By Josh Lyford
When Old Sturbridge Village debuted its immersive theatrical experience, "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," back in 2016, they opened the door to an entirely new way to enjoy the living history museum. Since then, OSV has produced several theatrical experiences that buck trends, from the Quinebaug River-starring "Big River," to the rascallish audience interaction of "Midwinter Mischief." This summer, OSV will again incorporate its property, animals and costumed historians with a beloved story to create something unique -- and unpredictable -- in Central Mass.
From July 5-Aug. 26, Wednesday-Sundays, Old Sturbridge Village will play host to "The Charlotte's Web Experience," presented by Brian Clowdus, the director of many of their past immersive experiences and founder of the Serenbe Playhouse, a groundbreaking professional theatre company based out of Chattahoochee Hills, Ga.
The tale of the unlikely friendship formed between a loving barn spider and an exuberant pig was written by E.B. White back in the early 1950s and has been reimagined numerous times in the decades since, but it is unlikely fans have ever seen a show quite like this. NEVER HURRY AND NEVER WORRY Old Sturbridge Village opened in 1946, just a few short years before the writing of "Charlotte's Web." It has delighted fans of history ever since and the nature of a living, breathing interactive historical museum means that no two visits are ever the same and, similarly, no two theatrical productions are ever exactly alike. Entering through the main entrance, visitors make their way to the opposite end of the park to Freeman Farm, where the production will take place. The walk serves as an immersion technique, transporting visitors to the late-1700 to early-1800 period on display. With this re-imagining of E.B. White's timeless story, the 1950s theme is swapped for a historical museum period-appropriate one.
A horse-drawn carriage moseys past museum attendees, crunching gravel on its slow crawl to distant points of OSV.
Costumed historians work tirelessly on either side of the trail; a piggery is being built adjacent to a sheep farm in correlation to the play. The work is slow, as its is being reconstructed in the original 1830s method. The piglets that will call the space home arrive in late June. Further ahead, adult pigs lounge in the late-morning sun.
A flock of chickens cross with confidence in front of the entrance to the Freeman Farm as Clowdus and his cast rearrange hay bales in an impromptu set. Behind them, set builders hang a massive spider web that will serve as a partial backdrop for the production, shared with the neighboring forest and a group of ornery steer demanding a share of attention.
"We're really trying to make sure that this 'Charlotte's Web' lives in Old Stur -bridge Village," said Clowdus, hands crossed and seated on one of two benches that serve as the front row of what will be a much larger seating area.
Props are being arranged and period-specific (and oft-used) farm tools are arranged accordingly. The actors chat briefly before rehearsals begin. Clowdus himself chose the location of the production.
"When you see the web, when you see the site, it feels like 'Charlotte's Web' was always supposed to happen here," he said. "There's many key lines and morals in the story you hear. When you hear Wilbur, you think 'Charlotte's Web.'"
The role of Wilbur is filled by Jake Blakeslee, who played Tom Sawyer in OSV's production of "Big River." As school children begin to enter the space from their museum field trip, Wilbur flops down onto a smattering of dry hay and smiles, shielding his eyes from the sun.
While rehearsal is serious business and the cast doesn't have much time left to prepare for the show proper, they have fun with one another. Cast, crew and director are all acutely aware of the anything-can-happen nature of a production taking place on-site and filled with attendees that are willing to be interacted with.
"I think it's helpful. For me it is helpful," said Clowdus, speaking of the tourists and school children that meander in and out of the production's daily rehearsal. "It gives the cast energy and it gives them obstacles. I love an audience, though. The more the merrier. Pull them all out here."
Clowdus' request would soon be filled as more and more guests begin to arrive and appear at the Freeman Farm throughout the day, but elsewhere in the park, the unpredictable nature of OSV would be proven, as a baby sheep escapes through a nearby fence and plays keep away with a group of costumed historians, its adult compatriots baying their approval. THAT, IN ITSELF, IS A TREMENDOUS THING During a brief break in rehearsal, Sophia DeLeo, who plays Fern in the production, is leaning against a nearby stonewall. A steer stares intently at the celery she is snacking on. Wasps buzz about her head, though she seems unruffled by the experience. Earlier in the day, DeLeo, who both sings and plays guitar as a part of the production's ensemble cast, was tasked by Clowdus with providing backing music to a particularly weighty scene between Charlotte and Wilbur.
"Misty hopeful or hopeful woohoo?" she asked the director, before strumming a few appropriate chords.
"We have about five songs in the show and I'm trying to pull from that," said DeLeo, seemingly unaware of the two entwined snakes basking in the sun to her right. "Brian will say, 'Just play something,' and I try to pull from chords in the show. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. It just depends. Usually, I can pull something from the show, but sometimes I just make it up."
Max Kile plays the role of narrator as well as being part of both the ensemble cast and a musician.
"The songs in the show are great moments," said Kile. "They're great to emphasize on the themes of the show, or to pick up the mood when Charlotte's decaying. Let's pick it up, so we're not all sad the whole time."
While Kile is no stranger to similar roles, the setting of the play is a new experience for the actor.
