Sole & DJ Pain 1’s Death Drive

Underground artists have helped smash some of hip-hop’s most pernicious stereotypes, showing how the genre can be intellectual, socially conscious, and even gently seductive. Sole is more of a fighter than a lover, but he wields his belligerence in noble ways, using clever rhymes to call bullshit on the Man.

But what would happen if he joined forces with a more mainstream success, someone who tends to collaborate with the likes of Young Jeezy and 2 Chainz? Something spectacular if that artist happens to be DJ Pain 1, Sole’s partner on Death Drive.

The duo examines the concept of heroism through beats and wordplay, taking aim at idols like Steve Jobs and Sigmund Freud in the process. Sole introduces himself as “too underground for the underground” in the title track, warning listeners not to peg him as a rapping Woody Guthrie. Pain 1 bolsters this statement with blistering guitar licks that loop through the song with palpable aggression.

Sole sees Guthrie as an artist beloved by people whom he just can’t get behind: liberals blinded by privilege. He spends an entire track (“Hey, Liberals”) taking this group to task. Protesting in pretty, peaceful ways doesn’t suit him; Sole needs to express anger and fear, the two emotions that remind him he’s alive.

Political arguments are filtered through a party jam in the excellent “Baghdad Shake,” which combines the heightened emotion of an Occupy rally with the rebellious spirit of a dance club willfully violating a noise ordinance. Here Pain 1 shows off his trap talents, mixing in a juicy bass and highly infectious beats.

It’s unclear what’s more memorable, the urgency of the groove or Sole’s two-pronged attack on mindless EDM and military conquest: “We on the dance floor, but it’s looking like a board game / And the party ain’t over ’til every roof is fucking bombed in.”

Richard Ayoade’s The Double

I feel for Simon James, protagonist of The Double. A meek fellow prone to anxiety and self-doubt, he’s adrift in a bleak dystopian world. People constantly forget his name. Sometimes they forget he exists. He throws himself into his job, as if to justify his existence, but he’s mired in the role of worker bee. It’s a predicament that would drive many people mad, and it gets a whole lot worse.

The film is an adaptation of Dostoevsky’s excellent 1866 novella, modernized and stylized by Richard Ayoade, star of the devastatingly funny British sitcoms The IT Crowd and Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace. Like his previous film, the 2010 coming-of-age tale Submarine, The Double has been marketed as a drama, but it’s also a blacker-than-black comedy. As the story unfolds, the misfortunes plaguing Simon (Jesse Eisenberg) become increasingly absurd. It’s both infuriating and intoxicating to watch.

The weirdness begins when Simon’s briefcase gets caught in the door of a train, which absconds with his employee ID. He asks a security guard to let him into the government agency where he works. Though he’s had the same job for seven years, the guard doesn’t recognize him and a struggle ensues. Simon spends his days pining for Hannah (Mia Waskikowska), a coworker who lives in the building across the street from his apartment, but she barely acknowledges his presence. And no matter how hard he works, he can’t get his boss to realize his name’s not Stanley.

When Simon notices that a new employee looks just like him, he can’t believe his eyes. The resemblance is purely physical, though. The look-alike, James Simon (also Eisenberg), is a charismatic chick magnet. He oozes confidence, so much that people ascribe success to him instantly, even if he hasn’t earned it. Before long, James has Simon doing all of his work as he rolls in the hay with Hannah, the boss’ daughter and others. Meanwhile, Simon’s on the verge of a meltdown, not that anyone would notice.

You will notice, of course, but you are not part of Simon’s reality, which Ayoade casts in the yellows, browns and grays of Nighthawks, Edward Hopper’s famous painting of four strangers avoiding each other in a diner. Dim, buzzing lights and a hazy psych-pop soundtrack make the proceedings seem antique and somewhat artificial, like a half-remembered dream.

Ayoade has clearly studied the shadowy aesthetics of David Lynch and Terry Gilliam, but he also seems taken with Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Amélie. Certain details, like the telescope Simon uses to peer into Hannah’s apartment and the book he lovingly makes from her torn-up drawings, are very similar to those in Jeunet’s tale of a shy Frenchwoman. But Amélie gains whimsy from its subject’s colorful imagination, whereas The Double focuses on the dark side of Simon’s identity crisis. Even if you identify with Simon’s plight, you may glimpse your inner James as you chuckle at Simon’s troubles.

