“The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby” is the most ambitious production ever attempted in the 25-year partnership of Theatre UCF and Orlando Shakespeare Theater (OST). The stage adaptation of Charles Dickens’ 19th century novel is a 6 1/2-hour epic that encompasses 150 characters in 100 scenes. Set in Victorian England, the story of greed, corruption and class is such a difficult test of a theater company’s manpower, finances and stamina that it has only been performed professionally seven times in the U.S. since its 1980 debut.
The UCF/OST team, however, was undeterred by the many challenges, which included casting 27 actors to play 150 parts, creating 250 costumes, building a 2,300 square-foot stage and raising an additional $100,000 to cover their costs. For the play’s co-directors, OST Artistic Director Jim Helsinger and Theatre UCF Chair Christopher Niess, the benefits of performing this landmark play far outweighed the risks. UCF Today asked the pair about the production, their collaboration and more.
What inspired this ambitious production?
Jim Helsinger: I saw the play performed back in the 1980s when it was first popular, and it was the longest standing ovation I’ve ever given to a show. It is much more than an evening at the theater – it is an event. The theatrical experience can be one of shared magic between the audience members, the actors, the playwright and designers all together.
Christopher Niess: One of the key points that pulled us into the production was the nature of the piece. It is a mammoth but accessible production that has so much substance and character development. And it is an undertaking that will bring a degree of prestige — a real marker both for a professional theater company and for an academic unit to have done something like this.
What happens in “Nicholas Nickleby?”
JH: At the beginning of the play, Nicholas Nickleby’s father dies and Nicholas, his mother and sister Kate all come to London to seek help from Nicholas’s uncle Ralph. He offers to help them, but not really. He sends Nicholas off to a terrible school and sends Kate to work at a [dress maker’s] shop that’s really a sweatshop. And he tries to use them politically. At the end, everybody who is good is rewarded, and everyone who is evil is punished. That’s one thing I love about Dickens’ plays — it all comes back and clicks together at the end.
What is the experience like for the audience?
JH: This production is very interactive. As an audience member, there will be actors performing behind you and on mini stages on both sides [of the theater]. We built this huge set that makes you feel like you are in the city of London. The very first scene of the show is about a riot over muffins and the audience members will get to throw muffins up on the stage. It’s a fun show.
CN: Dickens was a master at pulling readers along with a character-driven story. The piece has a lot of charisma and climatic action, so it really draws you in. It reminds me of the “Downton Abbey” TV series.
Why was the Theatre UCF/OST partnership essential to the production?
JH: The partnership with UCF is invaluable. We couldn’t do it without them. It’s a massive cast that’s all put together with professionals, faculty, graduate and undergraduate students and interns.
CN: I think this truly is a hallmark of where this partnership has gone. A lot of people have put a lot of work into it and we’re very proud of it.
What was it like collaborating with another director?
CN: Directing is like being an air traffic controller because you have all of these talented people who do great work and it’s how you coordinate them all to tell a story. Working with another director is a unique type of relationship. It’s like hiring two chefs to run one restaurant. It has been a study in collaboration and Jim has been a great partner.
What are the risks involved in presenting a 6 ½-hour play?
JH: It’s a gamble to do something this big for the Central Florida community. Can we get the community to come to a show that is not a known quantity like “West Side Story,” “Les Misérables” or “Cats?” It has the excitement of a sports event, it has the commitment of TV binge watching, and it has the topicality of what’s happening in the U.S. about greed and social change. Plus, it’s romantic and funny and gripping and sad.
CN: You have to be a little crazy when you are pushing the bar to capture people’s imagination. This is an event that we hope will excite people in the region and even nationally.
“The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby” continues through March 9 at the Orlando Shakespeare Theater in Orlando’s Loch Haven Park. For more information, visit orlandoshakes.org.