For most shows, my skills in designing scenery, painting sets and drops, lighting the actors and even house managing are what I am called upon to use. And true to form, all those skills were used to create Charlotte’s Web, but about a week before we opened the show, Marybeth Clark, the director, called me and asked me to share one of my hobbies. She asked me to bring a set of knitting needles to the rehearsal studio the next day and to teach Charlotte, played by Viveka Chandrasekaran, how to knit. Now, I have been a passionate knitter for many years after teaching myself how to play with sticks and strings and I was very excited to have a chance to teach her how as well. It is a pastime that has brought me much joy and many hours of relaxation and comfort over the years and is a skill I have shared with several of our past interns. Mallory Good and Sheridan Essman and I would sit backstage with Cathy Ardrey and knit between every scene in Christmas Carol and Ragtime. And this is not the first time this hobby has been put to use for a show. Last year, I knit the hats and scarves for the winter scenes in A Year with Frog and Toad. It is very nice to wear a different hat for a change and as always a thrill to introduce someone else to the world of knitting.
Tonight is opening night, so my process is nearly over. Honestly, I thought that after college, my days of process-based rehearsal would be over. However, I’m glad and extremely fortunate that this is not the case. With every show so far, I’ve had a very detailed process in terms of character development. One of the main reasons is that the rehearsal periods at Charleston Stage are a little longer than most companies for which I’ve worked in the past. Usually, you are given about two weeks to put up a show, so the end result is completely product oriented (versus process).
However, we’ve been rehearsing Charlotte’s Web for about a month, minus a 10-day break in the middle (so we could go home and see our families!). This extended rehearsal process gave me time to investigate vocal choices, ultimately settling on a higher-pitched, almost cartoony-voiced Wilbur. Also, because I’m taller than most of the cast (and trust me, this is very rare as I’m only 5’6”), I played around with some physical options that would make me seem smaller. With a bend in the knees and wiggle of the tail, things seem to be working well.
As for bringing this classic tale to the Memminger, I had already been well prepared. Catawba College, my alma mater, trained me to perform in diverse arrangements, “thrust staging” most of all. Thrust staging involves having the audience on three sides, exactly the way Memminger is set up. This requires Wilbur (and the rest of the cast, of course) to interact on almost all sides, making sure to never miss a beat. Back acting (or bacting, as it is sometimes referred to) requires complete concentration and awareness of the body. The end result ensures that every seat in the house is the good seat!
Opening night is imminent, so after warming up my body and voice, my process will be complete. Who knew working on a children’s story could require so much work? It just goes to show that the opportunity for true artistry can be found in any medium.
Tonight is opening night of Charlottes Web and looking back at this rehearsal process brings a smile to my face. Watching and taking part in creating the characters in this play was a wonderful experience. Each actor in the show had the task of bringing to life E. B Whites beloved characters. From the Goose and the Gander to the farm hand Lurvy, the possibilities for character development were endless.
In the beginning of the process, we all took a few minutes to walk around the rehearsal hall as farm animals. This was wonderful for the kids who would be playing cows, roosters, geese, and sheep. The human characters also had the joy of the play being set in the 1950’s and in the South. This gave us lots to work with and rich, LARGE characters to discover. Watching the kids, and my fellow resident actors’ characters grow has been exciting and often hilarious. We spent a good amount of rehearsal laughing and enjoying the silliness, heart and depth of these endearing characters.
Having previously done Charlotte’s Web, in 2005, portraying the role of Templeton, I was very familiar with all of the characters and the flow of the story. The new challenging and fun task now was evolving two different characters: John Arable (Fern’s Father) and Uncle the Pig. I looked into Michael Shurleff’s book, Audition, which offers these wonderful guideposts of developing a character thoroughly. I was introduced to his book in college and I’ve been using the guideposts ever since.
Shurtleff has 12 guideposts he recommends an actor to concentrate on when in the development process of their character. I reviewed all twelve, but placed a greater focus on three of them specifically that work well, especially in children’s theatre. In creating Uncle the Pig, I knew he would physically carry himself across as macho and narcissistic. However, I thought a lot about how he uses his voice to really disgust everyone he meets, mainly Charlotte. Therefore, bringing out the egotistical, male chauvinistic side of me was going to be an interesting feat to pull off. With John Arable, the relationship he has to Fern, Avery, Homer and the rest of the Zuckerman animals truly highlights his persona and honesty. During the rehearsal process our director, Marybeth Clark, urged us to find new things in each run of the show. Shurtleff refers to this as making discoveries, creating moments that happen for the very first time on stage and staying true to those moments. Finally, absorbing the mystery within the play, which for the character of John Arable is an exciting idea to explore. In addition, mystery/magic showcases one of the many themes in Charlotte’s Web. The rehearsal process has been a joy; working with my fellow resident actors and the kids has been a blast and truly reminds me why children’s theatre is such a wonder to watch.
When I first found out that I was going to play Charlotte, I was pretty excited. I have learned a lot from working on this show. Creating a character fit for children’s theatre is very different from playing Maria in West Side Story, and this process has brought its challenges. Believe it or not, the first read through made me a little nervous. I kept wondering, “How do I make a spider real?” It wasn’t my fellow colleagues that made me nervous, it was the children. What I realize from working alongside the children is that they are fearless! They’re not afraid to walk around like geese or sheep and make funny noises. They simply get up and try anything until they finally find the character. I learn from them. Everyday I’m able to step out of my shell as I try to bring something new and real to Charlotte. I love learning from children, not to mention playing opposite a great friend, Sonny Kong (Wilbur). I find myself looking directly into Sonny’s eyes and speaking truthfully not as a spider to a pig, but as a friend to a friend, whom I truly care about.
Aside from working toward opening night, we also had an opportunity to read an excerpt of Charlotte’s Web for children at the Mount Pleasant Library. This experience was a blast! Not only did I read a chapter of the book, but we played a few theatre games with the children and parents, and also presented a few scenes from the play. Not only did Sonny and I perform, but the rest of the Resident Actors performed scenes as well! Marybeth always says that if we had fun, the children surely had fun! It was a great pleasure to spend Saturday afternoon at the library and I hope Charleston Stage has future opportunities to do it again!
(Resident Actors Viveka Chandrasekaran as Charlotte and Sonny Kong as Wilbur)
Charleston Stage’s Resident Actors Viveka Chandrasekaran (Charlotte), Sonny Kong (Wilbur) and other cast members of Charlotte’s Web will be making a special appearance at the Mt. Pleasant Regional Branch on Saturday, January 10th at 2pm. The library is located at 1133 Mathis Ferry Road. There will be a reading of an excerpt from the novel, a short performance, games and a drawing for 2 free tickets to the show. Come join in the fun! We’ll see you there!
(Resident Actor Viveka Chandrasekaran as Charlotte)