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ThinkTank Theatre opens ‘The Giver,’ for young audiences, this weekend

Bill DeYoung

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Harrison Baxley, left, and Hugh Timony co-star in "The Giver," based on the novel by Lois Lowry. Photo: ThinkTank.

Lois Lowry’s novel The Giver turned out to be the perfect choice for ThinkTank, the Tampa Theatre company focused on creating “progressive” theater for young people.

As in YA (young adult) theater. Not children’s theater.

“It’s almost odd to call teenagers children nowadays,” says ThinkTank artistic director Georgia Mallory Guy. “I never had to do a lockdown drill. I never had to do an active shooter drill. And I was in high school 22 years ago.

“These kids, in their 16, 17, 18 years of life, have experienced so much that to think of them as children, and to think that they can’t handle more mature work, is silly of us.”

The Giver, winner of multiple literary awards, is set in a dystopian future where individuality is not just frowned upon, it is expressly forbidden. Even memory, familial or otherwise, is out of the question. Jonah, the 12-year-old protagonist, is beginning to question his place in such a world.

The book has sold more than 12 million copies. The stage adaptation is by Eric Coble.

Guy, who read The Giver when she was in middle school, believes such tales can open doors in young minds.

“They’re seeing things that directly involve them, that affect the lives of young people and their families,” she explains. “And hopefully can allow parents and families to tackle some tough questions sometimes at the dinner table.

“There’s a brief section in The Giver that deals with suicide, for example. It can be an inroad to an awkward conversation. It’s like, how do you sit down and talk about the birds and the bees? Do you put it on the calendar, or do you wait till it comes up? What better way to do that than through storytelling?”

Opening Friday, with a preview on Thursday, The Giver is a co-production with Tampa Repertory Theatre, as is a production of the Tony-winning British Drama The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, which will open Nov. 26. The two plays will run in repertory through mid-December.

“They’re both award-winning books, so there’s a scholastic element to it,” Guy says. “It’s good for families and it’s good for students.”

In “The Giver,” clockwise from top left: Annie Sardouk, Harrison Baxley, Marie-Claude Tremblay and Cranston Cumberbatch. Photo: ThinkTank.

Both shows employ members of ThinkTank’s Young Artist Ensemble, along with professional adult actors and others from the community.

Both shows require multiple casts; five actors are doing double-duty in both productions.

Jonah, the protagonist in The Giver, is played by Harrison Baxley, who happens to be ThinkTank’s social media guru. Guy says the recent University of South Florida graduate “really did his homework, came in and auditioned, and just nailed it. And he looks like a baby!”

Guy is particularly proud of what are known as “relaxed performances, specially curated for special needs families and their guests, she explains, for those who might have sensory-based issues.

Certain lightning and/or sound cues are eliminated in relaxed performances. The theater door is left open – giving easy access to the lobby – and the house lights remain on low for the duration.

Although The Giver is suggested for age 8 and up, should parents bring younger children for what might be their first taste of live theater, the relaxed show this Saturday, Nov. 20 at 3 p.m.) is recommended.

A small sampling of the language in The Curious Incident will be toned down for the relaxed performances on Nov. 27; otherwise, the play by Simon Stephens (from Mark Haddon’s novel) will be exactly as performed on Broadway (winner of the 2015 Tony as Best Play).

The main character in this show is an inquisitive young boy, Christopher, who is in the autism spectrum.

J.J. Humphrey, the Lakeland highschooler portraying him in the joint ThinkTank/Tampa Rep production, “calls himself an autistic person, not a person living with autism, because it is a part of his life,” Guy explains. “He is an advocate for autism awareness. He is a member of the Florida Youth Council.

“He’s a generous actor. He’s so excited. It’s brilliant to watch him in the room – he just brings such life to it. And when he’s not Christopher, and just J.J., he doesn’t let you know ‘Hi, I’m an autistic person.’ It’s not how I would first describe him at all. He doesn’t appear, in any shape, form or fashion to be living with that.

“He was very open about talking about it with us, and he’s educated us on so many things with it.”

The Giver (directed by Georgia Mallory Guy) and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (directed by Tampa Rep artistic director Emelia Sargent) are presented at Stageworks Theatre, in Tampa’s Channelside District. Ticket information is here.

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