Hong Sang-soo’s In Another Country

At the start of In Another Country, the newest dramedy by Korean writer-director Hong Sang-soo, we meet a Korean film student distraught about a situation involving her uncle.

“He’s not even a human being,” she insists to her mother, who, in turn, pledges to fix the problem.

This promise does not satisfy the young woman. To calm her nerves, she must write a script. It seems the only way to dull the pain and start processing her emotions. It’s also a way for Sang-soo to examine some of the illusions filmmakers create on the screen.

The script isn’t one story but a trio of 30-minute episodes set in the same Korean town. Each episode stars the same actors, but some of them play different characters in every go-round. French arthouse luminary Isabelle Huppert portrays three French visitors named Anne. Determining who is playing whom – and what makes each Anne unique – can take some time and patience. The anxiety and confusion that result are useful, though. They approximate how many people feel when they arrive in a country where they know almost no one and barely speak the language. They also help the audience empathize with Anne, whether she’s in South Korea for work, sex or spiritual healing.

Huppert serves as the film’s anchor. Charming and gorgeous, she’s hard to look away from as she smokes cigarettes on balconies and strolls down long roads with eye-catching props – a bold red dress, a delicate umbrella. At the rooming house where she’s staying, her hosts make painfully polite conversation in English, then rail at one another in Korean. Anne can sense the tension that surrounds her, but hardly anyone will acknowledge it, even when she’s committed an infraction, presumably because she’s a guest.

An obsession with beauty also complicates matters. Male characters compliment Anne’s looks almost constantly, while she claims, unconvincingly, that the dreary seaside village is stunning. All three Annes search for one of the town’s few scenic landmarks, a small lighthouse, which leads them into awkward, humorous situations. The best of these moments involve a lifeguard (Yoo Jun-sang), who, in one scene, produces a “small lighthouse” that is actually a camping lantern. And when the second Anne – a nervous married woman on a weekend fling with her boyfriend – finds the real lighthouse, she utters “beautiful” over and over again. The word seems like a sigh of relief for both her and the screenwriter from the opening scene.

Throughout In Another Country, Sang-soo reminds us how cameras can enhance beauty or diminish it, and how editing is just as important to storytelling as creating. Though the acting and visuals emanate naturalism, abrupt zoom-ins shatter the illusion of reality. Likewise, repetition of certain elements from story to story – a broken soju bottle, an impromptu shopping trip – emphasize filmmakers’ power to remix, recycle and reinvent. Anne doesn’t control her own destiny; the person who created her does. Another recurring image – Anne walking down the yellow line that bisects the main road – hints at the boundaries filmmakers construct between their characters and the audience.

While these concepts aren’t groundbreaking, they’re enjoyable to watch if you can tolerate feeling disoriented, anxious and perhaps a bit suspicious of filmmakers’ intentions.

Six tales of improbability in six days

Tony Trout doesn’t believe in fate. Despite this, the impresario of Are We Delicious? Ensemble Theatre chose to helm a production about magic and the uncanny ability to defy human logic. It’s called Musical Fantasy, and its concept sounds slightly nuts: Six actors who can write and sing team up with six musicians who can compose and teach, and together they create a half-dozen mini-musicals in less than a week. Writing began on April 24, and performances take place at the Brink Lounge on May 1 and 2.

The thing is, Trout does believe in trust and the power of the creative process. Along with a team of associates, he hand-picks the stars of Delicious shows, creating a who’s who of local talent for each cast. Though he’s led about 10 of these whirlwind productions since 2012, music has never been part of the mix until now. But he revels in the dance with danger, the possibility of failure that drives these shows to be great.

“We’re trying to perfect the process,” Trout explains. “We believe we can make a great show in a week, or that people can. We want to be those people.”

Epic stories

Creating an entire production in a few days is an enormous challenge, so it makes sense that the creators have epic stories on their minds when they enter Central Library for the first writing session. There’s talk about fairy tales and fables, and sci-fi adventures like Star Wars, a series that’s changed the lives of many cast members.

Several of the writer-actors, including Matt Sloan, Brad Knight and Karen Moeller, have ties to Blame Society Productions, best known for the web video series Chad Vader. Its comic tales about Darth Vader’s less-famous brother helped Sloan become the voice of Darth for Disney. In addition to appearing on Chad Vader, Knight leads local improv troupe Monkey Business Institute and Moeller serves as an artistic associate for Forward Theater Company. Other familiar faces include Kelly Maxwell, who starred in Mercury Players and OUT!Cast Theatre’s Xanadu; Dave Durbin from Strollers’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof; and Sarah Streich, the leading lady from Four Seasons’ My Fair Lady.

Writing begins in a glass-walled room nestled in the back of the library, after Trout delivers a motivational speech about risk-taking.

“I believe in you,” he says earnestly. “Let’s go for it.”

The six playwrights gather around a table with a few other collaborators, such as assistant producer Autumn Shiley and music director Andrew Rohn. Two stage managers linger nearby. Surrounding the group are props and costumes, which remain cloaked until the writers have completed their warmup activities. Each writer has contributed one costume and one prop to the collection, whose contents range from faux chain mail to a small, squeezable orb aptly named “the blue boobie.” But in the beginning, all the writers have is the thing they dread most: a blank page.

Giving good prompts is essential to guiding the writers toward their five-minute tales. Trout clearly adores being a story sherpa. He and Shiley pose questions, the type one might hear in a creative writing class or improv workshop. Some are whimsical (What’s a real place you found magical?), and some are inspirational (What’s the most heroic thing you’ve ever done?). Some encourage the group to ponder personal shortcomings (What’s one thing about yourself you wish you could change?), while others explore morality and social justice (What is standing in the way of the world’s growth and freedom? What’s a curse you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy?).

Lists of answers are passed around the room. The richest story seeds are then plucked from them and distributed to the writers. Through an elaborate card game of sorts, each actor gets cast in the lead role of another writer’s play. One writer gets to star in her own play.

“This is so confusing and crazy!” Shiley squeals, grinning. She’s helping Trout keep track of the details. Though his idea-generation process is meticulously organized, things feel chaotic at the moment.

Several writers giggle at an answer to the curse question: “It must be a play about Vietnam.” This comes from Moeller, who acted in such a play with Trout, her husband, when they both lived in New York City.

Then the props and costumes are unveiled, adding more constraints to the writing process. Each item comes with a backstory. A sword is “endowed with an indomitable will and a desire to sing.” The chain mail once helped a gardener save his neighbors from vicious birds. A flowered raincoat “makes its wearer impossible to overlook.” It can help a shy person face her fear of standing out in a crowd, but it can also be used to drive her insane. Add to this a chimera statue, an olive-oil sprayer that teleports its user, and a wish catcher resembling a deep-fryer basket, and the writers have plenty of material for crafting fantastical tales.

With one source of anxiety out of the way, the writers start worrying how the music will fit into their plays. Should they pen lyrics or propose spots in the script for songs?

“No,” Trout says. “Think of the musicians as magical people who show up and give your play another dimension.”

He compares the composers to characters in a cartoon he watched as a kid. Elves snuck into a home late one night and cobbled shoes for the family living there. Everyone laughs. This kind of image would be a blast to bring to life onstage.

Now for the music

As the playwrights work their way through a few drafts of their scripts, the musicians begin their writing process. Each composer gets paired with one script. Any style of music is acceptable, from ballads with bawdy lyrics to something more subtle, like an ambient soundtrack. But the inspiration must come from the writers’ words. After receiving their assignments, the musicians disperse to tackle their tasks as they see fit.

For Meghan Rose, the best route leads home, where she can concentrate quietly. Serendipitously, she’s been paired with Maxwell, her bandmate in local rock act Little Red Wolf.

“In Delicious, a lot of people err toward comedy, but Kelly chose to do a serious piece, which provides a nice change of pace,” Rose says. “It’s about a sorceress…who needs to sacrifice herself, so I knew I needed to add a tragic song at a moment of high emotion. I had to try to make people cry.”

