The courage to take on “Courage”Theaters mix tech, puppets for war story

The Red Badge of Courage

Feb. 4-9.

$9-12. The Onyx Theater on the campus of Kennesaw State University, 1000 Chastain Rd. N.W., Kennesaw. 770-423-6650.

Feb. 27–March 23

$11-15. 7 Stages Theatre, 1105 Euclid Ave., Atlanta. 404-523-7647.

Making compelling theater out of Stephen Crane’s classic novel “The Red Badge of Courage,” with its enormous battle scenes and surreal effects of combat on the mind of a young soldier, is a huge challenge.

Kennesaw State University and the forward-thinking Atlanta theater company 7 Stages will seek to meet that challenge and bring Crane’s famous tale to life through the innovative integration of actors, puppets, projections and animation. The show runs at Kennesaw State’s Onyx Theater Feb. 4-9 before moving to the 7 Stages Theatre in Atlanta’s Little Five Points neighborhood where it will run from Feb. 27 to March 23.

“It’s a book I’ve always wanted to adapt since I first read it as a kid in middle school,” says one of the show’s creators, Michael Haverty.

Haverty is a former associate artistic director of the Atlanta Center for Puppetry Arts and currently an associate artistic director at 7 Stages. He’s created puppet theater adaptations of literary works including “The Epic of Gilgamesh” in 2004, William Faulkner’s “As I Lay Dying” in 2009 and Eoin McNamee’s “The Navigator” in 2013.

“The story is all about what happens to a soldier in battle and the surreal-ness of war, especially for our main character, who really doesn’t know why he’s there. It’s a mixture of the real and the unreal.”

“One of the things Michael and I share is an aesthetic interest in the journey of the mind,” says Jane Barnette, an associate professor in the theater department at KSU who is co-creating and directing the show alongside Haverty. “How do you take something interior and make it exterior?”

To help capture and recreate that mixture of the real and the unreal, the production is utilizing a unique projection surface: a 30-foot high piece of fabric that starts at the back of the theater and then curves over the audience to immerse the viewers in the action of the play. “So much of the book is battle sequences,” says Haverty. “We’re able to use this theatrical screen to immerse everyone, including our main character, in the action to the point where he’s just shaken down to his core.”

Animation and shadow puppetry will be projected on the screen by Haverty’s wife Kristin Haverty, who will recreate many of Crane’s dreamlike images with paper cut-outs and silhouettes.

“At one point, the narrator daydreams he’s at the circus so we have all these circus characters coming by,” says Haverty, “but as he’s daydreaming a battle starts so the circus characters shift into soldiers.” The production will also feature a traditional Japanese rod puppet which acts as the narrator’s conscience.

One professional actor and four student actors from Kennesaw State’s drama department will perform, and the tech crew also is a mix of students and professionals. Haverty and Barnette say the collaboration is a win-win situation for both their institutions: It provides the students with an opportunity to participate in a professional production, and for the theater, the university helps back a potentially costly experimental show with its resources and abundant young talent.

“It gives the students a learning opportunity to see how things work in full production,” says Barnette. “It’s sort of like an internship for them. They’re not just learning about it in the classroom, they’re actually doing it.”

In order to learn more about the war, the cast and production team visited the Atlanta History Center and the Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park (including a run up Cheatham Hill with full backpacks, just as the soldiers during the Civil War would have done). The team also met with Atlanta area veterans of Vietnam, Iraq, Korea and Afghanistan over a period of two months to gain perspective on the experience of combat.

“It was intense,” says Haverty. “These veterans were so open in talking about training and life in the war. It was so helpful. Both in the novel and from talking to veterans, there is so much unreality in the midst of battle.”

"What we found is that, whether you're in combat or not, there's something about the experience of being in the military that changes someone," says Barnette. Students wrote about their experiences speaking with veterans and will continue to document their participation in the production on the show's website

In the end, Barnette and Haverty say that the extensive research, the student involvement and the innovative elements are all pieces that help create the type of show that moves and excites Atlanta viewers. “Atlanta audiences want something fantastical,” says Haverty. “That’s the kind of work I love to do. People want to be surprised.”