Why do we still go to the theatre – and what is it about the experience that we actually enjoy? There's so much blarney surrounding play-going that it's useful to accompany a five-year-old to a show from time to time – it inevitably cuts the whole enterprise (criticism included) down to size.
My niece, Lara, and I went to see Charlotte's Web at Alberta Theatre Projects on Sunday. I spent much of my time watching her watch director Vanessa Porteous's sweet production of Joseph Robinette's slightly stuffy adaptation of E.B. White's 1952 chapter book about a pig saved from slaughter by an enterprising spider's ability to, literally, spin words.
When Wilbur the Pig (Guillermo Urra) first dashed down the aisle and onto the stage, Lara leapt from her seat. She pressed against me to get away from the pig-man – and at the same time stood on her tippy-toes to make sure she didn't miss a second.
In her eyes: a little fear mixed with a lot of excitement; in my eyes: a few tears elicited by seeing a child experience the magic of live performance. Yes, I get sentimental about kids and theatre, which I'm certain would change if I made any of my own. (Kids or theatre.)
I was brought back down to Earth, however, when I asked Lara what she liked best about the show over breakfast the next day.
My recollection was of a child rapt for a solid two hours, her silent spectatorship only broken by laughter and a single aside to me. ("She actually did it!" she whispered, when Charlotte first spelled the words "Some Pig" in her web.)
I thought Lara's favourite part might be the Goose, who says everything three times. I guess I thought this because Elinor Holt's performance – funny; matter-of-fact; the quintessence of a goose – was my favourite part.
But Lara didn't pick the goose. Nor Wilbur, lovably melancholy in Urra's open-hearted performance. Nor Charlotte, played by a likeable French-Canadian aerialist named Manon Beaudoin, dangling from the ceiling.
"The juice!" Lara answered. The kiwi-and-strawberry juice box I bought her at intermission was her favourite part.
I should have been prepared for this: Last Christmas, I took Lara to see The Nutcracker at the Alberta Ballet and she came home raving about the LRT ride.
Adults dissect theatre in terms of dialogue, performances, direction. We say things like "thought-provoking" or "socially relevant" or "immersive." We talk, far too much, about the "economic impact" of people dressing up like pigs. But we shouldn't ignore the juice – the trappings around theatre-going that actually provide much of its pleasure. The dressing up, the going out, the looking at other people dressed up, the drink at intermission or afterward with a friend where we have something to talk about other than the weather.
The juice is a valid favourite part. But Lara's mother, my sister, wasn't satisfied with this honesty and tried again. "What did you like best about the play – what you saw on the stage?" she asked, leading the five-year-old witness.
"The end!" Lara exclaimed.
A good punchline, it's true. But we had been wondering how Lara would feel – spoiler alert – about the spider spinning off her mortal coil at the end.
Death looms large in Charlotte's Web from the first scene when Mr. Arable (Kevin Corey) ambles on with an axe to put the runt Wilbur down – until his little girl, Fern (RubyJune Bishop) stops him. Wilbur's life is constantly in threat from otherwise friendly farmers from then on – and, at times, the pig himself has ambivalent feelings about an existence lived in the shadow of baconation. "I'm less than two months old and I'm tired of living," he sighs.
Charlotte's Web didn't become a popular kid's book despite its heavy themes, however; its forthrightness about the struggle of living with the knowledge that we are going to die is the reason why it is still so widely read.
Indeed, theatre – an art form form that disappears as you watch it – seems to me to be a most natural fit for the story of Charlotte and Wilbur and the natural circle of life. As Peggy Phelan, the performance scholar, writes: "It may be that theatre and performance respond to a psychic need to rehearse for loss, and especially for death."
I pressed Lara, who has been talking about her late great-grandfather lately, further to find out what it was about the sad ending that she liked. "It was happy," she corrected me. "They danced."
Oh. At the end, Charlotte's Web's actors stand up, leave their characters behind and dance to bluegrass music. The end-of-show jig is a theatrical tradition that dates back at least to Shakespearean times and has experienced a revival of late.
I suppose, in live performance, all endings are happy. Even at a tragedy, the actors get up and dance, or bow, and we applaud. What's really special about watching Charlotte's Web as a play instead of reading it as a book or seeing it as a film? The five-year-old may have nailed it: the juice and the jig.
Charlotte's Web continues in Calgary to Dec. 31.