A pianist since age 4, Rose has long loved grand melodies from Broadway hits like Phantom of the Opera. She used Andrew Lloyd Webber as inspiration for her piece, “I Have To,” an orchestral work featuring Gomers frontman Biff Blumfumgagnge on violin and composer Scott Lamps on upright bass.

Sean Michael Dargan also looked to Broadway when putting together a song called “Unicorn Love.” He doesn’t often write about mythical creatures, but composing music for a play about mermaids seemed to call for something out of the ordinary.

“It’s sort of a cross between West Side Story and Hedwig and the Angry Inch, with a little bit of Little Shop of Horrors,” he says.

He had to indulge his love of jangly pop, too.

“A bit of Crowded House or the Smiths usually sneaks into my songs,” he says.

Lamps, meanwhile, wrote a Celtic-sounding war hymn called “Overcoming Family” for Brad Knight’s play, which features the singing sword.

“The sword is asked for advice in certain situations, so I started by thinking, ‘What’s the character of the sword?’ Since it’s an ancient weapon, I’m using battle music that’s very rhythmic and drum-heavy and exciting,” he says.

Excitement is also at the heart of a fable written by Streich. As she explains how a witch has banished music from the kingdom, the rest of the cast acts out the story with exaggerated expressions. Though their lips move, no sounds emerge. But Blumfumgagnge’s gospel-tinged “Sing for Your Supper” helps tell the story as Streich belts out the vocals.

Down to the wire

Trout admits that the plays were in relatively rough shape on Saturday. But within 24 hours, they evolved in miraculous ways. The musicians convinced him the production was on the right track.

“They were just sitting around a table with keyboards and guitars. The music was absolutely beautiful, and the lyrics were hilarious. It brought tears to my eyes,” he says. “Usually I trust we’re going to make it to the finish line, but that morning I wasn’t so sure. That moment with the musicians is when I stopped doubting.”

Now it’s down to the wire to polish each play as much as possible. Sunday was filled with rehearsals in the basement of First United Methodist Church, with the actors in one room and the musicians in another. Since then, the group has completed “tech day,” in which the cast and composers gather to run each play three times — in three hours, if possible.

The musicians have sounded more confident with each rehearsal, and now that all of the songs have names, they seem more real. For instance, Stephanie Rearick’s catchy ditty is named “Salty Demon,” and Rohn’s hard-rocking number is “Scream at the Silence.” And the actors have learned their lines so well that they can seek out opportunities for extra fun. Moeller hams up her role as a maiden who rebuffs a king’s marriage proposal, and Maxwell wants to choreograph a dance for the forest creatures in the fable. Durbin, the forest’s snowy owl, realizes he needs an instrument to play during a song. The blue boobie becomes a tambourine he thwacks against his hip.

With just a little more time until the curtain rises, anything seems possible.

Fueling the Economy with Green Jobs, New Ideas

Green jobs have been a cornerstone of President Barack Obama’s economic recovery plan since the early days of his campaign. It’s a concept that’s gotten people roaring with energy, ideas and an appetite for progress.

But what, exactly, does this term mean? “Green jobs” seems to be so vague that it can be applied to everything from launching wind farms to building hybrid vehicles or selling secondhand clothing.

But the goal of each green job is to reduce our nation’s carbon footprint while boosting the economy. What’s more, it involves something that’s often overlooked in all of the buzz about greening the economy—changing the way we think about consumption, not just using cleaner energy sources.

In other words, those engineering the green economy in Milwaukee and beyond need to promote a cultural shift that involves less driving, more reuse and a philosophy that less is more when it comes to material goods and energy use. Supporters argue that green-jobs initiatives should benefit both blue-collar and white-collar workers, people early in their careers and people who are further along and who’ve lost their jobs due to the economic downturn.

Jobs with Environmental Benefits

Some people assume that green jobs are confined to industries that develop technologies that reduce pollution, decrease fossil fuels use or in some way reduce many people’s carbon footprints at once. Others stress sustainability-enhancing efforts of individual people at individual organizations, regardless of types of goods or services the organization offers.

