The challenges of Educating Rita

Every play comes with its challenges for the actors and director, and Western Canada Theatre's upcoming production of Educating Rita is no different.

A two-character play that transpires on one set, there's a lot of pressure on leads Scott Bellis and Holly Lewis to carry playwright Willy Russell's story of the English class system, marriage, relationships and the shortcomings of institutional education.

For Lewis, playing the working class Liverpool hairdresser Rita created it's own unique challenge - the accent.

Speaking with The Daily News earlier this week, Lewis admitted she's only been called on to speak with an accent once before, and that was Bosnian.

"Which is totally different," said the Canadian-born Lewis.

Educating Rita is Lewis's first show after giving birth to her second child. This provided her with a certain advantage when it comes to learning the lines while adjusting to the lack sleep a new mom experiences.

For one, she started learning Rita's dialogue back in September, well ahead of the schedule Lewis would have had if she appeared in other shows.

"I was really worried that I wouldn't be able to remember anything, so I started working on the lines," she said.

And it gave her more time to work with a dialect coach, which she began doing in November.

Lewis occasionally slipped in and out of the Liverpool accent as she described how she first learned to talk like she is from Manchester, which is easier for Canadian audiences to understand.

"Then we dropped in a couple of vowel changes so it sounds like (Rita) has been living in Liverpool for a while," said Lewis. "So it's clear to the audience, but if anyone has been to Liverpool, they'll buy it."

The work, at least as far as this reporter is concerned, paid off. Audiences should find the accent convincing when they attend the Sagebrush starting next week.

Educating Rita follows the relationship between Rita and middle-aged university lecturer Frank Bryant, played by Bellis, during the course of a year.

Director Susan Rodgers explained the two have an immediate and profound effect on one another. Frank is impressed by Rita's energy and earnestness and is forced to re-examine his attitudes and position in life. Rita, meanwhile, finds Frank's tutelage opens doors to a bohemian lifestyle and a new self-confidence.

Rita has big dreams and is trying to better herself, she said. Meanwhile, Frank has been living in a privileged class that has all the luxuries afforded to him, yet something is missing.

"They stir each other up in this relationship. And they both grow from the relationship," said Rodgers.

For Rodgers as a director and Bellis as an actor, the challenge is in having just two actors on stage. Rodgers said the fate of the show is on Bellis and Lewis.

"It's a delight as a director. I don't have to move too many people around," she said.

For Bellis and Lewis, there are no other actors to work off of. Bellis said the play is more concentrated and requires the relationship between Rita and Frank to always be interesting.

"We have to spend our time finding all the nooks and crannies of this connection that these two characters have," he said. "We're finding out how they affect each other, how they drive each other, how they annoy each other."

The goal is to create as much detail as possible based on the words in Russell's script and make Rita and Frank believable, said Bellis. The hope is, by doing that, the audience will be fully engaged.

"We can get them invested in the relationship," he said.

Rodgers said it's the specificity of the moment to moment that makes Educating Rita tick, and the wit of Russell's dialogue.

"It's a beautifully crafted play. There's great wit and humour and a beautiful journey through the play," she said.

jhewlett@kamloopsnews.ca, @Jason_Hewlett

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ON STAGE

WHAT:Educating Rita

WHEN:Thursday, Feb. 21 until Saturday, March 2

WHERE:Sagebrush Theatre

TICKETS:Kamloops Live! Box Office, www.kamloopslive.com

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