Charlotte’s Web is arguably one of the most widely loved children’s books generated over the past 200 years. Written by American author E.B. White and illustrated by Garth Williams, it was published on October 15, 1952 and was the first glimpse we had of a pig named Wilbur and his friendship with a barn spider named Charlotte. And now Pit & Balcony Theatre is busily placing the final touches upon their own theatrical presentation of this enduring tale that remains as enjoyable to adults as it is to children, for a series of performances the weekends of Feb. 3-5 & 10-12th.
For those unfamiliar with this charming and insightful tale about the web of relationships that we weave throughout our lives, Charlotte’s Web tells the story of Wilbur, the irresistible young pig who desperately wants to avoid the butcher; Fern, a girl who understands what animals say to each other; Templeton, the gluttonous rat who can occasionally be talked into a good deed; the Zuckerman family that owns the farm; and, most of all, the extraordinary spider, Charlotte, who proves to be "a true friend and a good writer” by weaving a solution that not only makes Wilbur a prize pig, but ensures his place on the farm forever.
This treasured tale, featuring mad-cap and endearing farm animals, explores bravery, selfless love, and the true meaning of friendship. Publisher’s Weekly has listed Charlotte’s Web as the best-selling children’s paperback of all time; and on a professional level, White’s description of the experience of swinging on a rope-swing at the farm, is an often cited example of sculpting rhythm into writing, as the pace of the sentences reflect the motion of the swing, as but one example.
Indeed, for director Amy Spadafore-Loose one of the many joys with translating Charlotte’s Web to the stage exists with the meticulously detailed language of the script and the many visual possibilities this opens for interpretation.
“The script itself is very much like the book and lines are taken directly from the novel that people will recognize,” she reflects, “so I decided to treat this particular production so that it appeals to a wide-range of audience. While the story is still very much a children’s story that everybody loves, we chose to go for a more intense and theatrically technical approach to the show. Our take is less realistic and a little more fairy tale; and the costumes are going to be wild and wacky. The make-up is also very involved and the lights and sound are going to be very immersive and different. For example, we’re not going to have blue skies but purple skies to blend something that is familiar but also new.”
One of the beautiful features of a play such as Charlotte’s Web is that the costumes and sets can be rendered as quite simple, insofar as it’s the story and relationships that drive the action; but this also leaves the latitude for them to also be as colorful and elaborate as one can imagine, which is the direction that appealed most to Spadafore’s vision.
“We are definitely going for colorful costuming,” she explains. “You’re not going to see mascot costumes on stage, but you’re not going to see just overalls and plaid, either. We’ll have a lot of different patterns and colors involved and our costume designer Janet Beattie is having lots of fun conceiving them”
Working with a cast of 23 actors, Amy says that thematically she is trying to emphasize the central notion of friendship that is rendered in Charlotte’s Web. “For me friendship and determination are the underlying themes – the notion of how you can best do for yourself by doing for others. Templeton is one of my favorite characters because of the lesson that he learns. As the rat he’s kind of selfish, but in the end we find he doesn’t just help himself, he finds a way to truly help himself by helping Wilbur and Charlotte.”
“Another theme that I like that isn’t really in the show is that of nostalgia,” adds Amy. “This is a story my Mom once read to me when I was a kid and she’s actually cast in this production. I don’t know if she’s ever been on stage before, but she did a lot of backstage stuff in high school and is the reason I got into theatre in the first place. She had a great audition and is one of the chorus members.”
“The play uses the device of a Greek chorus style with 3 narrators who tell the story and speak in E.B. White’s poetic language, so the chorus gets to explore the characters – sometimes in the animal’s world, and sometimes out – which helps tell the stories of the various characters by addressing the audience like a narrator, and other times interacting with the characters themselves,” continues Amy.
With key characters such as Wilbur performed by Nina Groll, Charlotte by Hope Nagy, and Templeton by Emma Massey, Spadafore says the youthful cast that ranges in ages from 14 to the early 20s is a joy to work with. “I like working with younger actors because they aren’t hung up on whether they look silly or are asked to do something they’ve never done before,” states Amy. “Older actors tend to be a little more guarded.”
As for the biggest challenge presented by this production, Amy smiles and responds, “Apart from giving my Mom direction, I’m a stage manager by trade and usually focusing on logistics, so directing for me involves putting on a different hat. I’m looking for ways to bring more creativity to the presentation, so getting out of that logistical mindset is always a bit of a challenge for me. I want to stay true to the story everybody knows, but also make it new and fresh. We’re doing a lot with make-up and Sarah Harrington is handling that and coming up with some great ideas.”
One of the pivotal factors that makes Charlotte’s Web appealing to children & adults is that it works equally strong as a fairy tale and a morality play, with the various animals representing very different human characteristics in order to reveal greater truths about ourselves; which is also a quality that resonates within Amy.
“It’s like George Orwell’s ‘Animal Farm’ for kids,” laughs Amy. “one of my friends described it that way because we see how each creature is treated and how they also treat each other. I see a lot of that with how they interact with one another, and the great thing about this play is that it is very close to the novel – almost word for word in many scenes.”
“A lot of what we see is from the perspective of what the character of Fern imagines them doing when she’s not there, and I don’t know anyone who didn’t do that when were a child. Kids do that with stuffed animals, Barbie’s, you name it. So if the audience watches with a childlike mindset, they’ll see the fun of it, and also learn a lot by allowing themselves to have the imagination that kids are born with.”
Pit & Balcony’s production of ‘Charlotte’s Web’ will run from February 3-5 and 10-12th. Tickets are $18.00 general admission and show times are 7:30 pm Friday & Saturday and 3:00 pm Sunday matinee. Tickets are available by calling 989-754-6587 or visiting PitandBalconyTheatre.com.