While the city doesn’t have a specific definition of “green jobs,” it has a few ideas about what they might look like. These ideas tend to focus on large companies and well-established institutions such as universities, which pioneer measurable green technologies and turn them into products and services that help many people, as well as the environment.

“In general, ‘green jobs’ are those associated with products, services and technologies that have environmental benefits,” says Ann Beier, director of Milwaukee’s Office of Sustainability.

Beier notes that jobs involving the design, construction and maintenance of renewable energy sources—from wind turbines to solar panels—are obvious examples, but that jobs involving storm-water and wastewater management may also be key for greening the region’s economy. “Manufacturing done by Milwaukee’s water cluster—Badger Meter and A.O. Smith, for example—creates products that may improve water quality and lead to water conservation or energy efficiency,” she says.

However, the word “green” gets a lot of flak because it “sounds a bit tie-dyed,” says Ryan Thompson, the founder of Greener Milwaukee, a local consortium of more than 200 different stakeholders, including civic organizations, research institutions and small businesses. “What we’re really trying to communicate here is optimization,” he says. “The optimization of resources, technology, cutting-edge everything.”

Green jobs, by extension, stress innovation and economical, sustainable use of resources. Equating cost savings with Earth-saving is a paradigm shift, but it’s essential to making the movement work, Thompson says.

While the idea of dismantling our consume-and-dispose culture has only recently begun to gain momentum, green jobs aren’t as shiny and new as you might think. You may have one and not even know it, says Dan Kohler, director of the citizen advocacy group Wisconsin Environment.

“Green jobs really end up being a lot of the same types of jobs people have now, but we’ve moved to a clean-energy economy where we’re doing more with energy efficiency and better, cleaner transportation options,” he says.

The options are many: research, agriculture, manufacturing and construction, to name a few. And southeastern Wisconsin has most of the necessary building blocks: universities, farmland, factories and buildings aching for retrofits.

It’s also got a lot of folks who work in offices, restaurants and hotels—people who drive to their jobs, get takeout for lunch and work in buildings that could use less energy and make less waste.

While the latter type of job retrofit simply involves greening existing jobs, the Milwaukee region is an ideal incubator for new blue-collar and white-collar jobs in emerging environmental-technology industries, Kohler says. “For blue-collar green jobs, there’s construction and retrofitting of buildings, weatherizing homes and businesses, and manufacturing renewable-energy components such as batteries—and developing the technology that goes along with these components,” he says.

A number of area companies are already leaders in green technologies. Kohler points to Johnson Controls, which just won a contract to make batteries for Ford’s hybrid vehicles. He also stresses that the region’s researchand-development resources, both at universities and in the private sector, are strong in areas such as bioenergy and next-generation biofuels, wind and solar power, and water technologies.

Then there are all of the other white-collar jobs—from marketing to legal services—that surround the new products that are being developed in the labs and emerging opportunities such as local and regional light rail, Kohler says.

Kohler assures that the demand for these products and services is real, as does Joe Jacobsen, associate dean of the environmental studies program at Milwaukee Area Technical College (MATC).

“People are really thirsty for this stuff: They want to learn how to make their buildings more energy-efficient, use more post-consumer materials and get LEED-certified—and they want to get their employees excited about these things,” he says. “It’s just a matter of learning how.”

But energy savings isn’t the only motivation: Replacing older workers is also a factor. Jacobsen says that many local companies are seeking employees to manage energy-efficiency projects simply because their current supervisors are retiring. “[Local renewable-energy implementation firm] Franklin Energy needs 30 people today, and they’re going to need 150 next year,” he says. “And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.”

Greening the Economy

Obama set a campaign goal of developing 5 million green-collar jobs as a way to promote energy efficiency and self-reliance. The cratering of the global economy hasn’t deterred him from pushing forward with this pledge. In fact, the economic downturn may have given him an opportunity to spur green-collar job creation on a large scale.

The $787 billion federal economic stimulus package, signed into law on Feb. 17, provides $32.8 billion for clean energy, $26.9 billion for energy efficiency and $19 billion for green transportation. Of this money, $3.1 billion will fund the State Energy Program and $3.2 billion will bolster local governments’ energy-efficiency and renewable-energy projects via block grants.

