Hi Theatre Fam!
Jon Jon here! I got a chance to correspond with some of the wonderful folks at Imagination Stage, who are gearing up to open E B White’s classic Charlotte’s Web. Even though I have not read the story in many, many years, it still has a fond place in my heart. There’s something about the quote: “After all, what’s a life anyways? We’re born, we live a little, we die.” that has resonated with me since the days of my youth.
Follow that up with “You have been my friend,’ replied Charlotte. ‘That in itself is a tremendous thing.” and it feels like the sort of writing that lives deeply within one’s heart. There’s an elegant simplicity in the way E B White wrote, and I found myself curious as to how that translated to the stage. There is something so deeply comforting about this writing, especially now. When the world feels like it’s on fire around you, it’s such a gentle reminder about the small goodness that can be found, should you look for it.
Here’s Kate Bryer, director of Charlotte’s Web.
Jon Jon Johnson: What about this Charlotte’s Web is new or interesting?
Kate Bryer: Well, I love E B White and feel that he is probably one of the best writers of the English language that we have. Every time I reread these novels (CHARLOTTE’S WEB, STUART LITTLE, THE TRUMPET OF THE SWAN), I literally get chills because his language is so incredibly beautiful and economical. He says the most essential thing in the sparest and yet most elegant way. We need to be passing this love of language on to our children by telling them these stories.
As far as this production goes, I am really excited because we have gathered together an absolutely fantastic cast, all of whom are multi talented. Actors will be playing live acoustical instruments (violin and guitar) and we will have a baby grand piano on stage that will be played live by a professional pianist for each performance. We are not using the musical version of this script, but are instead using existing classical and Folk Americana music to underscore and highlight moments in the show. In addition, actress Shanara Gabrielle will be performing as Charlotte high in the air on silks.
How do you go about telling a tale that has existed in many iterations before?
I thought about what this piece meant to me and then how I could express that viewpoint in the most theatrical way possible. This is a play that is often over-produced or told in too realistic a manner; I wanted to tell this story in an economical way that is elegant and sophisticated, asking the audience to use their imaginations to fill in details where we have given them simple images. Allowing audiences to bring their own imaginations to the piece is something I am very interested in these days. I want them to feel ownership of this story that expresses universal themes.
at Imagination Stage
November 18 – January 7, 2017
Details and tickets
So, what themes and lessons from Charlotte’s Web do you find particularly useful to share with children and parents?
In re-reading the book this time, I was struck by the words that Charlotte weaves in the web and how meaningful those are in terms of what qualities we wish to admire in others: RADIANT, TERRIFIC and HUMBLE. E B White wants us to remember every day to be grateful for the life that we have and that being humble is perhaps the most admirable trait a person (or pig!) can have. I also think that this book is often the first time that a parent might gently talk to their child about the cycle of life–“We are born, we live a little, we die”. Lastly, I think that the conclusion that Wilbur finally comes to “Starting now, I’m going to stop worrying about myself. There are more important things than just thinking about yourself all the time, ” is so important for children to hear as they grow up and move from a place of self involvement to looking outside themselves and feeling empathy for others.
What’s your take on anthropomorphizing animals as characters?
It is always so important to us at Imagination Stage that actors when playing animals (which we do a lot!) find the essence of the animal and then use those qualities and traits to build the character. I love physical theatre and always encourage my actors to explore characters thru movement; I often hire a movement director on shows that are not musicals because I love collaborating with other artists to find new and interesting ways to express the action of a story. We tell actors that in general we don’t want them to be on all fours and that our designers do not make “big fuzzy bunny suits” for them to wear. Actors who play animals are generally costumed in human clothing with animal ears, tails and other small animal aspects that help the audience to know who they are. In addition, designers are encouraged to think about the animals personalities and relationships when creating costumes so that the clothing reflects time, period, place, and other environmental and societal considerations.
What were some challenges about this show?
It is a lot of text! I am hoping that the music and the movement that we are adding to this production will only enhance these beautiful words. It is my greatest hope that our audience will see this story in a new way and will be just as enchanted by seeing Charlotte, Wilbur and all the other wonderful characters come to life on the stage, as they were when reading the book.
How is directing theatre for young audiences different from directing a show aimed at adults?
I have been directing a lot outside of Imagination Stage in the last couple of years (Constellation Theatre Company, The Hub Theatre, 1st Stage VA) and I can honestly say that I do not feel that directing a show aimed for adults is any different that directing a show for children. In both cases, I have to tell the story in the clearest, most specific and honest way possible. In both cases, I get to collaborate with actors and designers who are wildly talented and who bring great ideas to the table every day and in both cases I encourage my actors not to shy away from strong emotion.
Children feel things very strongly (sometimes even more intensely than adults!); I respect that emotion and I celebrate it. I think perhaps that the only difference for me is that I feel very lucky every day to direct at Imagination Stage because often, the audiences that we perform for have never actually had a theatrical experience before and we get to give that to them. That is an amazing opportunity.
We add two actors to the mix. I had the chance to ask Matthew Schleigh and Shanara Gabrielle their thoughts regarding process and performance.
Who do you play, and what’s your favorite thing about them?
Matthew Schleigh: I play several characters in the show, but the most notable two are the Goose/Gander and Uncle Homer. I’m looking forward to splitting my personality between my own person and a puppet with the Goose and Gander roles. It’ll be the closest I’ll ever get to being a ventriloquist! Meanwhile Uncle Homer has some beautifully understated empathy beyond his purely bumbling comedic moments. I enjoy mining those depths and contrasts in the roles I get to play at IStage.
