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Pemberton school tackles the weird and wacky world of Wonka

Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory runs at the Maury Young Arts Centre on Feb. 14, 15, 21, and 22
From left: Sean Staehli, Kieran Nott, Evan Mares, director Renata Zablotney, and Rafe Murphy pose for a photo during rehearsals for Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Photo submitted

Pemberton Secondary School drama teacher Renata Zablotney goes through the same cycle when she's deciding which production her class will put on.

She ruminates on a few ideas, but is careful not to get too attached to any because when she sits down with the students, they usually inspire the choice.

That was the case again for Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, set to debut at the Maury Young Arts Centre on Friday, Feb. 14.

"When we were doing some of our exercises it struck me because of the cast I had and because of some of their laughs and mannerism, I was like, 'Oh my goodness, we could do Willy Wonka!'" she says. "I have two amazing Wonkas and Grandpa Joe. I can see all the cast here. My students inspired the script and why we're doing it."

In total, 16 students are acting in the play—in two different casts—but a huge number also worked behind-the-scenes to give the show a unique look.

"We're doing some special effects for our set," Zablotney says. "Our set is quite beautiful. We're going to be relying a lot on lighting. In terms of set, what I wanted to do is in the first act before we get to Wonka's is a lack of set. We'll transport you from reality, where it's black and white, and go into this colourful, zany psychedelic world in the second act."

Story and style-wise, the script pulls from various versions, including the original movie, the Broadway show, and the movie remake. At the centre is the story of Charlie Bucket who finds a golden ticket that grants him a tour to Willy Wonka's chocolate factory, along with a handful of other kids with questionable morals.

"I'm a really big Gene Wilder fan," Zablotney says. "When we were [thinking about] this it was close to the anniversary of his death and it popped up on my Facebook page. I thought, 'We should do a Gene Wilder play.' I'm so inspired by him."

To that end, the two actors playing Willy Wonka took different approaches to the role.

"I took the Gene Wilder approach," says Rafe Murphy, one of the Wonkas. "I tried to structure myself off the movie. Then Sean [Staehli, the other Wonka] has a zany, out-there character, giving it his all on stage."

For Evan Mares who plays Charlie the biggest challenge was playing a regular character when all the other personalities are so exaggerated.

"Unlike almost anybody else in this play, Charlie is more sane," he says. "Being around everybody else, you want to act out more and be more insane, but you can't really do that with Charlie. I found that kind of difficult to do—trying to be more calm."

Staehli, meanwhile, has had to balance recovering from spinal surgery and rehearsing his part as the other Wonka. "I wasn't able to move as much for a while, which was worrisome because Wonka is such an active character," he says. "I'm doing really well in moving, walking, a bit of running."

Another challenge: several of the cast members this year are first-time actors. Kieran Nott, who has been in several PSS plays, says, for context, this production focuses on fun. He plays Grandpa Joe.

"All the plays I've done have been fun to put on, but this is more zany and ridiculous," he says. "I'm Grandpa Joe; it's not a challenging role, per se, but it's a fun role where you can do whatever. It's a ridiculous character. He's basically insane; I can do whatever on stage."

That stage, this time around, is at the Maury Young Arts Centre in Whistler—and a lot bigger than their usual performance space at the school.

"In Whistler ... you have a massive stage," Zablotney says. "It's five times what's here. We've done high-calibre shows at the school, but they're a little more serious or professional in Whistler."

Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory runs on Feb. 14, 15, 21, and 22 at 7 p.m. Tickets are $15 at the Pemberton Secondary School office, at the door, or you can reserve them online at