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Nov. 4—It was a pleasure to burn.
The first line of Ray Bradbury's landmark novel "Fahrenheit 451" is one that encapsulates the reality of thought control — it is not imposed, but rather favored by those who are ignorant of knowledge.
As required reading for high-schoolers across the country, most are familiar with the story of Bradbury's most well-known work, but never before has the story felt as relevant as it does in today's political climate. That was the main reason that Cheyenne Little Theatre Players accepted John Lyttle's proposal to direct the stage adaptation, also written by Bradbury in the late '70s.
"This is very relevant in terms of what we're going through in our community, other parts of the state and nationally," Lyttle, director of "Fahrenheit 451," said at rehearsal on Wednesday. "What should be there, not be there. I want it to be a thought-provoking experience for people in terms of what's happening."
There's no one affiliated with "Fahrenheit 451" who doesn't carry the weight of the novel's message on their shoulders throughout the production. As public school systems struggle over curriculum and the literary content of school libraries, particularly those works graphically depicting sex, the overarching message of the book is critical to revisit.
The story follows Guy Montag, a fireman in the dystopian near-future who is tasked with burning any and all books. Over the course of the story, Montag learns more about the contents of the books he is burning and begins to question both his morals and where his allegiance lies.
The message, as the cast and crew see it, is that it's better to be taught how to learn than not learn at all.
"He grew up not knowing what it was like before, not knowing what was wrong with the burning. It was something that just happened to him," said Marshall Brown, who plays Montag. As his wife's favorite book, he felt called to audition for the role, but he's just as motivated by his personal philosophy.
"He's starting to read these books, and because he was never taught about them, he's confused," Brown continued. "He uses them to his advantage. He gets in trouble for them. And it's all because the generation before him didn't teach them, 'Hey, this is how you read books, this is how you interpret your feelings. This is how you think about it.' It was all just, 'We're not going to talk about it, because it makes us uncomfortable.'"
Beneath the narrative, the story is about the character arc of a man who is coming to terms with how to think for himself.
Bradbury spoke often about his love for books, but in the context of the story, they serve simply as a vessel for information. What the story is really warning the reader about is allowing a society to develop where people avoid information that conflicts with their pre-established perception of the world around them.
Brown sees this happening today, where different texts are altered or censored due to their content. Texts like "Huckleberry Finn" and "To Kill A Mockingbird," despite their use of racial slurs, are written for their time and, often, elevated in modern context by the shock of their applied language.
"If you were to do 'The Diary of Anne Frank' as a play, using those slurs, using anything in there, even as a Jewish man, I would be completely fine with it," Brown said. "Because it's needed. Because it's original. Because it's what is happening in the world today."
The catalyst for Montag is a series of run-ins with several characters, but none has a greater impact than his relationship with Captain Beatty, his fire chief.
Beatty, portrayed by CLTP veteran Rory Mack, is old enough to remember when the burnings began. He knows more about the reasoning behind the burnings — and the perceived dangers of books' existence — than most.
"Beatty is not really a traditional villain," Mack said. "He does make a pretty significant change in his character throughout the play. In my mind, he kind of has already started to lay down his relationship with Montag early on.
"He's kind of trying to force it in a certain direction to test Montag to see if this is the right guy (to share information with). And so I think then, toward the end, he's pushing Montag to see what Montag will do. Will he fight back?"
Their relationship is slightly different in the stage play than in the original story. Mack and Brown agree that the changes in their two characters make for a better stage performance; it's more fleshed out, with some key aspects of the story having been altered toward the end.
Naturally, other changes have to occur to make the story possible onstage.
There can be no eight-legged mechanical hound depicted on stage, nor any elaborate fire burnings or other grandiose set pieces that are depicted in the book, though a newly implemented video component will come in handy for the production. Storytelling elements have been reworked into dialogue, making for dense and often complex monologues by the main characters.
It's been a game of adopting small, emotive gestures to keep the audience keyed in on the conversations between Montag and surrounding characters.
Otherwise, the content is true to the source material. This is especially important for when the theater intends to give a private performance for local high school students who recently studied the book in class.
"It means so much to so many people, and it can mean so much to so many more people in the future," Brown said. "It is something that I want to do because my whole philosophy is 'help the next generation to be better than this one.' That's also why I want to do the student show, to show that the message here is strong, and the message here needs to be said."
Will Carpenter is the Wyoming Tribune Eagle's Arts and Entertainment/Features Reporter. He can be reached by email at email@example.com or by phone at 307-633-3135. Follow him on Twitter @will_carp_.