Theater transcends time and place. It sends us traveling through decades past or to exotic lands even our wildest imaginations could not dream of.
But, while time may be fluid and the setting may change, one thing remains constant – the desire of self-realization.
Children’s Theatre Company’s third show of the season, “The Last Firefly,” explores that timeless question: “What is the meaning of life?”
Boom, a young boy, goes on a journey to find his father. While traveling through perilous lands and meeting devious creatures on a search to find where he comes from, he learns who he is.
Playwright Naomi Iizuka’s work also went through an epic journey, beginning as a developmental piece in CTC’s Threshold program in 2009. After completing the play, it was selected for The John F. Kenney Center’s New Voice/New Visions Festival and was honored by the Joyce Awards.
In its final stages of self-realization, the show opened its world premiere on its home stage at CTC.
MNfusion got the chance to chat with actress Stephanie Bertumen, who plays Boom’s adversary Lightning. Bertumen discusses Iizuka’s vision and the courage of everyday life.
Let’s start with a question many may have as the show has an age limit. The show is recommended for kids ages 8 and up, but even at that age many kids haven’t really gone through a journey so-to-speak. How do you think children will relate to this story?
Bertumen: Boom, the main protagonist of the play, is a goodhearted young boy who overcomes his fears and realizes that he possesses great potential and bravery. Though kids will not have gone on the same exact journey as Boom, this is still a common story that I think children will be able to relate to, such as remembering how they used to be afraid of the dark and how they’re not anymore. It’s an accomplishment that, while it might seem small in hindsight, is huge! Fundamentally, we’ve all gotten to where we are today, step by courageous step.
I’ve never thought about how each of us has gone on a journey, no matter how small. It’s an interesting comparison to look at our smaller victories. So, the story of a protagonist finding themselves on a journey is a very prevalent theme in many works of art. Why do you think that is?
Bertumen: “What is the meaning of life?” is this massive question that many people have sought to answer. Since art is a way that people can reflect on life and wrestle with its mysteries, and it’s a safe place for this sort of exploration where there are virtually no rules, it makes sense that so many works of art have to do with protagonists finding themselves. It seems we’re all trying to do this in some way, whether intentionally or not.
That eternal question is certainly something that connects humans across races and cultures. Speaking of, playwright Iizuka explains that manga has been an inspiration for this show. Can you speak to how you see influences from manga/anime?
Bertumen: One example of anime influence I see in the play is in my character “Lightning.” Lightning’s look, designed by Helen Huang, employs some steampunk edginess and also echoes traditional Japanese samurai armor. Lightning is as wonderfully fantastical as the many magical anime characters I’ve seen. She is fierce even in her femininity (she wears a skirt and a white-streaked updo); she’s as tough as her armor and as fierce as her blue-hued electricity! Also, a lot of anime stories challenge us with some complex characters, and I think Naomi Iizuka has written such a character in Lightning.
It’s a wonderful thing that theater explores different eras and cultures, such as manga or Japanese samurai. Why do you think it is important to showcase different cultural influences, especially for young audiences?
Bertumen: I think that a lot of the hatred in the world stems from people feeling disconnected and unloved. The theater, potentially, is a place where people from various backgrounds and perspectives come together to listen and have a communal experience. If we can somehow utilize theater as an opportunity to learn more about ourselves and about other people, including people of other cultures, then that’s invaluable. When we are able to see that other people share our struggles and joys, we realize that we are more alike than maybe we think. Also, that we’re more connected to each other than maybe we think. That’s the kind of understanding that could make the world a more peaceful place. It would help for people to start thinking that way at a young age.
This sounds like a very intricate show. Tell me, what was the most challenging thing about this show? About playing your character?
Bertumen: Every day of rehearsal felt like trying to solve a big puzzle. It was about trying different choices and finding which ones were the pieces that would best fit Peter’s (director Peter C. Brosius) and Naomi’s vision. Also, there’s excitement and adventure at every turn, so it’s basically all hands on deck to create the magic of this play! The most challenging part about this character was finding how to keep Lightning’s heart and humanity alive at the center of her superhuman-ness and the hard protective shell she wears.
I can see how it would be difficult to know the right point at which Lightning begins to shed her protective shell. It sounds like she goes through quite a journey herself! On the other hand, what is your favorite thing about your character?
Bertumen: While Lightning isn’t a “villain” per se, she’s certainly tough and an adversary to Boom when they first encounter each other. She’s willing to throw lightning bolts at people who get in her way! I don’t exercise that kind of power or even that kind of “tough love,” as Peter calls it, on a daily basis. It’s fun to play someone so naturally dangerous and brazen.
It must be very fun to play someone so different from your personality! So, performing for children can often be a very different experience than performing for adults. Why do you enjoy doing theater for children versus older audiences?
Bertumen: Children, in general, are still so much better in touch with their imagination and are still so hopeful. As an adult, with all that I’ve experienced and learned, it’s easy to forget about having fun and having an open heart. But younger people remind me.
Tell me, whether they possess the open heart and mind of a child or they are a bit more closed off as an adult, what message do you want audience members to come away from this show with?
Bertumen: I hope audiences come away from this show believing that they are brave, and that to love is brave. Also, that they have, within themselves, everything they need to do amazing things!