It’s a show about the critical importance of imagination in life, but Jake Runeckles and Andrew Iles need to do a little less imagining than other actors might.
The two play, respectively, the main characters Bastian and Atreyu in the family-friendly The Neverending Story, opening shortly at the NAC, and each actor benefits from some personal insights into his character.
“I really identify with him,” says Runeckles about Bastian, the young, lonely bookworm who takes refuge from bullies by diving headlong into a book called The Neverending Story. Between the covers, the hero Atreyu is on a quest to save a fantastical world from a consuming emptiness called the Nothing that threatens to wipe out stars and stories, and Bastian’s imagination ends up playing a crucial role in the tale’s outcome.
“I was a really quiet kid, really studious,” continues Runeckles. “(Bastian) is the underdog, the kid that no one expects to be the hero. So, it’s really awesome to champion my younger self as the kid who was never the popular kid but just out on the fringe doing my own thing.”
Iles relates to Atreyu’s risk-taking nature. “He goes into things blindly; he’ll rationalize going into a dangerous situation head-on and seeing what happens. I like throwing myself into something. I’m a musician as well — I’ve picked two careers that don’t necessarily end up being lucrative but are incredibly rewarding and full of passion and risk.”
The two actors were in the show when it premiered last summer at the Stratford Festival, where it enjoyed considerable acclaim for elements like Bretta Gerecke’s stunning design, including other-worldly puppet creatures.
As he is in Ottawa, Runeckles was Bastian at Stratford. Playing the character a second time has allowed the actor to explore new dimensions in the role. The original production, he says, emphasized Bastian’s fearfulness at upsetting his widowed father, who has little time for his son’s distress at losing his mother or for the life of the imagination.
This time, there’s a deeper dive into how much Bastian loves books and where they can take him, and how that produces an internal conflict because he simultaneously feels a need to moderate those imaginative urgings — what Runeckles terms “self-parenting.”
Iles was also in the Stratford production, playing secondary characters as well as understudying for Bastian and Atreyu. Describing Atreyu as a character who finds joy in confronting tough situations, Iles says he’s had to find his own way of interpreting that rather than just following the path laid down by the “awesome” Qasim Khan, who originated the role for the stage production.
Interestingly, neither actor really knew The Neverending Story before Stratford. That goes for the original 1979 novel by Michael Ende, adapted for the Stratford stage by David S. Craig in association with the NAC (Jillian Keiley directed the original and current production). Nor did either actor know the movie, which was released in 1984, years before the two men — both now in their twenties — were even born.
Runeckles says the film wound up being banned in his home because his older brother became hooked on it, and he remembers only glimpses of it. Iles recalls seeing snatches of the movie and thinking, “‘Oh, The Neverending Story’ — God, that sounds like a real ordeal.”
Clearly not an ordeal for either one now, the story speaks to their own perceptions of how imagination exists in our world.
“When I look at politics,” says Runeckles, “in some ways, I think imagination is kind of … Yeah, rampant! You can make up any story you want right now.”
He believes it’s also often viewed as a feminine quality, and that means boys could end up tamping it down in themselves to avoid being bullied like Bastian.
Iles, while admitting his impressions are purely anecdotal, says he does worry that imagination may not be held in sufficiently high regard among young people because it requires work and can involve failure.
“When I see little kids being handed an iPhone or iPad and there’s a bunch of colourful games already on there … (that) worries me. I think imagination starts with what you can’t hold in your hand.”
The Neverending Story is in the Babs Asper Theatre Jan. 29-Feb. 16 (previews, Jan. 29 & 30; opening night, Jan. 31). Tickets and information: NAC box office, Ticketmaster outlets, 1-888-991-2787, nac-cna.ca