With its family theater production of “Charlotte’s Web,” the Duluth Playhouse is doing something it hasn’t attempted since it pulled “Matilda” mid-run last March: It’s staging a production in front of a live audience — a smaller and more distanced audience, but an audience nonetheless.
“It’s brought back so much nostalgia,” said Kaylee Peck, whose black mask painted with white spider webs is part costume, part safety protocol. “It felt like this past year, everything was on hold, like I was living in some alternate reality. To come into the theater, like I’ve been doing for six years now, my body naturally responded with, ‘I’m ready for theater, I’m ready to be here.’
“It felt so good to be back.”
“Charlotte’s Web” will be served two ways: as an in-person show with the 280-seat Depot-based theater at 25% maximum capacity, or streamed for audience members at home. It plays for a live audience at 1 p.m. and 4 p.m. Feb. 27-28 and March 6-7, and streams March 13-14.
For those who attend in person: Masks are required, temperatures will be checked at the door, and the lobby will allow for personal space, according to Amber Burns, family theater director.
“It’s both really exciting and a little, ‘Ohhh, are people going to buy tickets?’” Burns said.
Tickets are grouped in clusters of 2-4 seats and, as of Wednesday afternoon, there were still spots available.
After “Matilda” closed on March 13, the theater’s keepers have been monitoring guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in addition to state mandates. They have plotted — with backup plans for the backup plans — and they have found ways to create.
Starting this past summer, the playhouse has held theater camps that have included a showcase as the finale.
There have been multiple productions offered virtually from the company’s mainstage and, according to NorShor Theatre artistic director Phillip Fazio, they are working on a potential in-person event to be staged in the next few months.
“Charlotte’s Web” was cast with the intention of offering the option of a live audience. Between its director, actors and stage manager, there are 13 people involved with the show, a mix of children and adults.
Tasks that ordinarily would be filled by crew members, such as mopping and tending to props and sets, are falling on actors.
“It feels collaborative and supportive,” Burns said.
Emily Lanik Parr, who recently adapted to COVID-10 circumstances by directing the old-timey “Vintage Hitchcock: A Live Radio Show” at Harbor City International School, said she didn’t step lightly into leading this production.
“Amber and I met right away to say, ‘How are we going to do this?’” she said. “From the get-go, we have to be the example. Is this the type of theater we are used to? Not fully, no. We can’t be there yet. This has to be the in-between. We have to have a stepping stone back to normalcy.”
“Charlotte’s Web,” based on the classic tale by E.B. White, is the story of Wilbur the piglet and his friendships within the barn — including the titular spidery spelling champ bent on saving his life.
This is a play with tender moments, which Lanik Parr is trying to convey with actors safely spaced.
“It’s not going to be necessarily what we’re used to,” she said. “I’m so big on character relationships and connecting and making meaning. For me, a lot of it is physical proximity; it’s touch. I’ve had to really rethink how to get that meaning without having them physically touch.”
Peck said she and Ben Peter, a friend from high school who plays Wilbur, are using socially distanced cues to show a high-five, a hug, a handshake.
“I’ve been loving those moments more than if it was a physical connection,” she said. “Normal humans connect by being close to each other or putting a hand on a back or high-fiving. To have that be taken away and to survive a whole year not being able to do that and suddenly having the opportunity to show you care for someone while staying safe brings raw, pure emotion to it.
“You wish you could be giving a hug, you wish you could give a high five. To have that bridge makes it all the more powerful.”
The turnaround for this show has been speedy, according to Lanik Parr, who said they started on Feb. 1 and half of the cast was already off-book.
There were conversations with the cast about committing to the show and limiting, as much as possible, time spent in public.
Still, by mid-week before its opening, she said that she hadn’t yet plugged the show on her own social media. She was worried about jinxing it, she said.
“At a certain point, we’re all just doing our best,” she said. “I do think people need it. The actors needed it. I needed it. The playhouse families from the family theater needed it, that sense of normalcy.”
If you go
“Charlotte’s Web” plays at 1 p.m. and 4 p.m. Feb. 27-28 and March 6-7. Tickets are $17 for adults, $15 for youths in-person. A streaming option March 13-14 is $12 per household. Go to duluthplayhouse.org.