Next week, former Cabrillo Music Theater artistic director Lewis Wilkenfeld returns to Thousand Oaks to direct Matilda, the story about a precocious English girl who uses books and literacy to wreak vengeance on the sadistic grownups in her life. Wilkenfeld has been beloved in the Conejo Valley for his work with children, not only in being able to relate to them as a director but in nurturing young careers in projects like the Kabrillo Kids, something that has continued during Cabrillo’s morphing into 5-Star Theatricals, now led by Patrick Cassidy. We talked with Lewis about the experiencing of taking on a show that empowers children, not just in the story but in the cast as well.
VCOS: How did Matilda come about? Were you invited to come in and direct or was this a project of yours that you wanted to work on here?
LEWIS: Patrick Cassidy asked me to direct the show and I was very enthusiastic about it. I had seen it in New York so I knew it, but I didn’t really know it. So, getting to do the show was a great opportunity for me to get to know the show, which made me fall in love with it even more.
VCOS: You’re known for your work with kids in many shows as well as with the Kabrillo Kids, so you come into this prepared.
LEWIS: Oh yes. I feel like I’ve done pretty much every show that involved kids. I directed Oliver! and Annie and The King and I and The Sound of Music, The Secret Garden, so all of that was a preamble to this.
VCOS: What are the special challenges that Matilda poses that separates it from those other shows?
LEWIS: This is a much bigger show for kids than any of those, probably more than all of them put together. I mean, the role of Matilda speaks and sings continuously. If you took out everyone else’s dialog and songs, there’s 45 minutes of just Matilda in the show. So it’s twice as large a part as anything in Oliver! or Mary in The Secret Garden or even Annie. It’s a giant role and she almost never leaves the stage. The other kids in the show also have a huge responsibility as well and that creates the other difference. It’s different from Billy Elliot, where you have one role that’s huge, but here, all these other roles are really principle roles as well and they’re on stage a lot of the time and do seven big musical numbers. It’s a huge endeavor.
VCOS: So when you held auditions for all the children’s parts, did you pick the best one to be cast as Matilda or did you have separate auditions for that part alone?
LEWIS: First of all, we have two Matildas, and they’re going to alternate performances. At the end of auditions, we called back a group of around 15 girls for Matilda as well as 40 other kids. There was very little overlap. If you were right for one of the other kids, you were probably too old, too mature, or too tall to be Matilda. She is supposed to be younger and smaller than any of the other roles, but we didn’t have a whole lot of kids called back for Matilda and Alice or Matilda and Lavender. We brought them back in groups because we wanted them to feel comfortable, and spent about four hours with each group of 25 kids. Then we made decisions on the other roles but zeroed in on seven young ladies who we wanted to call back for a second time on Matilda, and we called them in, one by one, on a separate day, in the room, for 45 minutes each, to see how they’d deal with being with an adult, not to put pressure on them, but to focus on them, because you have to be able to really hold the stage by yourself with both actors of kid age and actors of adult age. It took all day, and at the end of the day, these two gals were the right ones and I never blinked on that decision. I think it’s one of the best casting choices I’ve ever made.
VCOS: Is there a major determining factor that settled the issue or is it a combination of talents you were looking for?
LEWIS: It’s a combination of several things. Matilda has to have a playfulness, because the show is really about being children. We really did not want to force these kids to be in an adult world; we wanted to force ourselves to be in a kid world, so we played some games, we did some activities, they learned some of the monologs, the dialogs, and most of the songs. We actually learned one of the songs while we played a game to see how they would do with doing multiple tasks at once. They came over to the table and talked to me and sang one of the songs directly to us at the table. So there was an honesty that we were looking for, the beauty of young children before they started moving toward being teenagers: snarky – you know, that sort of thing. Being a professional child actor, sometimes you lose that spontaneity and we didn’t want them to lose that so it was really important to me to let them be what I call “real kids.” These were kids with real lives and with real interesting things going on, they’re not just bouncing from show to show, trying to make a career for themselves at age nine. That was really important to me.
VCOS: Are any of the kids bold enough to make suggestions during the rehearsal process?
LEWIS: Well, they made really good choices. At different times, both of our Matildas have said, “Are you going to do it like this?” and then make a suggestion, and I’d say, “Oh, that’s a good idea.” But they’re both good and collaborative and they get along great with the other kids in the show as well as the adults in the show, and they’ve been making really interesting choices in the room. And that’s what you hope for. You don’t want them to wait for you to give them everything. You want them to make choices. Sometimes those choices are bad but that’s OK because out of that comes something better. Just like me. I make a lot of bad choices, and out of that comes something better.