"The last show I did was in a super small black box," he said. "I'm still trying to get out of that mode, of being able to whisper and still be heard by everyone in the audience. It's more difficult to be outdoors with no microphone and having to project. There's going to be a lot of benches out here. It's definitely going to be a lot of work, but it's going to be really rewarding."
The cast shares stories of their experience at Old Sturbridge Village, and already the on-set experience is likely a stark contrast to more traditional theater locales. Just the day before, they explain, a group of cows broke down a gate and escaped. Luckily, they just wanted a snack, which they found in the adjacent field and were happy to return to their quarters once fully satisfied. Throughout rehearsal, they moo their suggestions and criticisms to cast and crew.
"They're very good audience members," laughed Kile. WE'RE BORN, WE LIVE A LITTLE WHILE, WE DIE Racquel Jean-Luis takes on the role of Charlotte the barn spider. Jean-Luis previously performed in OSV's "Big River." While the cast is largely in comfortable rehearsal clothes, well-prepared for a long day in the sun, Jean-Luis has the addition of a black box-skirt, which likely hints at how the team will portray her role as the matriarchal spider.
"Charlotte's Web" has long been a favorite for children, but that is not to say the themes contained are diluted. It is a fun story and the production has many moments forcing even the most reluctant audience members to smile, but it is also equal parts hopeful and heart-breaking. It is not a children's tale that shies away from the concept of death as an inevitability.
Charlotte herself faces the reality of her difficult desire: bearing children of her own, while knowing she will not survive long enough to see the fruits of her labor. "
I'm not a mother," Jean-Luis said. "I think it's hard to wrap your mind around the fact that you know something is going to take your life, but you do it because you love someone so much that you would literally give your own life for someone else to live. To wrap your mind around that was a hurdle. I talked to my own mom about it and she said if anything were to happen to me, she'd happily giver her life.
"To think about that, you see someone and you take the task of being their caregiver because you love them so much and I want them to live and I think they deserve to live. Everyone deserves to live, especially someone with as beautiful of a spirit as Wilbur."
Wilbur is reluctant to befriend Charlotte, who, early on in the story, he calls "bloodthirsty and ruthless," but the pair become close and Charlotte is instrumental in saving the pig's life. The story, according to Jean-Luis and the cast, holds an important message for young viewers.
"They run through here and they're just like Wilbur," Jean-Luis explained of the children watching rehearsal. "They're innocent little minds and it's our jobs as older people to mold and shape and create a better space for our future and our future kids. In the state that our government is in now, I feel like there isn't enough space for love. I think that putting a show on like this, especially when kids are here, shows, 'Let's make this world a better place where there is a space for love.' We would all be happy enough to give our lives for our fellow human beings and fellow animals."
While Jean-Luis takes on the role of a proud and hopeful barn spider in Charlotte, the woman beneath the costume is very much a human being and one, it so happens, that is more than a bit reluctant to befriend the spider associates dangling from the onset barn.
"I was scared of them at first," she laughed. "But I feel like that is such a message, too. Wilbur is scared of Charlotte at first. Most of the animals are, because she doesn't look like them. It's a message of even though some things may seem scary, even though some people may not be exactly what you are, or look exactly the same, or act the same way that you do, there is room for love. Going through that with the intention of loving someone because you're on this earth with me is a great message. I hope that the adults get that as well."
Charlotte makes her way toward the Freeman Farm before shooing a fly and turning around.
"The bugs are definitely hard to work with," she smiled. "They like to come near your ears and fly into your mouth while you're speaking or singing. They like to get into the show as well." SOME PIG From the moment you step beyond the main entrance of Old Sturbridge Village, it is obvious "Charlotte's Web" is unlike any other version of the story you've seen, heard or read before. The nature of immersive theater dictates that it must be so, and to include a living history museum that does not shut off only adds to the excitement. Rehearsals for "Charlotte's Web" reflect that unpredictable nature. "When directors or actors map out their shows before rehearsals, I think that puts you at a disadvantage, because you're not following your impulses and thinking thinking about what's happening in the moment," said Clowdus. "You're going to be inspired by a cow, or air, or an actual apple orchard. I think it's dangerous to plan things too much because then you're not in the moment creating."
As of the animals that call OSV home wish to emphasize the point. The flock of chickens warbles as they escape a leap over the wooden fence by Templeton the Rat, played by Philip Lopez.
"I think this is different in that every show here will be completely different," Clowdus continued, unphased. "I'm leaving them a road map and a skeleton to play within, but based on how the audience acts or how the livestock acts, it will be a different show every day. It will have that improvisational feel to it, where the actors are allowed to make decisions on the fly, as long as they are hitting those key moments. Feel like you can improv, but don't add a whole new scene."
The Charlotte's Web Experience, presented by Brian Clowdus, run Wednesday-Sunday, July 5 through Aug. 26, with two shows each day at 11 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. The 11 a.m. show is $12 per person and the 1:30 p.m. show is $14 a person. A general admission ticket is required to see the performance. For more information, head to osv.org.