January 27, 2011 | Myrna Anderson

A dramatic classroom moment in The Wednesday Wars.

At the center of the set, Principal Guareschi is trying to find the proper gesture to intimidate Holling Hoodhood, the 7th grader sitting in the first row in Mrs. Baker’s class. Guareschi, played by junior Samuel McConnell, jabs two fingers at his own eyes, then one in Holling’s general direction.

McConnell then pauses, turns to Kirsten Kelly and asks: “What do I do?”

Kelly, a ’95 Calvin grad and the director of The Wednesday Wars, turns to English professor Gary Schmidt, who is sitting in the back of Lab Theatre, watching a rehearsal of the play based on his book of the same name. “What do we do?” Kelly asks him; McConnell’s modern gesture doesn’t fit the play’s 1960s setting.

“Yeah, it would be anachronistic,” Schmidt conceded, “but it’s hilarious.” As Kelly and McConnell work out a one-finger point for the character, the author talked about what it was like seeing his book become a play. “It’s amazing,” Schmidt said. “This all happened 40 years ago. How strange is it for something from your past to be played out on stage?”

Lone Protestant

Schmidt based The Wednesday Wars on his 7th-grade experience as the only Protestant in his class in a Long Island school. On Wednesdays, when all of his fellow students are at yeshiva or catechism, Holling Hood Hood, the character based on a seventh-grade Schmidt, stays in class, cleaning erasers and reading Shakespeare with Mrs. Baker, who despises him.

Kelly, a freelance writer and director living in New York, got the idea to convert the young adult novel, a 2008 Newbery Honor Book, into a play when she noticed that many Michigan libraries were featuring it as a recommended read for summer. “I read it and loved it and immediately saw how it could be a play and how it could open up Shakespeare to young students in a really fun way,” she said.

Kelly adapted the novel with 2004 alum Brian Farish, with whom she worked on an interim production of The Government Inspector. “We couldn’t represent everything in the novel onstage, so we had to pick and choose,” she said. “We had to put a full emotional journey onstage,” she said. The dramatic version of The Wednesday Wars retains novel’s ’60s-era timeframe, she said: “That was such a tumultuous time in this country.”

“She has a really good understanding of the story,” said Schmidt, who praised the performance of junior Matt Cambridge as Holling Hoodhood. “I met him in December and thought instantly he was perfect. He looked like he could have stepped out of my high school,” said Schmidt, “and not many Calvin students look like they grew up on Long Island. It’s really perfect casting, and he’s skilled.”

A younger audience for Shakespeare

To launch the production, Kelly taught another interim class this January, which will conclude with several performances of the play. The play was cast with members of the Calvin Theatre Company and others from the college community. “I really wanted this project to be first done here because the book is so well known and so loved here,” she said.

Kelly hopes to take the play to as many professional venues as possible. “It’s an ideal thing for Shakespeare companies to do to bring in younger audiences—to bring 4th through high school age to experience Shakespeare in a non-intimidating way,” she said.

Schmidt will be in the audience: “At least twice,” he said.

Gary Schmidt

9 a.m. and 12 p.m., January 27–28, 2011 (schools)

1:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m., January 29, 2011 (public)

12 p.m. (schools) and 7:30 p.m., February 3–4, 2011 (public)

1:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m., February 5, 2011 (public)

Tickets cost $10 for adults and $5 for students. On February 3, tickets cost $9 for adults.

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