HARTFORD, Connecticut, U.S.A. – Playing some of the most famous kids in American literature, three young actors at Hartford Stage are having a great time with their roles while tackling the tough issues in “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
The play, which is nearing the end of a wildly popular run, is based on the Harper Lee novel of the same name. It features 12-year-old Olivia Scott as Scout Finch, a girl growing up in tiny Maycomb, Alabama; 15-year-old Henry Hodges as her brother Jem, and 11-year-old Andrew Shipman, who plays their friend, Dill Harris.
The three actors said they’re having fun with their characters, but also said the play delivers an important message.
Set in the early 1930s during a time of intense racial prejudice, the three children are in the middle of a controversial court case that has the entire town watching. Scout and Jem’s father, attorney Atticus Finch, is assigned to defend a black man, Tom Robinson, who is falsely accused of raping a white woman, Mayella Ewell.
Hodges said the play is still relevant to today’s society.
“You can still totally be judged because of your race. We’re not done with it, we’ve still got a long way to go,” Hodges said.
Scott said the show “also kind of points a finger at the audience. Your ancestors did this and it’s your job to change it now.”
Shipman said the story tells “how far we’ve come, but what we need to work on.”
But the lessons are more than that.
“It kind of gives the message of hope for a better future,” said Scott.
The younger characters of the play prove that “no one’s perfect,” said Hodges. “If everyone’s perfect, it would be very boring.”
One important audience member approved of how the cast delivered the message in “Mockingbird.”
Horton Foote, the American playwright who wrote the screenplay to the 1962 movie, “To Kill a Mockingbird,” had a long relationship with Hartford Stage.
His daughter, Hallie Foote, plays the adult Scout and narrates the show.
Horton Foote, who was 92 when he died last month, supported the production.
“He came to opening night,” said Scott. “He gave us a standing ovation.”
Scott, who said she’s a little bit of a tomboy in real life, said she’s having fun in the role of Scout, who gets into fights with boys at school.
“It’s fun beating up people,” said Scott. “It’s fun getting frustrated.”
Hodges said he enjoys the journey Jem makes through the play.
“I really like the character,” said Hodges. “He’s great.”
Hodges can’t think of a part of playing Jem that he doesn’t like.
At first, Hodges said, Jem is presented as a somewhat lonely young man. But by the second act, as the dramatic court scene progresses, Jem gains new respect for his father.
“My favorite scene is probably the first scene of the show,” said Hodges. He especially likes it because it introduces the story of Boo Radley, the mysteriously shy neighbor that the kids spend much of their time trying to coax out of his house. “It’s really a great story. We have lots of fun.”
Inspired by Boo Radley’s gift of dolls carved out of soap, Scott said she gave soap carving a try.
“Now it’s like my new hobby,” Scott said.
Shipman said many people see that Dill is not your average child.
“This kid’s very different,” said Shipman. “He has high energy.”
Shipman, who was in the process of reading the novel, said he understood the many layers of his character.
Dill is “a great character who symbolizes innocence,” said Shipman.
“His parents neglected him,” Shipman said. “He’s trying to cover up what he’s really feeling, which is sadness.”
Dill does get over it, though, Shipman said.
“His experiences with Scout and Jem helped him,” Shipman said.
But as he’s trying to cover it up, Dill always has to seem happy and excited, according to Shipman.
To prepare for his role, Hodges said he watched the movie “To Kill A Mockingbird” during callbacks. Although he read the book three years before accepting the part as Jem, he refused to read it again.
“If I read it, I’ll get the lines confused,” Hodges said.
Once he got the part, Hodges said everyone involved in bringing the book to life sat around a table to talk about each character’s “decisions.”
The biggest challenge for Scott, she said, is that nearly everyone in the audience has read the book and “has their own idea of how Scout is.”
Scott said she’d read the novel, but didn’t watch the movie.
“I gotta make it my own character,” said Scott.
Dill can be an ever-changing role, Shipman said, because his emotions can completely change from one scene to the next. One thing that never changes, however, is his energy.
“Before shows, I always try to get into his energy,” Shipman said. “I try to think of something I’m interested in, like Dill is to Boo Radley.”
It’s not easy to always look happy, even if you don’t have problems.
To pull it off, Shipman said he tries to consider “what Dill would think.”
The production is the biggest selling show ever at Hartford Stage. The theater added many extra performances to accommodate the demand for tickets.
This story was reported by Youth Journalism International Associate Editor Rachel Glogowski, Senior Reporter Wesley Saxena, Reporter Kiernan Majerus-Collins and Junior Reporter Mary Majerus-Collins.