BYU's Young Company tells the story of a librarian confronting health and work challenges
The Young Company presents "The World's Strongest Librarian," an award-winning play for all ages written by Jeff Gottesfeld and Elizabeth Wong. The cast of characters, led by a persistent and empathetic librarian, will bring messages of patience, hard work and acceptance to BYU before touring local elementary schools.
Though the play is a fictional piece, some elements are drawn from reality, specifically from the 2013 memoir of the same title about Salt Lake City resident Josh Hanagarne. Hanagarne is a librarian and strongman who wrote about his diagnosis and experiences with Tourette Syndrome and his journey to better manage his symptoms through weightlifting.
"There is a character named Josh Hanagarne who is modeled after the author of the memoir," said director Adam Houghton of the play. "Some of the same ideas and concepts that he talks about in the book are expressed in the play, in terms of working hard and having progressive change happen over time."
Like his namesake, the fictional Josh works in a library, though this library is threatened with closure by the city council. Much of the show deals with the way Josh and the children who come to his story time process and respond to the news of the library's impending demise.
Additionally, "one of the children has Tourette Syndrome, which is something we don't necessarily acknowledge a lot in our society," said Greta Gebhard, a theatre student and the show's dramaturg. "Josh explains that it doesn't make anybody a bad person. It's just a part of this kid. Josh tries to help him still feel accepted and see that he can be a positive influence in society."
One of the primary themes of the play is that these positive changes often come through patience and small victories. In preparation for rehearsals, cast members were given the assignment to set goals for themselves and stick with them over the summer to get into the mindset of the protagonist. They returned fall semester with their lines memorized, ready to bring Josh's story to life.
Gebhard hopes that these efforts come through for the audience. "I want people to come away with a sense of empowerment that they can make a difference in their own lives. You don't necessarily need this huge, grandiose gesture to change your life."
"It can be the small things that you do every day that over time help you to become stronger and healthier," added Houghton.
Additional themes revolve around the awareness and acceptance of others and are presented in a way that will especially resonate with young audiences. "At the beginning of every Young Company production, the children in the audience are invited to come sit on the floor at the foot of the stage if they want to," Gebhard explained. "It helps them to stay more engaged and be up close to the action."
"I love how much this show reminds me of being a kid again," said Natalie Herbst, who plays a 12-year-old girl named Peyton. "I used to love reading and playing, so it's nice to relearn those interests. I definitely find parts of myself in my character."
"The World's Strongest Librarian" marks Herbst's first show at BYU and Gebhard's first time working on a children's production. "It's definitely been a learning experience for me to see how you still need to honor and respect the intelligence of children," Gebhard said. "You don't need to dumb things down for them."
In addition to their tour of nearly 20 elementary schools, the Young Company will play three free performances at local libraries. These will be Nov. 5 at the Provo Library at 7:00 p.m., Nov. 10 at the Salt Lake City Library at 2:00 p.m. and Nov. 26 at the Orem Library at 7:00 p.m. Josh Hanagarne will be in attendance at the performance at the Salt Lake City Library, where he continues to work as a librarian. He will speak briefly after the show.
The production runs in the Nelke Theatre in the Harris Fine Arts Center Sept. 28, Oct. 4-5 and Oct. 10-12 at 7:00 p.m., with 2:00 p.m. and 4:00 p.m. matinees on Sept. 29 and Oct. 13. Tickets are available in person at the BYU Ticket Office in the HFAC or Marriott Center, by phone at 801.422.2981 or online at byuarts.com.