Shanara Gabrielle: I play Charlotte, a spider, in Charlotte’s Web, a story about a radiant young pig, Wilbur! My favorite thing about Charlotte is her wisdom and warmth – she’s honest, grounded, and kind.
What about your characters resonate deeply with you?
Shanara: Charlotte wants to make a difference during her lifetime. She sees a way to help and a problem to be solved and she just goes to work. She’s a go-getter, a hard worker. I hope to be a helper in this world just like Charlotte is, and to always be a go-getter when I can make a difference.
Matthew: I like Uncle Homer’s excitement. He seems genuinely intrigued by many things in his life, I guess I might say he exudes joy. I hope as I age and my life takes all sorts of twists and turns that I remember the joy prevalent in so many moments, both big and small.
When you play an animal, how do you go about preparing for this role?
Matthew: A lot of YouTube videos! I missed the State Fair this year, which would have been a great place to watch some barnyard animals. For Goose/Gander, I’ll explore the animal’s most apparent physicalities (certainly how geese walk) and I’m hoping to add a “honking” flavor to my speaking voice.
Shanara: Playing a Spider in our production takes a lot of physical preparation, but it’s so much fun! I’m getting to incorporate aerial silks into Charlotte’s movement and travel. It’s physically challenging and thrilling to work on. Every day I get to climb 20 feet in the air and play around – what could be better than that?
Matthew: The trick is finding a balance between the essence of the animal and the demands of language and stagecraft. After all, it’s the story we want to come through loud and clear!
Jon Jon: What is a moment you’re excited to share with the audience?
Shanara: It will be exciting to see how the audience reacts to a climbing, crawling, human-sized-spider in the air.
Matthew: As one might expect playing a person and a puppet at the same time, there are a few moments where they’re the only two speaking to one another on stage. I can’t wait to delve into the comedy of arguing with myself. Or, I guess, arguing with my hand. It’ll look pretty strange and silly while we work on it in rehearsal!
What is something about this play that speaks to you?
Shanara: As is true for many of us, my early memories of this book are deep and full and burned in my memory. I remember the place, the smell, the feeling I had when my parents first read me this book. I also remember each of my kid’s first encounter with the book and the love we share for the story and characters. It’s special to get to reimagine that rich literary experience on the stage. My experience of this story is not solitary and I look forward to living that shared moment together with so many others every day on stage!
What do you think is at the heart of this play?
Matthew: For me, it’s the power of friendship. Wilbur and Charlotte’s compassion for one another, and the journey they take to recognize it, is so beautiful and inspiring to me. It’s simply and honestly presented, and without pretense or condescension. They show us empathy, something I think is too easily overlooked in our modern hustle and bustle, but a quality that’s so very important to embody and to teach to the young (and old!) folks that come to hear our humble tale.
Kate: Agreed; the friendship between Wilbur and Charlotte. We can all, young and old alike, identify with having “one true friend”. I also think that EB White’s statement, “All I ever hope to say in books, all that I ever hope to say, is that I love the world” is also at the heart of this piece. When Charlotte says to Wilbur “All these sights and sounds and smells will be yours to enjoy Wilbur–this lovely world, these precious days….” that is EB White speaking to us all, reminding us to stop, look around, be grateful everyday for what you have.
And, finally, Janet Stanford, Imagination Stage’s artistic director, tells us how she plans a season.
When selecting shows, I’ve noticed that your choices range from children’s “Classics” to new works for young audiences. New works are always exciting, in my opinion, but I’m curious as to how you select the classic works. What are some thoughts and metrics that go into the selection of a play?
Janet Stanford: We are always planning ahead at IStage and working to include the full diversity of our local audience. Our new works usually aim to educate and respect a segment of the local population that is generally under-represented in live theatre and other media. That’s why we have partnered with Psalmayene 24 for the last two decades to bring our audience Hip Hop shows, Karen Zacarias and Miriam Gonzales to reflect the Latinx experience, and others to honor our Asian and South Asian audiences.
The classics are also a part of our season because they give new life to the stories that are central to the European tradition that many in our audience strongly relate to. We strive to interpret them in a contemporary light–with casts that are multi-cultural and highly theatrical designs that feature live music, puppets, ballet and/or video. A “classic” is a story from any source is one that is timeless and universal in its themes so when we bring these classics to Imagination Stage, our goal is to shine a light on a familiar tale that shows everyone how human nature and the challenges of growing up are not unique but a part of history and the common struggle of children across time and cultures to find their way to independence and self fulfillment.
What about Charlotte’s Web drew you in this time around, and why did you choose to share and present it?
Janet: This story tackles the biggest theme of all–the question of what it means to live a good life in the face of inevitable death. It’s Existentialism 101. E. B. White is the only American writer for children I know of who was able to craft a story around this heavy theme that has humor as well as a message about how best we should lead our lives. Children want to grow towards the light. They want to become good people who will please their parents, do well in school, and contribute to society. This simple story shows the difference between self-interest in the shape of Templeton the rat, and generosity in the form of Charlotte the spider. What better way to make the Holiday season into a time of reflection than to revisit this most favorite of American books for children, and to challenge us all to be the best we can be in the coming year?