VCOS: Part of being a director has a lot to do with diplomacy. With child actors, you have to deal with parents sometimes. Have you ever had to tell a “stage parent” to back off?
LEWIS: First of all, I have to say that we have a great group of parents on this show. All of them. They get along great, they have their own network of communication with each other, and are all terrific. Way in the past, years ago when I first started, I feel like we had a parent or two that we had to ask to take a step back, but the kind of thing you’re describing is not as pronounced in the newer generation as it was. We’re also careful not to cast those kids who are parented like that. If a parent is in your face too much, it’s going to manifest itself with the child at some point. So we’re careful at both ends. But there was nothing about this group of parents that gave us any pause, they’re wonderful and are now part of the 5-Star family and I try to go out and talk to them every night as their kids are packing up and getting ready to go, and I like them as much as I like their kids.
VCOS: Tell me about your two Matildas. Where are they from, how old are they, and so forth.
LEWIS: Olivia Marcum is 10 years old and had only done school shows so this is her first time doing a professional show that has nothing to do with school or after-school programs. She is from Thousand Oaks and she is amazing. She has so much brains that I want to be her when I grow up. She makes such interesting choices and really came in with an understanding of the material. So I was really blessed to have her. Lucy Bollier is a little younger, she just turned 10. Lucy is from Topanga and has great natural instincts as an actress that it’s kind of shocking to me. One of the great things about this show is that both kids love each other, they have their own secret handshake, they greet each other with hugs, they walk in tandem together, and their moms really helped build that relationship by having playdates and sleepovers before rehearsals started. So they are progressing in a really good way. We open in two weeks and they are totally on track. Their strengths are different so what they have to work on in rehearsals is different from each other, which is so interesting, but it’s great because neither feels like they are behind the other one. They both bring so much to it and at the end of the day we talk about what each one needs to think about.
VCOS: Are there plans for you to come back on a regular basis to direct?
LEWIS: I’ve not been asked back, but the goal I’ve always had as a director is to do well so that you get asked back. So if Patrick wants to talk about that, that’s great, but he has a whole season to plan. I’ve never been that kind of pushy director when I was doing this for Cabrillo. I always liked to let the work speak for itself. It got me hired nine times for Cabrillo before I became artistic director, so I just do my best work at the moment and try to make myself a better director every time I start a show.
VCOS: Now that there’s some distance between you and your years with Cabrillo, is there a particular show that you most fondly revisit in your mind?
LEWIS: From my ten years as artistic director or my years before that?
VCOS: Either one.
LEWIS: Mary Poppins I revisit a lot because I was not supposed to direct that one. The director had to pull out a couple of months before auditions started for family reason. It wasn’t a big dramatic issue, he just wasn’t able to do it, and right at that time we started to get some information about how challenging the show was going to be and that we were going to have limited time in the theatre, less than we usually had, so when I took on the show I needed to hire a director who would not give me grief about not having rehearsal time, and the only director I knew who I could push around was me. So I brought me in to direct and I ended up falling in love with the show and the experience so much – I had agreed to do the show for very “producery” reasons, but fell in love with it as a director. It’s not a perfect show so I had challenges to make it into something that our audiences deserved in Thousand Oaks. So I revisit that from time to time. Sometimes you go into these things thinking one way; doing it for practical reasons, being the “good producer,” and so forth, but then you come out of it going, “Wow.” I fell in love with it and with this experience and will have friends for a lifetime from it. So I would put that in the category of “special.” And if you want one more, the Bye Bye Birdie production that I did in 2014 was special because it was rooted in that emergency fundraising campaign, so I was directing the show and running around raising well over a quarter million dollars. That just seems like a quaint throwback for me. Now that I’ve watched the company do the business part and the fundraising part, and I’m just in to direct the shows, so I look back and think, “Man, I directed the show AND ran a fundraising campaign!” But I was younger then and had more hair. But now I get to advise, I’m on the advisory board so I get to provide support for Patrick and the board of directors as they continue what I was doing before I left.
Matilda plays March 22-31 at the Kavli Theatre in Thousand Oaks. For tickets, visit 5startheatricals.com