In a break from a traditional Christmas-theme, Alberta Theatre Projects is remounting Charlotte’s Web — a show that they had presented with great success back in 2014 — as their 2017 holiday production. Well, a remounting wouldn’t really be the correct term, since nearly every aspect of the current production has been altered to the vision of director Laurel Green, who grabbed the opportunity to present this literary classic in a fresh light to new audiences.
Green had envisioned a more contemporary telling of E.B. White’s story, which included a strong musical component.
“We didn’t turn it into a musical per se,” she insists, adding that a big part of what makes Charlotte’s Web’s music so engaging is Ethan Cole — to her an obvious choice for musical director.
Cole’s background has skipped back and forth between music and theatre over the years, with a balance being found here in his roles as narrator, some minor characters, as well as that of musical director.
“Projects like this are just wonderful opportunities for me because I get to do both,” he says. “In this show I’m doing a little bit of acting, I’m doing music, all the things that I love are all combined.”
Green had an idea of what she wanted to the show to look like musically, and Cole came to mind immediately. “I wanted to work with a musician on the show and also needed someone who knew how to be on stage and be comfortable on stage,” says Green. “Ethan plays a reporter in act one and he plays an announcer in the County Fair scene, so there are literally moments where we have more characters than people, so we need Ethan to step out of his world of music and join the action. I always really imagined the musician being the primary driver of the story.”
As a result, Cole’s narrator finds himself part of most scenes, wandering to the barn, the fair, and simply taking in the show, which Green feels is important in keeping the action and the characters together. “He’s our constant while everything around him is changing. Because all of the actors in the play portray animals and people, there are a lot of quick changes and running around, so through it all we have Ethan, the man in a red shirt and a black cowboy hat, that keeps us centred, and continues to ground us in the world of the story by adding those musical tops and tails to scenes or playing through a scene to help the action or set the mood.”
The music of this production notwithstanding, Green also envisioned a different look to Charlotte, the web-spinning spider who in ATP’s previous production was played by Manon Beaudoin using a single point harness trapeze. For this production, Green saw something different. “I wanted silks in my production so I found and started a new collaboration with a silks artist specifically, and redesigned the way that those spinning sequences were done. We’ve got an incredible aerial artist, Léda Davies, who does all of Charlotte’s silk spinning sequences from aerial silks through the show — all the bells and whistles.”
The result is an amazing aerial performance which has been mesmerizing audiences throughout the run — both kids and adults alike.
And, again, all of these elements make this version of Charlotte’s Web a far different experience from the 2014 production for those who saw it last time.
“I think the minute that I started making those decisions, (about) bringing the production into the present day, getting a new musical collaborator, changing the way the aerial would be performed … I knew it would be a totally different experience. I also rely on the fact that there are so many new audiences for this story and so many kids who, you know, maybe they were two when they came to see it three years ago and now they’re five and just have the appetite for this classic story — I relied on that (for it) to be interesting to people and to still be exciting. What we did over here on our end was promise that when they do come through the door they get a brand new knock-their-socks-off experience, and that’s all we can do on our end.”
Green adds that feedback from audiences has been extremely positive in this regard as well. “I have had people come up to me and say, ‘I was really worried about coming back because I thought it would just be the same old’ (because the last production was very successful and very popular), but they end up saying, ‘Oh, my gosh, it’s completely new and it’s given me a fresh take on the story.’ ”
Part of Green’s updated, ‘”fresh take” on the production also involved adding contemporary touches to both the set and costumes. “Anton de Groot lights the set so it’s gorgeous, and the costumes are new and are all different. It’s updated and it’s all modern – It’s not housewives in aprons, it’s ladies in button-ups and cowboys and skinny jeans … Lurvy the farm hand is wearing a Ramones T-shirt, the costume design with Jennifer Arsenault has been amazing.”
Although most people mainly associate Charlotte’s Web with their childhood, having enjoyed the book and the film in their early years, Cole insists that this production is not necessarily just for the young crowd. “A lot of (people) are coming because they love the literature, and associate Charlotte’s Web with their childhood and positive memories of discovering literature, so I think adults have a sentimental and very positive attachment to this story. It’s not a show where people feel like. ‘I’ve got to bring a kid with me’ in order to enjoy the show, I think they want to experience that wonderment for themselves as well.”
Green agrees “You know our generation and nostalgia — we’re crazy for nostalgia and I think it’s because we’re feeling the time passing and we’re looking back on things and getting introspective as we get older.”
Part of the introspection is realizing the positive message that this story sends, and how it is so important, still, in today’s society. Cole also sees a special message in this telling of Charlotte’s Web. “In a way it’s sort of empowering, people discovering what attributes are important to them, what is important in friendship, what do they look for in a strong friendship and a good friend … those really positive kinds of humanist messages. Even though it’s a story about animals, a lot of positive messages that instil a sense of finding oneself, not in a hokey way, but in a way that feels genuine and true.”
Admittedly, the process of creating Charlotte’s Web for audiences is what drives both Cole and Green.
“It’s just such a joy every night to watch this incredibly talented cast become these animals,” says Cole, “and of course the silk work that Léda does is just mind blowing. It’s a joy to witness that every night. I think it’s just that whole thing of being surrounded by the artistry of what my colleagues are doing inspires the music, and it’s a joy to be a part of it, be in the middle of it. I’ve got a smile on my face a lot of times that’s very genuine because I get caught up in it.”
Green adds, “For me the process has been all about the people, and the community that we have formed by telling this story.
“This story, 65 years later, still permeates. It’s still popular.”
(Photo courtesy Benjamin Laird.)
ATP’s production of Charlotte’s Web runs until Dec. 31 at the Martha Cohen Theatre, ArtsCommons. Adults need not be accompanied by a child to enjoy the performance. Tickets and info available at atplive.com.
Kari Watson is a writer and former Listings Editor of FFWD Weekly, and has continued to bring event listings to Calgary through theYYSCENE and her event listings page, The Culture Cycle. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.