Sunday, 24 May 2020


Dedicated readers of this blog--good Sunny Sunday evening to you, Uncle Chilli and Aunt Pep--will know of my admiration for the moral stakes put before us by Charlotte's Web. What Charlotte and Wilbur do for each other puts them in the top one percent on the holiness scale.
But wait a minute. Charlotte does go to a lot of trouble for Wilbur, knowing that if she doesn't, Wilbur will be slaughtered by Christmas. And Wilbur, in turn, saves her children by taking them home, while she lives out her last days and dies, alone. But that egg sac he takes so carefully home, and attends to so lovingly as time goes on, would have done just fine where Charlotte left it--attached safely to an out-of-the-way corner at the Fairgrounds. The spiders could hatch there as safely as in the doorway above Wilbur's pen at the farm.
Are the stakes, then, not quite so exalted as I claimed? Maybe Wilbur's not so noble, just lucky. But then I realize it's not the fact that matters--the fact that he didn't actually save her children--it's what it means that matters. He's maxed out his nobility, in other words, as Charlotte has. In his mind, he's saving her children, which is why when 511 out of 514 of them literally drift away when hatched, he's a little disappointed. But three stay. And some of their children will stay too, and Wilbur will live a long life in the company of Charlotte's daughters, and he'll be sure to tell them all about her.

Wednesday, 20 May 2020

Work Continues

This afternoon in the park, looking at scene 11, dubbed "The Trick," of my Wilbur and Charlotte (or is it Charlotte and Wilbur Not yet sure), Charlotte's revision of her web to say "Some Pig" appears. It's diving revelation, of a kind. 
Pretty much the entire scene, I was thinking in the park, would be sung in a song called "Upon First Looking Into Charlotte's (Revised) Web" in which everyone responds to what the morning light has revealed. 
Forgetting for a moment the details that the novel delivers at this point in the story, I imagined my own family, gathering for a reunion. There's combing of hair, washing of cars, trying-on of a new hat. Somebody brings a pie, a thermos of tea.  A ball and a couple of gloves. Somebody pulls out a cribbage board. A Mountie shows up and salutes! etc.
The point is, what Charlotte has written jolts this community. It's language used as they've never seen it. And the first thing every new passer-by, every rubber-necker, has to do is read.
This would be an ensemble piece, obviously. I imagine a wagon pulled on, loaded with costume/prop bits the performers can zip on and off as they work through the company of characters responding to what is written. (The Mayor in a ceremonial sash, a line of schoolkids holding hands, the editor of the local newspaper, the county cop, etc.)
And if that's not enough to get a song lyric composed, I can draw from my own response, these last few months. to Charlotte's Web itself.

Wednesday, 6 May 2020

One of those Small Breakthroughs

I'd been wondering how to deliver how much Fern loves Wilbur. The bottle feedings four or five times daily. The way he falls asleep in her baby carriage. His long lashes, and the rest of it. This we have to know so that what happens later in the story hits us hard. The stakes are high for the characters in this story. That's what every scene must build.
Anyway, this is what I came up with: One day at school Miss B. assigns an essay. Tell what you love about someone you love. Fern's classmates disappear into darkness. She sits alone at her desk with her pencil and scribbler and begins, "What I Love About Wilbur," by Fern Arable. Her essay, printed in a sure but early hand, will say, in the end, Every day is a happy day, and every night is peaceful.
This monologue--will it be sung?--will bump up against the big old world of pork production, in which Wilbur's got to be sold. He's eating scraps, not just warm milk, and I'm not (says Mr. Arable) willing to provide for him any longer. 
Fern is in anguish but, in one of the story's wise-parent moments, she and her father arrive at the solution: she'll sell the pig to her Uncle Homer for $6.00. She can go down the road to visit Wilbur any time she wants. 
And Wilbur finds his home in Zuckerman's barn.

You know how the rest of it goes. The fact that Wilbur is a pig means the butcher is never far off. He avoids his pig destiny only through the writerly intervention by his dear friend Charlotte. 

But not to get ahead of myself. For now, maybe, Fern's monologue/essay shows us the devotion we must feel with her, which, in turn, enriches what she and her father achieve in the Zuckerman deal.

Friday, 1 May 2020

As I Was Saying

(I think that's the title of my next memoir fragment . . .)
I was talking about that guy who comes out in the blue patterned sports jacket and slacks, shirt and tie, looks across the stage at the tableaus of three or four fairy tales, and says, Once upon a time . . . 

This cues the famous 16th-note lead-in, more of a kick-off, to an orchestral vamp that underscores the stories we're about to experience.

Since we last met, dear reader, I did begin to lean on imagining how my Charlotte's Web adaptation might begin. Before, I had Mr. Arable with the ax cross once and disappear. The various characters take turns stepping into the light just long enough to give us a taste of what they're about, ending with "Where's Papa going with that ax?" Now, Mr. A strides intently across the stage at every transition from one mini-preview to the next. And our narrator plays most of the speakers--the cow, the sheep, various humans, the rat--donning a prop or costume piece appropriate for each speaker. These would hang on a series of hooks as if just inside the barn door, or back porch. (While I'm at it here, what if one actor played all the voices AND Mr. Arable with the ax. That would leave Charlotte, Wilbur and Templeton. A cast of four. (Absolute minimum.))
And so on. I'm pretty sure my work on this show in the next little while will be about, somehow, if and how this narrator figure could work.
Yeah, four is too few. The three main characters and an ensemble--each person playing multiple voices--of five, for eight altogether. We'll see. 

