Jenn Thompson on 'The Secret Garden' as a space to heal

The Secret Garden. Adams VisCom

The director calls The Secret Garden a powerful story about rebirth, renewal, and forging family ties found and formed.

By Sylvie Drake
For the DCPA NewsCenter

There was nothing quite so appealing to the Victorians as tales of tragedy, gloom and redemption. Think Charles Dickens. But a less well-remembered though equally prolific writer by the name of Frances Hodgson Burnett, who grew up in England on a diet of Dickens, Walter Scott and Thackeray before emigrating to the United States, used that formula as the inspiration for much of her own literary work.

With a twist. She is mostly remembered today for three children’s books: Little Lord Fauntleroy (1885), which became a worldwide sensation that put her on the map; A Little Princess (1905), and The Secret Garden, serialized in 1909 when Burnett was already 60 and published as a book in 1911.

Unlike the previous two works, The Secret Garden was tepidly received when it emerged and almost forgotten by the time Burnett died in 1924. So credit Marsha Norman (book and lyrics) and Lucy Simon (music) with rescuing the novel by using it as the basis for their 1989 musical of the same name.

The book deserved the rescue. It tells of the transformation of a selfish little girl, Mary Lennox, growing up privileged in India, who loses her uncaring parents to cholera and is sent back to England to live on the estate of a hunchbacked uncle, Archibald Craven. Craven is too involved mourning the loss of his wife to pay much attention to his son Colin, let alone the unexpected arrival of this niece. So Mary, once again, finds herself left to her own devices. But when she befriends her maid Martha, and Martha’s brother Dickon, Mary starts to see the world through different eyes.

When Mary discovers a sealed and dying garden that once belonged to Colin’s mother and decides to bring it back to life, other things begin to change as well. With Dickon’s help, she finds a path not only to her salvation, but also to her cousin Colin who, unfairly treated as an invalid since birth, is in even greater need of rescuing. Thanks to the shared experience of bringing a garden back to life, they discover all the good that awaits them in theirs: the joy of friendship, the value of the caring and kindness of others, and nature’s singular restorative power.

It is a sweet and hopeful story. Burnett’s novel focused on Mary, Colin and Dickon — and a little red robin that points the way. But the musical, which added a chorus of ghosts and a complex musical score, evolved into a kind of chamber opera with a thriller backdrop. Its technical intricacy requires many skills. So where does the emphasis land?

“For me the emphasis has always been to keep it accessible,” replied Jenn Thompson, charged with staging the DCPA Theatre Company’s current production of The Secret Garden, running through May 28.

“I haven’t done this show before, but I’ve done other technically complicated and large-scale musicals. [The Secret Garden] could easily feel rather weighted down, and while I have no intention of dodging any of its darker themes — grief, death, abandonment — I’ve approached all aspects with an eye to letting the audience in. The theatre space is a great help. We perform on a thrust stage. That automatically pushes the actors into the audience’s orbit.” And, she added, the experience will be enhanced by “a big, beautiful live orchestra.”

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Casting, which started in November, was an arduous process. “It’s far and away the most important thing I do,” Thompson said. “Much of the success of the show rests on those decisions. Do-overs in casting are rare and can be very disruptive, so it’s crucial to get it right. I look for talent and skill, but also for people who inspire me to want to spend six weeks with them under close and sometimes stressful circumstances.

 “I vet every actor I hire if I don’t already know them. Enthusiasm, professionalism, directability and a sense of humor always turn my head. The same applies to the kids — though I might inquire about their parents as well, since they’ll be part of the company.”

Story continues below the video:

Video by David Lenk and John Moore for the DCPA NewsCenter.

Thompson critically chose Patricia Wilcox as choreographer, saying, “We’ve worked together on multiple projects. She’s a great partner as well as choreographer. My favorite designers, musical directors and choreographers always bow to story first. It’s great to have a team around you that shares your taste and whose opinions you trust, even when [these don’t] necessarily pertain to their area of expertise.”

But Thompson’s choices go beyond shared enthusiasms. The structure of The Secret Garden demands precision and shovelfuls of collaboration. Colleagues she’s used to can provide it.

“This is a show that may be a little hard to penetrate,” she explained. “Some of the characters are in deep mourning, but anyone who has been through grieving knows that there are many colors to bereavement. It’s a lot more complicated than just being perpetually sad. These characters are looking to connect and they can only change by making themselves vulnerable to one another.

“It’s a powerful story about rebirth and renewal, about creating a space to heal and grow. It’s also about forging family ties — found and biological. I wish to honor this message of reinvention. I’d love for the audience to see itself in these characters and be inspired by their fortitude in the face of great loss.

“My aim is to make a clear lane for the audience to go on this ride, for us to try and live inside these beloved and familiar characters and not present them but inhabit them. And, of course,” she underscored, “be entertained.”

Sylvie Drake is a translator and contributing writer to, American Theatre magazine, and is a former theatre critic and columnist for the Los Angeles Times. 

The Secret Garden: Ticket information
The Secret GardenThe beloved classic blossoms anew in this enchanting musical full of beautiful melodies. When young Mary uncovers the key to her late aunt’s long-lost garden, she becomes determined to revive the beauty that once flourished.
Book and lyrics by Marsha Norman; music by Lucy Simon;
based on the novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett.

Through May 28
Stage Theatre
Denver Performing Arts Complex
303-893-4100 or BUY ONLINE

Previous coverage of The Secret Garden:
Video: How does our Secret Garden grow?
Video, photos: Your first look at The Secret Garden
Five things we learned at first rehearsal
Five things we learned at Perspectives
Meet the cast: Zoe Manarel, who plays Mary Lennox
2016-17 season: Nine shows, two world premieres, return to classics

Photo coverage: The Secret Garden:

The Secret Garden- 2016-17 Theatre Company Season

Photos by Adams VisCom. To see more, click the forward arrow on the image above.

Photo gallery: The Secret Garden in Denver:

'The Secret Garden' in DenverPhotos following the making of ‘The Secret Garden’ in Denver. To see more, click the forward arrow on the image above. Photos by John Moore and Bamboo Booth.

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