James DeVita on adapting Thief Lord for First Stage Children’s Theater
The canals of Venice are a long way from the Milwaukee River. Yet the mystery and magic held within the ancient water-bound city will come to life at the Todd Wehr Theater starting Jan. 22 with Cornelia Funke’s story, The Thief Lord. It’s the first time that a tale by the popular German children’s book author (Dragon Rider, the Inkworld trilogy) will unfold on the live stage, and this world premiere is due in part to the epic adaptation by First Stage Children’s Theater Resident Playwright James DeVita.
If that name sounds familiar, perhaps you’ve seen DeVita in a play at Spring Green’s American Players Theatre. He also famously adapted and performed in a personalized version of In Acting Shakespeare at APT this summer, taking on a one-man play associated with Sir Ian McKellen. It’s possible you saw him in indie movies like Madison, or read one his novels meant for young adults and children.
The Long Island, NY, native has long made his family’s home in Spring Green, WI. Winter is a good time of year to find him there writing, or in this case, penning another revision of a play. It’s not easy to adapt such a sprawling and epic children’s book.
“Its a process of give and take, and also of writing original material,” DeVita explains. “You always have to write original scenes when adapting something for the stage: you have to write a scene where there aren’t scenes so that if something takes place on a boat that it takes place on the dock.”
DeVita pauses for a moment and continues.
The Thief Lord tells the tale of two brothers, Prosper and Bo, whose parents die and the siblings decide to flee to Venice rather than live with their horrible guardians. Once there, they hook up with a young gang staying at an abandoned theater and led by the enigmatic teenager Scipio — also known as ‘Thief Lord.’ They survive by stealing from the rich and selling to an old shopkeeper, who tells them of a big score they could make. Meanwhile, the boys’ nasty guardian aunt has sent a detective to hunt them down. Soon thereafter, the characters’ secrets are revealed and play off one another.
Finally, a showdown happens on a magic-laden island involving an age-changing carousel.
DeVita and various First Stage staffers read tons of material each year looking for a new find. When the adapting playwright was shown the text several years ago, it was love at first read.
“It had great characters, great characters for young people and for the older actors, too. So it was a great mix,” says DeVita. “I love the kind of magic that’s mixed in the very realistic kind of world.”
It was also the kind of material that didn’t talk down to children; yet, it contained some very blunt material. DeVita hopes that different ages will appreciate the story and get something out of the material.
“Those are the only kinds of projects that I choose, as well. I’ve certainly learned this over the years, and the only criteria is you write a good story, and you’ll hold their attention,” states DeVita. “You handle it responsibly. We’ve handled just about every kind of issue you can think of … now, while this play happens to be mostly fun, it also deals with orphans — children who don’t have parents. And parental types that aren’t very good, which is obvious in the play. So then it’s about what that does to kids and families: that’s the thing that’s underneath.
He also has to deal with smart kids. These are the ones who show up at a public reading, like the one last year, where the literati little ones grilled him about what he left out of the original source material that was important to them.
More recently, DeVita returned from a week in Milwaukee so that scenes could be re-written and practiced with the cast. This process continues now by e-mail and sometimes right up to opening night as they tweak everything just so. The playwright says that the stage design is incredible and a virtual playland for both the young and older actors at First Stage, and so is the wardrobe.
As busy as 2009 was for James DeVita, 2010 is shaping up to match that. The APT season will again see him in three plays, including Waiting for Godot. He’s also hoping to wrap up work on his first adult novel. But first, there is a young man lurking on the rooftops in a long-nosed mask that has his attention.
The First Stage Children’s Theater world premiere of The Thief Lord runs Jan. 22 – Feb. 4 on the Todd Wehr Theater stage in the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts, located along the riverwalk entrance near 123 E. Water St. You can get ticket information by calling 414-267-2961 or by visiting their website highlighted above.