Growing up in Sarasota, Florida, Sylvia Hernandez-DiStasi didn’t have to run away to the circus. She was already there. Hernandez-DiStasi is the choreographer for the dizzying acrobatics that are an integral element of Chicago’s Lookingglass Theater’s production of “Lookingglass Alice,” which is currently in previews at McCarter Theater, and opens Friday, January 12.
Now an artistic associate at Lookingglass Theater and artistic director of the Actor’s Gymnasium, a circus and performing arts school, Hernandez-DiStasi says she didn’t spend much time in Sarasota as a child because her family, a troupe of acrobats, was always on tour with the circus. She has been performing since she was seven years old.
Alice has been central to the Lookingglass Theater from its very beginning, when a group of Northwestern University chums started it all with their production of “Alice in Wonderland” in 1987. From the onset, they determined to use improvisation, physicalization, and circus arts as an integral part of their company process. Developed and first staged at the theater company’s home in Chicago, this production, directed by Lookingglass Theater artistic director David Catlin, is traveling first to McCarter, and from there to the New Vic in Manhattan, then to the Arden in Philadelphia, and (as the company announces on its website) “tumbles” back to the Chicago base by June 20.
A press statement about the production says that “Alice falls, floats, flies, and defies gravity and the rules of logic on her wonderland journey through the looking glass to become a queen…(in) a muscular, acrobatic, percussive, and dizzyingly playful adaptation.” Hernandez-DiStasi is the person behind many of the stunts in the show — such as the “flying rabbit hole,’ a suspended ring that Alice “falls through” to make it appear that she’s falling through the hole and the “juggling” of Alice by the cast at the end of the show — yet she says that choreographing theater acrobatics was something “I sort of lucked into.”
While working on a production of “The Ice Wolf,” she was asked by the director to help make the Wood God character fly. “I created a rigging with which (the actor) could glide in and out of scenes. He also needed to be able to walk away from his rigging. And since he wasn’t connected to the rigging, he had to use a lot of strength. It was original for its time (early ’90s),” she says in an E-mail interview. Little did she know that this project would lead her to her next career, and eventually to founding the Actor’s Gymnasium. “I enjoyed teaching the actor the techniques and the whole process. I thought at the time, ‘I would really like to do that again.’” Not long after that she was contacted by Lookingglass to help with their production of “The Master and Margarita.” “I was thrilled,” she says.
Going behind the scenes, though, took a bit of an adjustment. For someone who had been performing for most of her life, she admits, “I was worried that it would be hard to give it up. But seeing your work performed by others is a great replacement.” She also had to get used to not hearing applause. “When you’re in the circus, you get the applause and instant gratification. With acting you have to know within yourself how you’re doing, and wait until the end of the show to see how the audience received you.”
Since becaming primarily a teacher and choreographer, she has on occasion gone on stage to fill in for a missing performer. “The understudy experience was one of my favorites. I got to perform on the trapeze with my husband, and I was three months pregnant, so my whole family was on stage together for the first time. I loved that.”
She is married to Larry Di-
Stasi, one of the founders of the Lookingglass Theater, who performs the roles of the White Knight, the White Queen, and Dodgson in this current production. Also on stage is her brother, Tony Hernandez, as the Red Queen, Tweedle Dum, Dormouse, and Caterpillar.
Not surprising, she finds special difficulties working with family members. “Maybe you’re not always as nice as you could be to each other. Sometimes you expect more.” During rehearsal, she remembers being a bit shrill when her husband was trying a new routine. “He was being lifted into the air by one foot on a long piece of fabric. When he was lowered back to the ground, I wanted him to lift himself up so as to land on his back.” When some of the other actors reached out to help him and keep his head from hitting the floor, “I yelled ‘no, don’t touch him, let him do it.’ It came out louder than I expected, and the actors all jumped back. My husband’s head was fine, by the way.”
This is the 11th Lookingglass production on which the choreographer has worked. For three of these, including “Lookingglass Alice,” she has won Joseph Jefferson Awards (Chicago’s version of New York’s Tony Awards.)
In reviews of the Chicago production of “Lookingglass Alice” the emphasis, not surprisingly, is on the actress in the title role, Lauren Hirte, and the aerial feats she performs with ease. When did she first meet Alice, I wondered. “Since we started working on ‘Alice,’ I have wracked my brain to figure that out. I know that the story has been with me from a very young age,” says the five-foot-tall, Hirte via E-mail. (She is 26 but says people tell her she looks only 16, maybe 17.) She remembers that her mother read to her and her older brother so Hirte thinks that Alice was one of the stories they heard.
