Alumna flips over adapting novel into circus play

Sheila Burt

Christine Dunford is haunted by Jan Potocki’s book, “The Manuscript Found in Saragossa.” She has read the 18th century Polish novel, which follows an officer’s journey to Madrid in 1739, over and over.

And she’s taking her obsession to Northwestern.

Dunford, Communication ’87, plans to direct a loose adaptation of the novel with NU students and directors at the Actors Gymnasium in Evanston. She hopes the final adaptation will be performed at NU’s Barber Theatre in February 2005.

In preparation Dunford will conduct project development workshops at the Actors Gymnasium during Fall and Winter quarters. About 10 to 20 chosen students will learn tumbling and circus art skills, in addition to movement and image ideas for the adaptation. The workshops are to be funded by the Lookingglass Theatre Company in Chicago.

“I would like people from all over (NU) to be involved,” said Dunford, a Performance Studies graduate student and Lookingglass artistic ensemble member.

Communication sophomore Jen Kretchmer, an interested theatre student who started performing circus acts at camp almost six years ago, said the project is a perfect fit because it enables her to study two of her life passions for an extended time period.

“I love acting and I love circus,” Kretchmer said. “It just sounds really cool to have an opportunity to do both and also to workshop something.”

The workshops will focus on something Dunford refers to as “image vocabulary,” where she and the actors decide what images are critical to the text and for the stage production.

“We will workshop different ways to bring that image to life using our bodies and very few props,” Dunford said.

Dunford said she has many ideas in her head after rereading the novel, but she wants to “see how they live in actors’ bodies.”

The adaptation will have a structured plot line and dialogue, Dunford added, but the stage performance will juxtapose “images, language and sound” to tell the story.

Dunford said Potocki’s book is unique because it raises many questions about cultural understandings and social interaction. She describes it as a coming-of-age novel with “all the social and cultural ‘givens’ up for grabs.”

“It asks, ‘What do we think is important?’ and ‘Why?'” she said.

Dunford added that she hopes the actors will also have the opportunity to work with professional actors in a performance that combines circus arts and theater.

“Although in Chicago circus arts is becoming more a part of the theatrical experience, it’s still not common,” Dunford said.

Auditions for students are scheduled tentatively for Oct. 26 from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m.

Dunford, who was a NU theatre major from 1982 to 1987, also was one of earliest members of Lookingglass. She served as managing director of development for Lookingglass and remains an artistic ensemble member.

“This is a combination of me taking advantage of a (great) opportunity and me hopefully being able to give students a valuable experience,” she said.

More than 35 students have shown interest so far, Dunford said, and if the production is successful it may be performed elsewhere.

Sylvia Hernandez-DiStasi, an artistic associate with Lookingglass and the circus arts director at the Actors Gymnasium, will help train students in circus techniques such as acrobatic choreography and improvisational skills so they can “incorporate their bodies” into the production.

“For me personally, it gives the work another level,” Hernandez-Distasi said. “It’s also a very freeing way to express yourself.”