Friday, 24 April 2020

Back to Sondheim

Dedicated readers of this blog--and a spring good evening to you, Aunt Hail and Uncle Rain--will know of my admiration for the composer/lyricist Stephen Sondheim. I go back to his work all the time--the filmed stage versions of his plays (well, two of them: Sunday in the Park with George and Into the Woods) and his splendid two volumes of annotated lyrics called Finishing the Hat and Look, I Made a Hat. (I keep going back to everything I like--The Crown, for instance, or Brooklyn, or the core 25 books on my shelf. And Sondheim.) I go back because there's always more to see and learn.
There's always something different I need from them, something new I'm ready for. In the case of Into the Woods, I'm thinking about Act One. It's a mash-up of fairy tales including Rapunzel, Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk and others. Though the pace is occasionally frenetic and the poly-vocal structure complex, the piece stays true to the elemental simplicity of the tales: happy ever after. But that's only Act One.
Anyway, there's a narrator who pops on- and off-stage. I'm back to my Charlotte's Web, wondering if I could use a narrator to simulate that function that appears in E.B.White's prose. In Sondheim's play, the narrator pops out stage left or right, dressed like a contemporary older man, casual business style. Everyone else is in their fairytale costume. How, I wonder, might this work in my Charlotte's Web.
The other note I've made is about the cow. 
Charlotte's Web, of course, is full of animals. The one certainty I have about my adaptation is that the animals CANNOT be mascots. That is, they must be able to move like real animals, live the lifestyle of real animals, submit to the destiny of real animals. But they're played by human actors. So what do they wear, what do they look like? I know I will find a designer to answer these questions, but for now, Into the Woods presents a useful notion via the cow.
The cow, about the size of a real calf, is a rigid creature, milky white in colour. Little attempt at naturalism with this design. When the cow must move, it is pushed forward or backward on its teflon-coated (I'm assuming) feet. If the movement must be quicker, the actor can simply grab the suitcase-like handle fixed to the creature's spine and carry it away. This gets a laugh from the audience. But not enough to take them out of the story. That business-casual narrator is like that too. It's a bit of a cheesy choice, but it's not overdone and it works.
A lot of things can be done. A lot of things work, though the abyss is ever at hand. The thrill, the challenge, is to risk and find solutions.

Friday, 10 April 2020

Getting Near the End

Well, here's a puzzle. At the Fair, in a long-ish scene Wilbur is awarded a medal for being so radiant. For his people, it's the greatest moment of their lives. Wilbur himself is proud and happy. This takes place in the judges' booth in front of the grandstand.
Charlotte, meanwhile, is back in Wilbur's pen, being too weak to move. She's created her egg sac and will soon die. But she can hear what's going on at the medal ceremony over the Fair Ground loudspeaker.
When things calm down, Wilbur and Charlotte are alone in the pen. Wilbur is beside himself with agony at the thought of Charlotte not returning to the Zuckerman barn with him. She tells him to settle down. 
With the people soon returning to pack up for him, Wilbur has to act quickly. He gets Templeton, the rat, to climb up and snip the egg sac from its mooring on the ceiling and bring it to Wilbur. Wilbur will carry the sac home in his mouth, having already learned from Charlotte that the sac is waterproof and strong.
Mouth firmly closed, all he can do to say good-bye as he's loaded onto the truck is wink to Charlotte. All she can do is whisper a weak good-bye. Soon the Fair Ground will is deserted. Charlotte dies alone.
The puzzle is how to stage it. If we see Charlotte and only hear the loudspeaker, we don't see much action. If we see the scene in the judges' booth--which is full of important plot elements involving mostly the human characters--how do we sense Charlotte's fading vigil over her last hours. Could we see both at the same time somehow? Maybe it's two scenes--in the novel, White gives them a chapter each. I imagine, however, that the action at the grandstand and silence and stillness of Charlotte will make for a powerful juxtaposition. 
Of course, the matter of designing the egg sac, and showing Templeton climb up to get it, and showing Wilbur put it into his mouth--well, the theatre pros will take care of all that. Somehow.

Thursday, 26 March 2020

Being Wilbur

First and foremost, he's a real pig. Who can talk. He prefers sleeping to all else except eating. He craves and creates love.

The danger would be in making him sound like me or some character or anyone other than himself. So to understand Wilbur I'd have to study pigs, as E.B.White had done. I'd have to watch them, smell them, listen to grunts, feed them. And let Wilbur's voice go from there.

As for Charlotte . . .

[photo of page on which Charlotte, chairing a meeting of barn animals, mutters and glares.]

That's as cranky as she ever gets. Her purpose in calling the meeting is to generate new ideas for her web and thus save Wilbur's life. The sage counsel of the oldest sheep is to appeal to the rat, Templeton, who can bring back bits of text from the dump. She convinces him to do so by appealing to his "baser instincts."