The package also includes a renewable energy manufacturing credit and $500 million for the Green Jobs Act—and the 70,000 renewable-energy workers it’s expected to train—and numerous other measures to create green jobs.

Meanwhile, for Milwaukee business and community leaders, green jobs mean fuel for the local economy. Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett partnered with Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker and Tim Sheehy of Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce to launch Metro-Milwaukee Green, a countywide initiative to promote and support businesses’ efforts to adopt sustainable practices such as building retrofits, cutting-edge recycling programs and green office-cleaning programs.

Participating businesses met in January to share ideas and are currently developing energy-saving strategies custom-tailored to their offices, which they’ll present at a summit on Earth Day.

The city’s Office of Sustainability— the brainchild of an 11-member “Green Team” of local development, planning and environmental experts—has also been instrumental in bringing together the parties necessary to get several local green initiatives running.

The sustainability office and the Green Team have provided recommendations for existing job-creation efforts at the Menomonee Valley development venture, the 30th Street industrial corridor project and the Milwaukee 7 Water Council. It’s also working to make sure that southeastern Wisconsin gets a healthy piece of the Green Jobs Act cash, Beier says.

That, however, will involve tightening up the region’s definition of “green job” and showing the feds that Milwaukee-area jobs are among the greenest—and most beneficial—in the country.

Miguel Gomes’ Tabu

In Tabu, a haunting new film by Portuguese director Miguel Gomes, a human-rights activist named Pilar (Teresa Madruga) prays to Anthony of Lisbon, the patron saint of lost items and lost spirits. She’s trying to help her elderly neighbor, Aurora (Laura Soveral), who has just lost all of her money at a casino and seems be losing her mind as well.

The old woman recounts a dream starring a crocodile, some angry monkeys, a train-ticket machine that turns into a slot machine, and someone muttering, “Lucky at gambling, unlucky at love.” This story sounds bonkers, but it turns out to be rooted in reality. The real question involves who – or what – has truly been lost.

Gomes divides Tabu into two main sections, one set in present-day Lisbon and the other in one of Portugal’s African colonies, about 50 years earlier. The former, titled “Paradise Lost,” illustrates Pilar’s banal routine, which involves going to the movies and slogging through dates with a man she doesn’t love. At one point, Pilar’s companion gets so bored that he falls asleep at the cinema, causing her to cry.

“Paradise,” Tabu‘s latter section, brims with danger, beauty and romance. Aurora, then a gorgeous young newlywed (Ana Moreira), hunts big game amid jungle plants and tall savannah grasses. While pregnant, she has a love affair with a handsome adventurer named Ventura (Carloto Cotta). Meanwhile, tensions mount between the colonists and natives, portending what will soon become the Portuguese Colonial War. Aurora sports a fearless, almost masculine personality, which is palpable even though there’s no dialogue in this section.

While the characters are silent, sounds such as pebbles landing in a pool and a Portuguese version of the Ronettes’ “Be My Baby” give the narrative a dreamlike quality. But, as the elder Aurora notes early in the film, dreams cannot be controlled. They’re inherently risky. They can be playgrounds for guilt, which, in Aurora’s case, stretches far beyond the borders of adultery.

Tabu‘s stunning black-and-white images reference both the silent-film era and the French New Wave movement, and a fairy tale of sorts emerges from the poetic anecdotes present-day Ventura (Henrique Espírito Santo) shares with Pilar in a cafe flanked by tropical plants and a children’s ride that looks like a crocodile.

But Tabu isn’t just any fairy tale; it’s more of an allegory. This becomes clear in its film-within-a-film prologue, in which an explorer dives into the jaws of a crocodile, despite his culture’s disapproval of suicide, because he can’t bear losing his beloved. Aurora is like the explorer, hunting for riches. She ventures boldly into wild, unknown places but virtually ignores the native people who tend to her needs. And despite her strength, she’s irreparably damaged when her lover vanishes. The crocodile, which appears throughout the film, seems to represent her downfall, or her decision to break a taboo at her own peril. As the prologue’s narrator intimates, the bravest soul can’t escape an aching heart, even if he can stomach a guilty conscience.

