On the heels of his stellar performance this summer in Theatre Exile’s Fringe Festival hit THE ALIENS, Aubie Merrylees–one of the hottest young actors in the Philadelphia theater community–currently stars as Wilbur, the sensitive pig, in Arden Theatre Company’s holiday production of CHARLOTTE’S WEB. Equally adept at adult and children’s material, Merrylees’ recent roles include David Balfour in KIDNAPPED and Billy Bibbit in ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST, both at People’s Light & Theatre Company in Malvern. The prodigious young resident of Downingtown and 2010 graduate of Brown University has also appeared in a number of independent films, among them this year’s INKUBUS, starring Robert Englund and William Forsythe.
In an interview with STAGE, preceding Arden’s opening of CHARLOTTE’S WEB on December 3, Merrylees thoughtfully considered the significance of children’s theater and the importance of exposing young audiences to the arts.
STAGE: What’s your earliest childhood memory of the theater?
Aubie Merrylees: Wow . . . it might be in preschool, when we did a play of WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE for our families. Each kid made a unique monster head out of a brown paper grocery bag. I played Max, and I’m pretty sure I was in a white onesie; I loved it! I also used to dress up in costumes and get really into playing these various characters; I wasn’t pretending to be Captain Hook, I was Captain Hook.
My grandfather took me to see CATS on Broadway when I was quite young. I remember my Dad making me a tape of the soundtrack, and I listened to it again and again before our trip to New York, so before I saw the actual production I was already in love with the music. And I can remember very vividly the cats dancing in the aisles, close enough to touch. I’m not sure exactly when I knew that I wanted to be involved in theater for the rest of my life, but I know that I was pretty young.
STAGE: Why do you feel it’s important to offer programming for children?
AM: Children are a part of the world! And they are our future. Programming for children is essential; bringing them into the theater to see live performance, bringing them into theater classes–that is all hugely important. Theater is a communal experience, and there is something really special about getting a bunch of young people into a room to watch something onstage. Everyone in the room is on the same plane, on the same ship. For those two hours, nothing else has to matter–we’re all watching a play. And at the same time, we remain individuals–we get to decide what we like, what we don’t like; we get to go down whatever road the play pulls us. But everyone is together, everyone is a participant in the event. Communal experiences like these are magical. And to get that as a kid–well, I think it’s very important.
STAGE: How meaningful is it to you personally to help introduce children to the arts?
AM: It is meaningful for me to bring art to as many people as I can. If I can introduce art to children, that’s the best, because they have their whole lives ahead of them. When children are young, they are still untouched by the cynicism that is so prevalent in our culture today, so they are open. This culture of cynicism is a culture of closed doors, but when you’re young, the doors are still open. Anything is possible. And art works best in openness, I think. So in many ways, children are the perfect audience. Art also asks us to ask questions–questions about ourselves, about our world–and I think that it is important for people to start asking questions like these as early as possible. Questioning, curiosity, and a desire always to go a little deeper; if we can foster these qualities in children, then I think we have done a real service.
CHARLOTTE’S WEB is so great, I think, because it deals directly with this idea. Underneath the story of a pig and a spider and a bunch of animals, we’re dealing with questions about friendship, death, loneliness, and the struggle to figure out who you are when the whole world is trying to tell you who you are. Wilbur is a pig, who, quite frankly, isn’t treated the best by his animal “friends” and whose destiny is to end up as food. He is a pig who, at a very young age, has to come to terms with his own mortality. He has to make sense of the world around him and how he fits into it. These are some big questions, some deep explorations–and they are universal.
Self-discovery and self-actualization, loneliness, grief; this is what growing up is like. And I think there are plenty of adults who are still grappling with these questions. I know that I still am. I hope that when people come to the theater and are confronted with these questions, they are reminded of the complexities of our world and they look inward at their own life.
STAGE: What’s special about the kind of family theater offered by the Arden? And by People’s Light, where you’ve also performed extensively?
AM: Both theaters share a commitment to telling truthful stories that the whole family can relate to and learn from; neither theater is interested in talking down to its audience, and that’s a good thing. People’s Light calls it their Family Discovery Series, and I think that is a wonderful term to describe the work that both theaters do. These shows aren’t just for kids–they are a chance for the whole family to come and to have a wonderful experience together, and the walk/ride home is a part of that experience. The family discussions are a very real part of that experience.
Plays aren’t like facts; they‘re not the same from every angle. Events onstage are often given space in which audiences are free to add their own interpretations, their own experiences, their own fears and questions and desires. I think that Whit [CHARLOTTE’S WEB Director Whit MacLaughlin] and Terry [Producing Artistic Director Terrence J. Nolen] here at the Arden and that Abby [Abigail Adams, Artistic Director] and the rest of the company at People’s Light are really committed to the facilitation of this kind of experience, and I think that’s what makes their “children’s” theatre so good. There’s depth. Nobody is talking down to anyone. Like I said before–we’re all in the room together, exploring the same stuff. That’s what matters.
STAGE: What do you hope children will take away specifically from CHARLOTTE’S WEB?
AM: I hope they’ll ask questions. I hope that they’ll go on Wilbur’s journey with me. I hope they’ll be thinking about friendship, and about selflessness, and about what it’s like to be really afraid. I hope they realize that they’re not alone. Really, I hope they leave thinking.
Adapted by Joseph Robinette
from the book by E.B. White
Directed by Whit MacLaughlin
Arden Theatre Company
F. Otto Haas Stage
40 N. 2nd Street
November 30, 2011-January 29, 2012
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