinee on Saturday. Tickets can be purchased from the Dalhousie Arts Centre box office.


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