A gift from The Giver’s Lois Lowry

“You’re lucky you don’t have braces,” Lois Lowry remarks when I tell her I’m calling from Isthmus. She says the newspaper’s name is a tongue-twister.

We both chuckle. I remember being a metal-mouth when I was 13, about the same age as Jonas, the protagonist of her Newberry-winning young-adult novel The Giver. It’s hard enough to speak eloquently as an adult, without any dental hardware. I’m thankful I’m not one of the kids in the book, who are punished when they misspeak, whether mispronouncing a word or choosing the “wrong” term for what they’re trying to describe.

This problem is especially troublesome for Jonas, who is chosen to become the Receiver in his orderly dystopian community. No one remembers the distant past, except for the person chosen to “contain” all of the pleasures and horrors of history. This person, the Receiver, is the only one who knows of foreign things like color, animals and even snow. He must experience them, and the feelings they generate, all by himself. Not a soul — except for the few others who’ve held the title — has the slightest notion of what he’s going through.

Jonas often wonders how he’d try to describe the memories of the past he’s begun to contain. They’re transmitted through the touch of the outgoing Receiver, who has grown old and weary. To Jonas, this man is known as the Giver. Through this mentor, Jonas receives his first sled ride and his first rays of sunshine.

“What words could you use that would give another the experience of sunshine?” Jonas wonders. Not that he’s allowed to speak of the memories he’s receiving. Or that anyone would understand or believe him. But he can’t help but ponder.

This question is similar to the ones facing Children’s Theater of Madison as it prepares The Giver for the stage. Lowry will visit Madison on Jan. 31, sharing insights on the book’s transition from the page to the stage to the silver screen in a free presentation at the Central Library. She recently traveled to South Africa, where parts of a movie based on the book were being filmed. Starring Jeff Bridges, Meryl Streep and other Hollywood heavyweights, it’s sure to cause a stir when it debuts in August. So is CTM’s stage production, which hits Overture Center’s Playhouse Feb. 15-23. After all, the story is one of the most controversial in Y.A. literature. Parents have tried to ban the book from the curriculum in school districts across the country, often in response to a scene involving euthanasia.

Still, The Giver is a popular novel among teens and tweens. Ask a group of them what they think of the book’s ending, and you’re bound to spark a debate. It’s open to interpretation, to say the least. It’s also incredibly moving, which should help imprint the story on theatergoers’ minds. That’s just how Lowry wants it to be.

Comfort vs. security

I first experienced Lowry’s writing through her series of Anastasia books, which follow the trials and tribulations of a girl “just trying to grow up.” They’re funny and poignant, and I see hints of them in the film Ghost World, the TV show Daria and the comedy of Aubrey Plaza. Lowry gets awkwardness and the angst that often comes with it. These qualities also apply to Jonas in The Giver, but the story is much more chilling.

At first, Jonas’ community seems like a utopia, but it soon becomes clear that much has been sacrificed to prevent risk and pain. Individual differences are frowned upon, for the most part, and sometimes result in death. Adults apply to receive a marriage partner chosen by the town’s leaders, and approved couples can adopt up to two kids, a boy and a girl, rather than creating them the old-fashioned way. Though families must share their feelings with each other daily, in a setting that resembles a support group, they do not experience intense emotions like love and grief. Not unless they’re the Receiver. Elements of Jonas’ community have an Iron Curtain feel, but by and large, the tale’s themes apply just as much today as when the book was released in 1993.

“Teachers love using the book, mostly in grades 7 and 8,” Lowry notes. “It describes a future time in which people have achieved comfort and security by making terrible compromises. Kids can think about questions like ‘What would you give up in order to have something else that matters to you?’ That’s important, because these are the kids who are going to create our future. They’ll be the politicians and the voters and so much more.”

The theme of control appears in many forms in The Giver. Lowry knows that making her story available for theatrical adaptations means diminishing, even relinquishing, much of her control over the story. Fortunately, she’s satisfied with the adaptation playwright Eric Coble debuted in 2006. It has been performed by children’s theater troupes in Milwaukee, Nashville and several other cities.