Like many of us, she mostly thinks of the Disney movie that premiered in 1951. Though it was a colossal flop at the box office and received absolutely hostile reviews, it had staying power, probably thanks to the Disney marketing machine and television. Hirte also remembers seeing a television version in which Sammy Davis Jr. played the Caterpillar. That has to be the 1966 Hanna-Barbera animated version. Re-runs can be a good thing. (Hernandez-DiStasi doesn’t remember meeting the storybook character of Alice when she was a child. “Maybe my mom thought it would freak me out.”)
Hirte first performed in “Lookingglass Alice” in 2005 and says that they had just three weeks of rehearsal and one week of technical rehearsal before they began preview performances. However, she had been in workshops several times a week for the two months leading up to the rehearsal. “During those workshops, we were just trying to gain strength and stamina for the show as well as playing around with different scenes.” In preparation for this current mounting of “Lookingglass Alice,” she has been working once a week since November with Hernandez-DeStasi to “gain strength and revisit some of the aerial choreography. We also are trying to tweak the routines and make them better.”
Her performance has been described as “fearless.” Asked if she ever was frightened in rehearsal or performance, she says, “I think mostly I view the stuff I do as fun. I always enjoyed climbing up as high as I could on things and being off of the ground. My favorite dreams were the ones where I could fly.”
Hirte grew up in the suburbs of Chicago in a house on a three-quarter acre plot with a lot of trees, which she says she “used to climb constantly.” Trying to keep up with her brother who was six years older, the two “were always running around outside and doing crazy things.” When she was three, her parents divorced. So every Sunday she and her brother would visit their father, an artist, in the city and often were driven north to Weyawega, Wisconsin, to visit their grandparents. “They lived on a farm where we would go fishing and run around in the woods.”
Meanwhile, at home with her mother, Hirte was encouraged to take all kinds of arts classes, including dance, clarinet, and piano lessons. When she was about five or six years old, her mother became involved with community theater and often took her daughter along to rehearsals. “I remember the first time I stepped on a stage. My mom was in rehearsal for ‘Anything Goes’ and she brought me along where they were painting the set. I remember walking onto the stage and looking out at the house and thinking, ‘This is where it happens’ and just getting this weird, tingly sensation of exhilaration or power.”
Hirte started taking theater classes when she was about eight or nine at the Piven Theater Workshop in Evanston, Illinois, and continued taking classes there through high school. The Workshop just happens to be in the same building as Hernandez-DiStasi’s Actor’s Gymnasium. When the two organizations did a workshop together, it was a life-changing event for Hirte, who began her circus training during her senior year in high school.
Her mother now rues the fact that she hadn’t given her daughter gymnastics classes as well. But in general Hirte thinks that her mom is “glad that I’m using some of the skills from all the other classes.” She also believes that her dad is a bit more apprehensive when she is flying around: “He still always says to everyone, ‘I don’t clap in the middle of her routines, I only clap at the very end when it is all over and she is on the ground again.’”
Alices of all sorts have been through the looking glass and down the rabbit hole in an amazing number of variations since the story was first invented by Oxford don Charles L. Dodson to entertain three little girls during a boat trip in 1862. They were later written down and published under his nom de plume, Lewis Carroll.
In addition to the versions referred to by Hirte, there are film versions dating back to the days of silent pictures — the first made in the United Kingdom in 1903. In addition to the Disney and Hanna-Barbera versions, there was an Alice/Looking Glass television adaptation on “Great Performances” in 1983 with Kate Burton as Alice and her father, Richard, as the White Knight. A couple of years later, TV gave us an “all-star” version with Red Buttons as the White Rabbit, Carol Channing as the White Queen, Ringo Starr as the Mock Turtle, and Shelley Winters as the Dodo Bird. I’ve never seen this one, but it’s hard to imagine a more bizarre cast.
I did see two very memorable stage versions with two legendary women of the theater: on Broadway in 1982 — Eva LeGallienne’s version that she directed and in which she played the White Queen, and two years earlier at the Public Theater in New York — with none other than the great Meryl Streep as Alice.
There has been an on-ice Alice with Nancy Kerrigan, and I’m told a number of porn versions. It’s truly amazing the impact these Wonderland stories have had, embedded deeply in modern culture and influencing many artists. Current reviews of the new film “Pan’s Labyrinth” make comparisons to Alice’s world. And Sarah Michele Gellar of Buffy the Vampire Slayer fame is taking on the role in a big-screen adaptation of a video game based on Lewis Carroll’s classic tales. As Alice herself would say, “Oh, my, how curious everything is.”
Lookingglass Alice, through Sunday, January 28, McCarter Theater, 91 University Place. Drama based on Lewis Carroll’s “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” and “Through the Looking Glass” is adapted and directed by David Catlin in association with Chicago’s Lookinglass Theater Company. For all ages. $40 to $53. 609-258-2787.