20,000 Leagues Under the Sea has Faith in its Audience

The latest production from the Children’s Theatre Company, an adaptation of Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, asks a lot from theatergoers. The interactive production takes patrons into the depths of the CTC building and draws them into the action, treating them as fellow members of Captain Nemo’s submarine crew rather than passive observers. But director Ryan Underbakke feels that this adaptation, (intense but brief with a runtime of 45 minutes) was the only way to properly honor the source material.

“[20,000 Leagues] was always interactive,” says Underbakke.“I always saw an immersive show. I wanted to make a video game that feels like an action movie … I read all those classics when I was really, really young, and that’s how I read it.” Underbakke mentions the “heart-pumping pace” of Verne’s story as the perfect jumping-off point for a fast-paced, interactive production.

In spite of the play’s format, the story—by design—remains exactly the same. The novel’s subject matter belies its 19th-century publication date, and the scientific impossibility of Verne’s story at that time it was published is precisely what Underbakke hopes to evoke here. Both novel and play are in some ways ahead of their time, which made development both a thrill and an experiment.

“The entire thing was a challenge,” says Underbakke of the production process. However, the director found the CTC’s consistent support in producing the unconventional show to be invaluable. “[Peter Brosius, artistic director]’s voice was there. Company members were there. The CTC staff have been incredible the entire time. I was the one who was like, ‘this is impossible.’”

The freedom Underbakke experienced throughout the development of 20,000 Leagues has made the process a rare, enjoyable experience. As a director he often finds himself having to fight for creative control, but CTC’s faith in his vision allowed Underbakke to run with it, resulting in a play that is complicated both logistically and emotionally. Like other CTC productions, this play does not patronize children, instead challenging them with a moral dilemma.

“CTC is great at not talking down to kids and letting their imaginations run wild,” says Underbakke. His production focuses on engaging the audience on a deeper level by treating kids like their opinions matter. “We’re meeting them in the epic-ness of how kids think with an equally epic question.” The response has been overwhelmingly positive: “The kids get so amped up. They turn it into a thrill ride!”

20,000 Leagues also encourages adults to participate and, in the process, learn something about their kids as well as their own capacity for childlike behavior. While Underbakke and his crew have loved observing kids’ wild imaginations—one of his favorite memories as director was hearing a boy react to the simple, unembellished set with, “whoa, we’re in a submarine!”—he’s also been happy to see parents interact with their kids and treat the play as an adventure they’re facing together.

“I see parents give their children encouragement, saying things like ‘we can do this!’ That is totally worth all the struggle,” says Underbakke. The faith that CTC productions have in kids is something that Underbakke says he most enjoys and would have appreciated when he was growing up: “being treated like I mattered—I loved that feeling.”

20,000 Leagues runs through August 23rd. Call 612-874-0400 or go to childrenstheatre.org to reserve tickets.