“I adapted one of my other books for the stage, which is something I’d never done before. I put in all these stage directions, and the director of the theater had to gently tell me, ‘We have other people who take care of that,'” she says with a laugh. “A play depends not only on the script but the other people who have input, like the director and the set designer. It’s always fascinating to see what they do with the story.”

In other words, Lowry knew to keep her distance when she released The Giver‘s film rights more than 15 years ago. Several big movie studios have expressed interest since then, and Bridges spent years advocating for the story, but nothing materialized until 2012, when Australian director Phillip Noyce (Clear and Present Danger, Rabbit-Proof Fence) picked up the story and ran with it. Lowry was surprised how many times he and the producers asked for her advice.

“I’ve given my suggestions, and they’ve often taken them and just as often ignored them, as they should,” she says. “I’ve never made or written a movie, and I’m not conversant enough with the changes that are necessary to make The Giver into a film.”

Lowry says one of the biggest adaptation challenges is turning thoughts into actions. She’s likely to discuss this topic at the Jan. 31 event, where she’ll read a portion of the book and then invite actors from the CTM production to read lines from the same scenes in the play.

“This is an introspective book. The dialogue is relatively unimportant, and there’s not a lot of action,” she says. “There need to be visually exciting things to watch, and I would be too locked into what I put in the book. I’ve been excited to see how meticulously directors and designers create the visuals.”

‘The Dude of CTM’

So how will CTM bring Jonas’ thoughts to life on stage? Artistic director Roseann Sheridan says the troupe’s approach centers on “essential experiences” Jonas has in the book.

“The playwright sets up Jonas’ family relationship and the ceremony where Jonas becomes the Receiver and then the experience of going to the Giver for training,” she says. “It’s not embellished with a lot of narration or asides to the audience. It’s more about how the two main actors are reacting visually and emotionally to the events that happen as the story unfolds.”

While CTM hasn’t unveiled the entire cast list, Sheridan knew from the start that she wanted American Players Theatre’s Paul Bentzen to play the Giver.

Though he hadn’t read the book, Bentzen fell in love with the character while reading the script.

“There’s nothing histrionic about the part, and there’s almost a cinematic quality to it,” he says. “Jeff Bridges is playing the role in the movie, so I’m basically the Dude of CTM.”

But the story’s biggest appeal is its humanity, Bentzen says.

“Sometimes you can only appreciate a thing by embracing its opposite, like how it takes pain to know pleasure or death to experience life more fully,” he says. “The overarching theme is love, and how life, love and humanity can be swept away in favor of ideals that turn out not to be so ideal. These are important lessons for everybody.”

Communicating these ideals — and their shortcomings — is one of the production’s steepest hurdles. Jonas realizes his community discourages choices when he discovers color. Though people can no longer experience rainbows, they no longer start wars over racial differences. Sheridan points to a key scene from the book, in which Jonas sees red for the first time, when tossing an apple to a friend.

“You have to figure out how to deal with an apple that’s gray one minute, and then red, and then gray again,” she says. “Sometimes we’re able to do that with an effect like lighting, and other times, we just say, ‘This is Jonas’ story, and everything on stage is seen through his eyes, so how do we get that across?'”

Sheridan and director Patrick Holland discussed adding projected images to the production but ultimately decided on a simpler mode of storytelling. She describes designer Mike Lawler’s set as “a lot of monolithic and dark” elements, with a few familiar objects such as bicycles.

“It has an architecture that suggests the type of future you read about in the book, where there’s not much in the way of colors and defined shapes,” she says. “It’s not decorative, but it’s functional.”

Bentzen is curious to see how the play’s setting differs from the ways young readers have imagined the setting of the book. He and Sheridan are also eager to watch them ask questions about the story’s most difficult and controversial moments.

Fielding such questions has become a way of life for Lowry, who writes letters to readers who assume The Giver‘s depiction of euthanasia is an endorsement of the practice.

“This interpretation has always puzzled me,” she says. “I think of The Giver as a highly moral book. My protagonists always come to my imagination with a name attached, along with a few defining characteristics. It’s almost always a kid who’s introspective and who has great integrity. That’s what I value most in a character, and I also value that in real people. You develop these qualities by reading and thinking through problems, and by imagining what might make the world a better place.”