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Rachel Hibler, director of CMT’s ‘Descendants,’ finds a new generation of Disney magic

What is it like to be the child of a villain?

“It must be confusing,” says Rachel Hibler, director of the new Children’s Musical Theaterworks production of “Disney’s Descendants: The Musical,” now in its opening weekend at the Fresno Veterans Memorial Auditorium. “Villain children are just like any children; they want to please their parents and hope their understanding of the world makes sense.”

Pictured above: Sam Shaheen-Smith (Mal), Adelaide Pope (Evie), Arty Nevarez (Carlos) and Justine Pulsipher (Jay) in ‘Descandants.’ Photo: Children’s Musical Theaterworks

Parents (or the people who raise you) are by far the biggest influence in a person’s life, of course. Manners, religion, eating habits, education, political philosophy, prejudices, even the sports team you follow – all these characteristics can be shaped by the impact of paternal and maternal forces.

But what about fundamental human nature?

I caught up with Hibler, who teaches theater at Computech Middle School, to talk about the nuances of the show. (It runs through Dec. 12.)

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Q:  I’ve never seen “Descendants.” Can you give a cheat sheet for me and other novices?

A: The play “Descendants” is based on the three Disney films of the same name. The story is all the Disney characters have moved on with their lives since their movies and have raised families. The main characters are Mal, Maleficent’s daughter; Evie, Evil Queen’s daughter; Jay, Jafar’s son; and Carlos, Cruella’s son.

All the Disney villains have been sent to an Island by Beast and Belle and all the “good characters” and denied their magic and lives. They live on the Isle of the Lost with their children while the good characters live in Auradon. The Isle can see Auradon and vice versa, but they are separated by a portal. Ben, Beast’s son, will soon be crowned king and has decided to allow the four villain children to come to Auradon to see if the two worlds can be reunited. Mal and Ben discover they are not so different and that children are not guilty of the sins of the parents and can choose their own lives and paths.

The music from the play includes music from all the films, but the plot of the play is entirely the first film.

Q: Were you a fan of the movie before you got this gig, or did you have to bone up on it?

A: I had not seen the film before agreeing to direct the show. I have several cosplay friends who love the characters and cosplay them, especially Mal. The looks are so fun to cosplay because of the hair colors and costume styles. And my best friend, Tina, loves the films. I hadn’t realized she liked them until I told her about the show, and she freaked out! She loves the movie so much, she named a litter of her puppies the “Descendants” characters, and funnily enough, their mom’s name is Cruella. I am a huge Disney fan, but I had just not gotten around to this series. But I love it now. Tina has required a play by play of my “Descendants” process and she is beside herself to see the show on stage.

Photos / Michele Michaels Photography

Matea McIntyre (Mal), Alexis Shelton (Evie), Antonio Quinonez (Carlos), and Seth Clark (Jay) are double-cast in ‘Descendants.’

Q: For the characters, growing up as “evil” by implication must be tough.

A: Your whole life you have been told you are forced to live on this island because of the choices of your parents. You’ve never known another life and aren’t allowed to choose a different future. Mal wasn’t around for the events of “Sleeping Beauty”, and then she meets the daughter of Aurora. All they know is what has been told to them. There is a line in the show that Carlos says that I think speaks volumes: “They treat us like criminals, they think that’s sad, to me that’s rad.”

Q: Let’s get philosophical here: Do you think the children of evil people are more likely to be evil?

A: Absolutely not. This is the nature vs nurture question. I don’t believe in fate or predestination. I believe we all have free agency and reason. We are taught certain things as children by our parents, who are flawed individuals dealing with their own trauma, and as we grow, we are exposed to more ideas and people, and we make our choices based on the information that we have.

I believe a person can make their own choices in this world and choose who they want to be independent of their childhood or how they were raised. Anyone can make a different choice. I do believe that circumstances matter though. The 4 Evils would never have had a chance to learn and grow if they had not been exposed to the people of Auradon. Access to the world and different cultures is vital to growing as a person. If one never leaves their own Isle of the Lost and only interacts with one mindset of people, there is very little opportunity to change. We must choose to change our circumstances and take opportunities.


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Q: As a director, what has been the hardest thing about this production?

A: The audience expectations – and finding ways to be unique while honoring those expectations. Every audience has expectations of shows. If an audience goes to see “The Wizard of Oz,” every audience expects to see Judy Garland as Dorothy. Same with “Sound of Music”; everyone wants Julie Andrews. But those are unrealistic expectations. Every actor is different, and every production is different. But audiences do not think that way. As artists, our challenge is to understand what the non-negotiables are and where are places we can be surprising and throw in our own ideas while still honoring the established material. That was my approach going into this show.

