Feeling nostalgic? Try Stratford Festival's fresh take on The Neverending Story

Movie remakes are all the rage right now, and cashing in on the trend, Stratford Festival is putting its own spin on the 1980s classic movie The Neverending Story this season.

'You can't compete with Jim Henson,' says designer Bretta Gerecke

Jake Runeckles plays Bastian Balthazar Bux in Stratford Festival's production of The Neverending Story. (Emily Cooper/Stratford Festival)

When director Jillian Keiley sits in the audience for a performance of one of her shows at Stratford Festival, she sometimes finds it hard to stay focused on what's happening on stage. 

"I mean, I watch the show — but really I watch the audience," Keiley told CBC Kitchener-Waterloo. 

And never has that been more the case than with her take on The Neverending Story, a beloved book and movie from the 1980s. 

"It's a thrilling show to watch other people watch," she said. The adults, she said, are rediscovering a childhood favourite, while the children get lost in the world of Fantasia for the very first time.

"I have a seven-year-old, and I think there's a lot of people my age who came up in the 80s who have kids now, who have seven and eight and nine and 10-year-olds, and I'm very happy to cater to that audience," she said with a laugh.

But recreating a film like The Neverending Story can be a daunting task, especially when the movie has such a specific Jim Henson-esque esthetic, said designer Bretta Gerecke

"You can't compete with Jim Henson — I mean, what he created for that film is extraordinary and it's very much of a time. But it's also iconic," Gerecke said.

"I think the most important thing is to never try to copy anything, it has to come from your own breath, your own heart, your own desire to tell this story."

Inspired by stained glass

Gerecke and Keiley started out thinking the show would look like stained glass, but the real challenge was finding a way to show the advance of The Nothing — one of the story's villians. 

"Eventually between myself and Bretta, it evolved to be the punctures of light in the night sky," said Keiley, and the effect is similar to a Lite Brite backdrop. Each light represents a story; one by one those stories are extinguished by The Nothing.

Qasim Khan, as Atreyu in The Neverending Story, pictured with the puppet Ygramul — a shapeshifter who often takes the form of a large spider and builds webs to catch its prey. Ygramul's design is a clear example of the original stained glass design. (Emily Cooper/Stratford Festival)

Some of the stained glass influence can be seen in the puppets that make up the cast of characters Atreyu meets on his journeys through Fantastica. Not all of the classic movie favourites make it into the show; the story arc is more of a blend between the movie and Michael Ende's book, first published in 1979.

Falcor inspired by poisonous snail

The biggest design departure is Falcor, the luck dragon. In the movie the creature has the body of a fluffy, furry dragon and the head of a golden retriever. In Keiley's version he's based off a real-life deadly creature: a blue dragon.

"[It's] a poisonous snail, based in Australia," said Keiley. "And they'll kill you if they sting you with their tail. They're beautiful little creatures and Bretta found this beautiful pictures and said, 'I think this is the guy!'"

Many of the puppets require a team of actors to bring them to life, so cast members take on multiple puppets for the show. Sean Arbuckle, for example, plays the terrifying wolf Gmork, but also the gnomes Urgl and Engywook. 

Arbuckle was also cast in the Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe when it was part of Stratford Festival 2016 season, so he's no stranger to the pressure that comes with recreating a children's classic. 

"There is a duty, there is a responsibility. You feel like these are beloved characters and stories for so much of the audience," said Arbuckle.

"Luckily we had brilliant directors and brilliant designers and the whole resources of the festival behind us so the joy with which audiences respond to our work, when they see these stories faithfully recreated and re-imagined, is pretty special."

More stories from Stratford Festival 2019:


Jackie Sharkey is a producer for CBC News in Kitchener-Waterloo and an occasional guest host. She has been been based in Kitchener, Ont., since the station was created in 2013, after working for CBC in Kelowna, B.C., Quebec City and Rankin Inlet, Nunavut.


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