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5 Questions with David de Vries

The Hunchback of Notre Dame‘s Frollo

By Morganne Evans

Morganne Evans: You have extensive experience in both film and theatre. How does your approach change when working in different mediums?
David DeVries: Well the approach has to do primarily with understanding the scale of the medium you’re working in. You know, it’s an acknowledgement of where the audience is and their proximity to you and what they can actually see and hear. When you’re working in theatre you’ve got to have an entirely different scale to tell the story than you would in film. Trying to find that scalability is very challenging. It’s hard to do. But that’s one of the great challenges of acting.

ME: How do your experiences of working on Broadway and in National Touring Companies help you work in regional theatre like Aurora?
DD: I think that the work is always the same. The surrounding elements, the money, all the ancillaries, all change. But the essence of the process, the essence of the work, really remains the same. It has certainly been helpful for me to have a wellspring of experience to pull from. But I don’t think it really changes all that much. I’m going to do the same kind of work that I did on Broadway at Aurora—and that’s kind of how it works.

ME: Your character of Frollo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame is a complex, complicated antagonist. How do you portray him in a way that keeps him from too easily being labeled a villain?
DD: That’s hard. Bad guys never think they’re bad guys. You can’t play a bad guy by trying to be bad, just like you can’t be sexy on stage. It all has to do with the point of view and the character’s intent. Frollo grew up in the church, the church was his sanctuary, his haven. He was parentless along with his brother. He really bought into the narrative of the church and what it represented, the story they told of how the world worked. Jehan had very different ideas about that, but everything about the way he (Frollo) approaches the world is shaped by the narrative of the church. Of course, the church doesn’t answer all the questions that the mind and the body present. Those ambiguities are very difficult for Frollo and he tends to deal with those ambiguities in a very binary way, which is difficult because those binary solutions don’t always provide the kind of answers that people need in order to understand their life experience. But nonetheless, he is applying that template of the church to the things he experiences and that’s the result of his actions. He doesn’t believe that they are bad, they are in accordance with his worldview. It’s left for the audience to decide if that is actually the truth or not.

ME: The Disney animated feature and the stage musical have quite a few differences. What are some of the differences audiences can expect?
DD: Well we are real live people, at least the last time I checked! Of course, it is impossible to distill a nineteenth century classic epic novel into a two and a half-hour musical, much less a 90-minute animated cartoon. So, the story has been essentialized. What’s interesting to me about the approach that the composers have taken is that they’ve used the conceit of a band of players, you know a play within a play, which is certainly not terribly unique but it serves very effectively to tell an epic story whose scale exceeds the space of a theatre. I think that that really helps the storytelling and makes it an effective theatrical device. The themes of the book—the metaphors that kind of universalize the story—are very strong still and very apparent in the telling of the story. I think that what’s so amazing is how the themes that Victor Hugo touches on are still so poignant and resonant today. The play has a heart of darkness, but at that heart, which is kind of counter to a typical Disney story, is a tale of— I wouldn’t say redemption—but a cautionary tale about the challenges of the heart and navigating justice and order in the world. I think those themes, for better or for worse, are themes that we grapple with every day.

ME: You mentioned that The Hunchback of Notre Dame touches on topics that are as relevant in medieval France as they are today. You specifically touched on themes of justice and the exploration of the human condition. Can you expand on some of the important prevailing themes?
DD: I think the tension between the rule of law and the rule of justice is a tension that exists in life and exists in dramatic narratives as storytellers try to figure out “what’s the right way to behave? What’s the right way to live a good life?” and we’ll never completely figure that out. The fact that the play deals with a person, specifically Quasimodo, and the gypsies who are marginalized, either by physical impediment or societal structures, is something that we have to wrestle with all the time in today’s world. I think that part of the mission of theatre is to kind of allow people to enter a dream-like state where they can suspend some of their judgements and some of the mental ties that bind them and hear a story that doesn’t feel real, but is somehow connected to their own real experience. It’s like looking at a painting: you kind of see the world differently through the painter’s eyes. If we are at all successful we give the audience an opportunity to see the world just a little differently with the elements of truth that remain within this artificial world of the story and the play.