The most obvious non-negotiable was hair color. Mal had to have her purple hair. Evie had to have her blue hair. Another was the Disney look of the Evil parents (Maleficent, Evil Queen, Jafar and Cruella). Each had to look recognizable as that character.

But as a director I also looked at the story and found the theme of expectations running through the narrative, and I encouraged my actors to explore that idea. Each of these descendants, both good and evil, have expectations put on them by their parents. They each must forge their own path and find the balance of who they are versus who their parents want them to be.

Q: Tell me about the set design. I understand there was a competition at Fresno City College. Who was the winner?

For the first time ever, CMT opened our set design to students at FCC! I had written my director’s analysis, and I knew a couple things I wanted in my set, so we sent my analysis to the classes and students were able to read my direction and then use it to create their own designs. My concept had two things: I wanted the set to spin on stage easily and magically, and I wanted magic transitions with no blackouts.

I was blown away by the imaginative and fearless design of FCC design student Rebecca Krantz. My first meeting with her she had a full-scale model built and ready to show me. It was like she had gone into my brain and pulled out exactly what I wanted for this show. Her set was expansive, beautiful and two sided. Her set could spin. Her set was encapsulated and made transitions easy. It was colorful and exciting. I have never seen such a creative set design based on a director’s analysis.

And the most surprising thing is she claims to not be a set designer! She said this was her first attempt at set design; she identifies as a costume designer. I tell you what, if this is her first attempt at a set, I can only imagine how unbelievable her costume designs are!

She has been an integral part of this process from start to finish. She helped build, paint, and dress the set. CMT is crazy lucky to have her, and she is such a credit to FCC. I can assure you I will be using her again.

Q: What is one behind-the-scenes fact you can tell us that the average audience member wouldn’t know otherwise?

A: Usually on a musical, the entire cast and crew know the music and choreography so well, they will all do the dancing offstage. During “Guys and Dolls Jr,” the song “Sit Down You’re Rocking the Boat” was the only time the entire cast was on stage, so the crew had the whole backstage to themselves. They realized the song is the same beat as the Macarena, so the crew would do the Macarena to the cast singing.

It’s the same with our show. If an actor isn’t on stage during a song, I guarantee they are doing the dance with the onstage actors, backstage. Theater kids just love musicals, and we find any excuse to dance together.

Q: Tell us more about yourself and your background in theater.

Rachel Hibler

A: I am the Theatre teacher at Computech Middle School. I teach acting, directing, stagecraft and Forensics: Speech and Debate. Our program is the only one of its kind in Fresno Unified and I am the lead teacher for Middle School Theatre in FUSD. I have been tasked by FUSD Arts to help build programs at all our middle schools! The Computech Theatre Company has produced shows such as “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” “A Christmas Carol,” the play version of “Les Misérables,” “Guys and Dolls Jr.” Currently we are working on producing the full show of “Fiddler on the Roof.” We plan to have a live orchestra with our performance.

I hold a master’s degree in Theatre Production and Design from Southern Oregon University. In addition to directing, I am a professional costume designer, actor, and cosplayer.

I was onstage as Lenny in “Crimes of the Heart,” Mollie in “The Mousetrap,” and Diana in “Lend me a Tenor” with The Stage Company of Poplar Bluff. I have been on stage locally as Kendall in “Stage Door” with Good Company Players. I was the costume designer for StageWorks Fresno on “Mamma Mia” and “Book of Will.” I was the costume designer for The Stage Company of Poplar Bluff on The Real Inspector Hound and Lend Me a Tenor.

I directed “Inherit the Wind,” “Alice in Wonderland,” and “Romeo and Juliet” for The Stage Company of Poplar Bluff.

My favorite characters to cosplay are Harley Quinn and Ariel. My company is Clovis Cosplay on Instagram and Facebook.

Q: Anything else you’d like to say?

A: I am so grateful to CMT for having the faith in me to direct this show. They took a chance on me, and I am honored. I love working with young actors who want training and I love being the one to give the training. Teachers in FUSD know my students and the training they receive. I can’t believe I get paid to do what I love.


 

Covering the arts online in the central San Joaquin Valley and beyond. Lover of theater, classical music, visual arts, the literary arts and all creative endeavors. Former Fresno Bee arts critic and columnist. Graduate of Columbia University and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Excited to be exploring the new world of arts journalism.

donaldfresnoarts@gmail.com

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