Sunday 19 January 2020


Heeding the advice of one Stephen Sondheim--that in writing for the stage, one should imagine the staging right from the start--I see Mr. Arable, in the opening scene of my Charlotte's Web, in his no-nonsense stride toward the hoghouse, ax over one shoulder, to do in the runt piglet. If it's to be a scene I sketched in my previous post, he'd keep striding, on and off the stage, long enough for a few verses ending, "Where's Papa going with that ax?" He breaks stride finally for Fern, his 8-year-old daughter, who convinces him, against his better judgement, to spare the poor critter.
Among versifiers in this scene would be the pig himself, Wilbur, and his barn-mates a goose, a sheep, and the nasty rat, Templeton. Not sure if Charlotte would make an appearance at this point. While I'm at it, here in the earliest possible moment of this journey into a musical version of Charlotte's Web, what will these animal characters look like? I'd like to avoid animal costumes. How, then, will we know the goose is a goose and the sheep a sheep? By what they say--partly. But this book works because, in part, the animals are real animals. They kill, they die, they must eat, they must have shelter. In general, they respond to their environment in naturalistic ways. So how do we--hello, vast team I'll one day assemble!--show them as the animals they are, even though they talk (for those humans with sufficient imagination to hear them). Masks? Puppets? Simple prop/costume pieces--something tail-ish for the rat, neck-ish for the goose? Species-specific movement?
Charlotte herself--yikes. The few times she leaves her web she travels by threads which she spins and "casts" (my shorthand for her realistic spider transportation system). She's tiny but has an authoritative voice. She edits her own web, stripping it down to its structural elements to compose text within it. Text or not, her magnum opus, as she calls it, is her egg sac which, once created, signals her own death. How would we design and stage all of this?
Here I remember advice the playwright Sharon Pollock gave us all in the writing program at DTUC almost forty years ago: if you want a thousand birds to fly up, do NOT say "well, that's impossible, they could never do it." If you want it, say so in your script. Your designer and production team will make it happen.

Wednesday 15 January 2020

Where's Papa Going with That Ax?

So begins Charlotte's Web
What if in the musical version, which I'll write, the line becomes a refrain in the opening song. Characters step forward one at a time to tell us who they are and what they want, ending with, "Where's Papa going with that ax?"
We'd see and hear from Fern, the 8-year-old with the imagination; her principled but loving parents, the Arables; her weapon-toting older brother, Avery; Templeton, the amoral rat; sheep yearning for freedom; geese looking for something, anything, out of the ordinary; the doctor, Homer and Edith Zuckerman, the preacher and of course Charlotte herself--they all want to know where Papa's going with that ax. 
The song ends with Papa putting down the ax, thanks to Fern, sparing the life of the runt pig for whom Fern comes up with "the most beautiful name she could think of": Wilbur. 
And we've activated the world of the play. 
Maybe, but tonight I saw 1917, a movie in which the first thing we see is a field of wildflowers. The camera pulls back and we get the characters. The characters get up and go.
Though gripped into the movie, for a moment I thought of opening Charlotte's Web, the musical, with nothing but sensations from the natural world the characters inhabit.