He was born more than 200 years ago, but is Charles Dickens, the celebrated English writer and social critic known for his sprawling sagas and deftly drawn characters, still relevant in the 21st century? Janet Stanford, artistic director at Imagination Stage in Bethesda, says yes.
“I’m a huge fan of Dickens, and I’ve always loved him,” said Stanford, whose adaptation of the classic novel “David Copperfield” runs through March 31 at Imagination Stage in Bethesda. “I’ve seen how those sort of Dickensian, larger-than-life characters can work in children’s literature, and I thought there would be appeal for young people. I loved the theatricality of having a cast of six people playing 30 characters — so you get to see, in the course of an hour and a half, five of them each play at least five different characters.
“For the audience, it’s an experience, a way to see the story told in a different way.”
In “Dickens’s Davy Copperfield,” written and directed by Stanford, the story, set in 19th century England, is told as a musical adventure, one that’s aimed at families with children, ages 6 and older. And while the title character, Dickens’s most autobiographical creation, goes through trials and tribulations on his journey, he imparts some lessons that many modern kids need to learn.
Photo Credit: Margot Schulman
Davy’s classmates Steerforth (David Schlumpf), Traddles (Emily Kester) and Demple (Jessica Lauren Ball) tease the school janitor Tungay (Alexandra Palting).
Stanford, who has been at Imagination Stage for more than 25 years, said feedback from teachers and parents inspired her to find a character who models resilience. “There’s a concern that a lot of children in our community are growing up without a lot of bounce back,” she noted. “Not everyone, of course, but many kids get discouraged easily if something doesn’t work out for them the first time. There’s been a push to find and tell stories about falling down and then brushing yourself off and getting back up again.”
Sophie Schulman, who plays Davy, said she’s “been on a string of playing men and boys recently, which is a fun challenge. The character is such a good person, with a strong moral compass. You see him learn and grow, and become more adventurous throughout the show as he explores his boundaries.”
Dickens wrote nearly two dozen novels, novellas and plays, plus short stories and works of non-fiction, but he considered “David Copperfield” — its full title: “The Personal History, Adventures, Experience and Observation of David Copperfield the Younger of Blunderstone Rookery (Which He Never Meant to Publish on Any Account)”— his favorite. First published as a serial in 1849-50, it became a book in 1850, and while the novel is dense — more than 600 pages — and traces David Copperfield’s journey from orphan to author, Stanford’s adaptation focuses on Davy’s childhood years.
“He’s someone who’s overcome so much,” Schulman said of her character. “But always with a positive attitude and a can-do spirit. It’s inspiring!”
It’s also over the top: Schulman said Davy’s compelling story arc is bolstered by “chase scenes, legends that we tell through melodrama, people bonking heads and falling over — all the things that make theater really fun.”
She said that with Guillot’s original songs and the vivid set and costumes, “Dickens’s Davy Copperfield” offers kids a bright, beautiful place for their imaginations to run wild. And because the play is being performed in repertory with “Anatole: Mouse Magnifique,” which is geared toward younger children, Schulman noted that there’s really something for everyone at Imagination Stage right now. The schedule is challenging, but children’s theater is close to her heart.
Photo Credit: Margot Schulman
Sophie Schulman plays Davy in Dickens’ Davy Copperfield at Imagination Stage.
“I started doing shows when I was about 8,” said Schulman, 28, who grew up in Palo Alto, California. “I’ve been doing theater since I was very small; my mom did a lot of theater when she was a kid, so we always listened to musicals around the house.”
She first came to the D.C. area to study; Schulman earned a bachelor of arts degree in musical theater at American University and decided to settle here after a few years of traveling. This is her Imagination Stage debut — and her first time performing in a Dickens-inspired show.
“I read ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ in high school and I read ‘David Copperfield’ in preparation for this, but that’s pretty much my only exposure,” she admitted. “It’s been cool to see how Janet translated the text into a play, especially because Dickens includes so many characters, and is so descriptive. Getting it down to an hour and a half is a beast of a task, but she did an amazing job.”
Stanford said she tried to find the things in “David Copperfield” that would appeal to kids, and that Dickens offered a surprising amount of material. “One thing that’s very true about Dickens, but also true about literature for children, is that the lines are pretty black and white between who’s a good character and who isn’t,” she noted. “There can be humor in that — and the actors are just going to town with it!”
Stanford said that while she is very interested in storytelling that is theatrical in its appeal to young people, there’s more to “Dickens’s Davy Copperfield” than lots of laughs and a message about resilience. She wants to connect her audiences to one of her favorite authors, and at the same time, broaden the scope of their imagination and humanity.
“Stories are intended to take us to places we don’t know,” she said. “They can build a bridge between the past and the present, between characters from different nations and different times, and make us see, ultimately, how interconnected we are as humans.”
“Dickens’s Davy Copperfield” runs through March 31 at Imagination Stage’s Lerner Family Theatre, 4908 Auburn Ave., Bethesda. Shows start at 1:30 and 4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. An ASL-Interpreted performance is at 4 p.m. March 31. Tickets, ranging from $15 to $35, may be purchased online at www.imaginationstage.org, at the Imagination Stage box office or by phone at 301-280-1660. Group rates are available.