Last week, Chapin’s Black Box Theater was full of livestock, farmers, carnival workers and one giant spider’s web as Class 6 and 7 students prepared to perform “Charlotte’s Web.” Based on the beloved children’s novel by E.B. White, the play follows the journey of a little pig named Wilbur and the friendship he finds in a spider named Charlotte. This writer visited one of the cast’s final rehearsals before opening day.
While the actors were clearly having fun and enjoying the time spent with classmates and friends, they were also learning valuable lessons in showmanship that will serve them well on the stage and beyond. One crucial lesson was the importance of practicing things the right way. “We have to do it the same way every time and be disciplined,” Head of the Drama Department Luc Hotaling, who directed the play, announced to the group. “Charlotte’s Web” is a dynamic show with many props, and the students were charged with keeping them organized and in the right places during each scene and at all times. It was a challenge for many to stay focused amongst the excitement this plethora of items created, but with gentle reminders they were able to succeed.
As they worked through various scenes, the actors polished and perfected their lines and cues, as well as their stage presence. “A little less J.C. Penney model,” the director joked as several students leaned against fence posts to begin one scene. They giggled and adjusted their postures, assuming more casual and believable poses. The students playing farm animals also honed their talents as background actors, learning to show constant movement and to quietly interact with one another, rather than just holding a pose. “Continue to be alive throughout the scene,” Mr. Hotaling instructed.
The students also learned how to keep calm when feeling forgetful. “Don’t let a flubbed line take you out of a scene. You can’t let it make you fall apart,” the director advised a student fumbling over her words. The second time around she heeded his advice and proceeded through the scene with confidence. Another major takeaway was that speaking with energy doesn’t have to mean speaking quickly. “Slow down!” the actors were told as they worked their way through tricky “tongue twister” lines. “Make sure you enunciate every letter in every word,” Mr. Hotaling added.
During the rehearsal of a pantomime scene early in the play (no speaking allowed), a group of three actors were forced to come up with creative ways to use their body language to convey anger and frustration. After some thought, and helpful guidance from their director, they decided upon several actions, from flailing their arms and shaking their heads to wagging their fingers and crossing their arms. “Don’t make fun of the pose… really do it! Commit to it,” Mr. Hotaling exclaimed, commending them as they improved with each run-through.
Later on, after a cast member began whistling a tune between scenes, the girls were introduced to one of the many theatrical superstitions. “It’s bad luck to whistle in a theater,” Mr. Hotaling shared. He explained that before the invention of headsets and walkie-talkies, stagehands would whistle to one another to signal when to raise and lower the ropes and sandbags controlling the set pieces and curtains. If you inadvertently whistled onstage, you might have taken a heavy sandbag to the face! The students laughed at this image and refrained from whistling for the remainder of the rehearsal.
All of these lessons and reminders came together as the group completed a full run-through to end the rehearsal, and, much to the delight of the director, they had taken his advice to heart. Just a few days later, the cast confidently and beautifully performed the play for their families, teachers and friends. The overall experience was best summed up by the young actors’ musings below:
“I loved every second, not only on stage but behind the scenes as well. The whole process was extremely rewarding and every rehearsal was so much fun. I made new friends and got to know old friends so much better.”
“I’ve learned a lot of things from this experience, but I guess the most prominent lesson I’ve learned is to rely on others. Mr. Hotaling told us to simply rely on each other when we were on stage, and in everyday life you have to rely on ‘the other people on stage’ too. Just remember that you’re not alone, but you’re a member of a team that sticks together. What you learn from experiences like this can be applied to your life outside the theater, and I think that is pretty terrific!”
“As for the performances, they are incredible. Every moment, from the anticipation of the lights to the curtain call, causes a rush of adrenaline. Suddenly, you’re not you anymore. You are representing a character in a different world, and it’s remarkable to see it come to life onstage. It’s also a very nice feeling when you share something you’ve worked so hard on with your family and friends.”
“When I go onstage, I can’t help but smile. I love the feeling. It’s like you can get away from reality and be somewhere else – somewhere you’ve never been but can see clearly in your mind. It’s always sad when it’s over, and there hasn’t been a time where I haven’t cried after it’s all done, but I know that it hasn’t really ended. It’s still a part of me and it has helped me grow as a person, a friend, and an actor.”
“Charlotte’s Web was an amazing experience full of fun and laughter. It was a great way to connect with friends but also to make new ones!”
“I have always been, for the most part, shy. During the play process, I was urged to allow myself to explore drama. In doing so, I was given space to be expressive and confident. Not only was I able to grow personally, but I watched others grow too.”
“The whole cast was so supportive and I made so many new friends. It was insanely fun!”
“The play was definitely one of the most entertaining and enjoyable things I did this year. I strengthened so many friendships that had existed before, but I also made so many new friends. I would not trade any of the evenings we spent together for the world. We made so many inside jokes, from hilarious songs to jokes about the script. I couldn’t even begin to explain the amazing times we had backstage!”
“I loved being a part of this cast. What I really enjoyed was that we were all from different friend groups, but every Monday and Thursday afternoon we came together and made something beautiful. We all had this common thread.”
Browse photos from the rehearsal below: