Shanara Gabrielle learned the performance art of aerial silks about three years ago. A friend offered to teach her the skill which requires performers to use only the silks, their muscles and training to keep themselves suspended above the stage while doing various poses and movements without a safety net or line.
“(My friend) wanted an aerial partner and we just started working together and it became a passion,” Gabrielle said. “Something that I found exciting and fun and a great additional skill to have as an actor. …It is a whole set of muscles that I don’t use at any other time in my life. It is really physically challenging but that is one of the things I love about it.”
She jokes that “you want to make it look like you are not hanging on for dear life.” The actress, who has performed in theaters across the country and television roles on “Conan,” “Chicago Fire” and “Conviction,” will be maneuvering the silks as a part of her new role as the selfless spider in Imagination Stage’s holiday production of “Charlotte’s Web” running from Nov. 18 to Jan. 7.
This is the second time Imagination Stage has taken on the E.B. White story, yet this retelling is quite different from the production they did more than a decade ago. Director Kathryn Chase Bryer, who also headed up the first version, wanted to make changes. There are two versions of this adaptation of ‘Web’ — musical and non-musical. Chase Bryer is not a fan of the musical version. “I think this is a really beautiful, sophisticated story, and I feel like the music that is written for the musical is not as sophisticated as I would prefer,” she explained.
Musical Director Debbie Jacobson and Chase Bryer combed through the public domain to find classical and Americana music that actors who are also musicians will perform in the show. A live pianist also will be on stage. Jacobson re-orchestrated pieces like ‘Skip to My Lou,’ ‘Lavender’s Blue’ and ‘She’ll Be Coming ‘Round the Mountain’ to feature the sounds of guitar, ukulele, banjo, violin and piano.
Chase Bryer also wanted to use aerial silks to create Charlotte’s web of words to describe Wilbur the pig. Gabrielle, who had recently moved to the area, was the perfect fit. “Doing theatre for families and young audiences is one of the most adventurous places that we can play as actors on the stage,” Gabrielle said. “In these kinds of stories, we get the chance to do things that are maybe a little bit more extreme, a little bit more imaginative, a little more exciting–and that really appeals to me as a performer.”
Jonathan Feuer will play multiple roles in the production: Templeton the Rat, Fern’s father, John Arable and Zuckerman farmhand Lurvy. This will be his second production for Imagination Stage after playing Mira in “The Freshest Snow Whyte.” “It’s just been a really fun and light room to be working in,” he said. “Everyone is taking the work seriously, but no one is taking themselves too seriously.”
The greatest challenge for Feuer is switching roles. He can do so because each has a different physicality, vocal quality and objectives that help to inform and aid in the transition. Templeton, who can be quite bitter, is his main role. “Why does Templeton lash out at everyone?” he asks. “I think it has something to do with feeling misunderstood. Rats don’t have it too easy. Everyone is either scared of them or trying to kill them. No one likes rats. What that can do to someone over time is harden them a little bit. I think it makes for this outer shell.”
Chase Bryer is in awe of her cast and crew. “I love going into a room and having a lot of ideas and having everybody contribute to that,” she said. The director is drawn to “Web’” because she is fascinated with the themes of the story about childhood evolution. How children go from being very self-involved to change as they grow up to be people who look outside themselves and develop empathy for others.
“Wilbur is the epitome of that,” she said. “He starts out the story being very self-concerned and only concerned about saving his life. In the end, he actually saves Charlotte’s children and brings them back to the barn. Children identify with animals so all of those themes with childhood to have those reflected in this barnyard animal environment is really satisfying for children and it allows them to see themselves and what they are going through in a way that is easy and fun and comforting in a lot of ways to know that you are not the only one who is going through something.”
Now — spoiler alert — this is a story about the cycle of life. Many know one of our beloved characters in this tale does not make it to the end of the show. Death can be a topic that many parents, caregivers and teachers are sensitive to especially in a children’s show. Chase Bryer has found with this show, many are accepting because they know the story. “They feel prepared when they walk in the theater because they know what the story is and feel comfortable talking to their child about it,” she said. “Every parent has to talk to their child about death. It inevitability comes up. This is a really gentle, sweet way, very natural way to have that question answered.” Some may ask. Some may not. Every child is different.
Chase Bryer believes ‘Web’ is a great holiday story. “We get inundated with so many shows that are focused on the actual holiday that it is kind of nice to have something that is not about the holiday, but still is a family favorite and has themes that we want to celebrate during this time but is not particularly related to a particular religion,” she said. “It encompasses all those themes of being humble, being grateful for what we have, being generous and loving and kind. …We can all celebrate the themes of this holiday together no matter what religion we are because all those themes are the same.”
Imagination Stage presents “Charlotte’s Web,” best for ages 5-plus, runs through Jan. 7 in Imagination Stage’s Annette M. and Theodore N. Lerner Family Theatre, 4908 Auburn Ave., Bethesda. For tickets, starting at $10, visit the box office or www.imaginationstage.org or call 301-280-1660. Learn more about this performance on CultureSpotMC here.