Playing Characters and Building Character: An Interview with Bennett Shelley on To Kill a Mockingbird
We have all heard the cliche of “walking a mile in someone else’s shoes.” As for the Andrews University Theatre Wing’s (AUTW) production of To Kill a Mockingbird, the many returning cast members who have been practicing every day took this in the literal sense while preparing themselves for their characters. I sat down with AUTW’s production manager Bennett Shelley (junior, English, French) to get the details about the process and goals of their production.
According to Shelley, getting into character is a very interesting process. The actors assume the character in their day to day lives, sporting southern accents in the majority of their daily activities. Of the many complex characters in the play, I asked Bennett about the character Mayella Ewell in particular. Shelley stated that the actress who will be playing this character is naturally very bright and sassy, but her character is distrustful and psychologically damaged, so it will be less natural for her in her preparation for the role and it will be fascinating to see how she embodies this roll against her natural personality.
While it may seem bizarre, many actors agree that the best way to naturally and fully understand the attitude, mood and tone that the character would take to step into the roll whenever they can. Shelley explained another unique aspect of the performance, noting that To Kill a Mockingbird is a very thoughtful play, packed with important themes, and is going to be carried out in an abstract and minimalistic format. This will give the audience a very rare experience of creating many details of the play in their own minds. The set is going to be compiled by selecting key props to show the setting, or backdrop, the remainder of which will be absent.
With a story that presents many issues such as mental health awareness, drug and substance abuse and racial discrimination, Shelley states there will be a lot to take in. Additionally, there will be a scene where the auditorium will be transformed, so members of the audience will shift from the standpoint of observer to being a participant. This fascinating structure allows the climax of the story to be present at the peak of emotional connection.
According to Shelley, this rendition of the book many of us read in high school comes at a very important time considering everything that’s been going on in the media with Black Lives Matter and various issues that our generation has been educating themselves about recently, providing the AUTW’s audience an opportunity to observe these issues through a dramatic lens. Shelley expressed the hope that people will be challenged to acknowledge the racial issues that are articulated and parallelled in To Kill a Mockingbird, to instead establish common ground in order to make a difference within their own capacity regarding how we react to racial issues inside and outside Andrews’ campus. As we journey through the scenes with the characters, the production will emphasize that we must cast off stereotypes and assumptions as we get to know each character, that we cannot judge people fully as we are unable to understand all of the details of their experiences.