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Boats against the current: Whistler Secondary brings The Great Gatsby to the stage

Dual cast premieres the timeless tale set in the Roaring Twenties this weekend 
E-Arts2 Great Gatsby 29.10 SUBMITTED
Edie Hampton, left, and Aurora Carson star in Whistler Secondary School's stage adaptation of the literary classic, The Great Gatsby.

When searching for actorly inspiration, one can certainly do worse than Leonardo DiCaprio. 

That’s who Grade 9 student Aurora Carson looked to as she got set to play the lead role in Whistler Secondary School’s (WSS) adaptation of The Great Gatsby, the timeless literary classic. In inhabiting the enigmatic, titular Jay Gatsby, she watched and rewatched DiCaprio’s portrayal in Baz Luhrmann’s sumptuous film version from 2013. 

“It’s quite different because, first of all, back then, Gatsby walked different, he stands different. I had to learn to be a guy,” says Carson. 

Taking on the role of Daisy Buchanan, Gatsby’s long-lost lover, is Grade 11 student Edie Hampton, who knew she wanted to portray the elegant socialite from the moment she first read her lines. 

“Everyone else is also very talented so I thought I would get another character I didn’t enjoy as much. So I really lucked out in being Daisy. [Performing arts teacher Johanne] Nielsen’s really helped me to learn her character a bit better. She’s very feminine and really outgoing, bubbly and happy all the time.” 

Throughout the story, Daisy often finds herself beholden to the various men in her life, being pulled this way and that, so those few rare moments when she does exercise her own agency are all the more important to get right, according to Hampton. 

“There’s definitely some themes where you have to put a lot more emotion to it because it’s her only moment of really opening up to the audience,” she explains. “A lot of her life has been decided for her, or they’re talking about, ‘I want Daisy. No, I want Daisy,’ so she doesn’t really have a say in it except for those few moments. Ms. Nielsen helped me to put a lot of emotion into those scenes.” 

Nielsen decided on the classic Jazz Age novel for this year’s spring play primarily for two reasons: F. Scott Fitzgerald’s iconic 1925 book is now officially in the public domain, and the related fact it has been a staple of high-school curricula for decades now.   

“It’s a play that most high school students, be they currently in school or graduated, might be familiar with because it’s a common book that gets tossed around for their English classes,” Nielsen says. 

Two separate casts, featuring 30 students in all, take on the play this year, so you’re likely to catch a different performance depending on which show you attend. A small-but-mighty production crew also dazzled Nielsen with a particular set piece they designed that should be familiar to readers of the book as the Rolls Royce that lent a tragic coda to the novel’s final chapter. (When I let slip the ending of the book in our interview, Hampton jokingly yelled “No spoilers!” for what is a century-old novel.) 

“We have a car, a really amazing car that our stage crew has put together from nothing to be this absolutely beautiful piece that moves and lights up,” Nielsen says. 

The live audience is a marked departure from the past two years of school plays at WSS. Last year, the cast—Carson and Hampton included—pre-recorded their scenes on video to an empty room. Although nerves are definitely a factor in returning to the live stage, that is also coupled with the crackling excitement that always precedes opening night. 

“I’m personally very looking forward to putting these students in front of real people,” Nielsen says. 

The Great Gatsby opens at the Maury Young Arts Centre on Friday, March 11 at 5:30 p.m., followed by an evening show at 8 p.m. The play stages at the same times the following day, with doors for all shows opening a half hour before curtains. Any attendees over the age of 12 are required to show proof of full vaccination and ID. Tickets are $25, available at showpass.com/greatgatsby