Charlotte’s Web weaves spell again

By Timothy Gillis

A Company of Girls, the local youth acting troupe, is performing “Charlotte’s Web,” adapted from E.B. White’s revered children’s book by Joseph Robinette. The play is at the Lucid Stage this weekend, and at the Studio Theater at Portland Stage on May 4-6. Although the cast is young, by Broadway’s standards, there is an undeniable enthusiasm amidst the actresses, the stage crew, and the fifty-plus people who turned out this past Thursday afternoon for the opening show. Made up of mainly moms and young daughters, the audience also featured a smattering of dads and grandparents. The energy from the performance was equally felt by all.

For children, there is something magic and powerful about dressing up as an animal, and the kids got right into it, decked out as a goose and a gander that repeats itself, a sheep and a lamb, Templeton the rat, Wilbur the pig, and of course Charlotte, the spider who saves Wilbur’s life with the power of words. She weaves “some pig,” “terrific,” and “radiant” into her web, and the humans are overcome with wonder at this special pig, saved from the butcher’s block.

A Company of Girls (ACOG) is an after-school theatre and arts-based resiliency program for girls aged 8-18. The members of ACOG are “from many diverse communities in the greater Portland Area. Transportation is provided for those girls who need it to get to and from the program,” according to their website. “At ACOG, girls can come together after school and learn about theatre, the arts, and social skills. It is a safe place where they can discuss issues that are important to them. It is also a fun place, just for them, where they can discuss ‘girl things.’ Their time together also includes journaling, painting, attending arts events, creative writing, sleepovers, apple picking, community service, pot-luck family dinners, dancing, fundraising, and much, much more,” the website says.

“ACOG is composed of different mixed age ensembles and meets after school through-out the entire school year, with breaks that coincide with school holidays. Each ensemble produces at least one play a year. Productions have included “Eloise,” “Romeo and Juliet,” “Cynderella Cycle,” “On the Bench and Sticky Like a Frog,” and “A Wrinkle In Time,” according to the website.

Working for the company is not easy, as the young actresses can attest. Most of them play two or more roles, assuming different roles on different days. Sadie Cross, who plays Charlotte and Fern, goes to East End Community School. The ten-year-old does not prefer one role to the other. “It’s sometimes confusing since I’m also in the chorus, which tells the story, but I usually don’t mix up my lines.” Cross said she was inspired by E.B. White’s granddaughter, Martha White, who spoke at the University of Southern Maine about her famous relative, his writing, and her own. “She talked about when he started writing the books,” Cross said. In addition to “Charlotte’s Web,” forever a favorite for children of any generation, White also penned “The Trumpet of the Swan,” and “Stuart Little” which, like the spider story, has found fame on the stage and the big screen. White lived on a salt-water farm in Maine, and was also an accomplished essayist and grammarian. His co-authored “Elements of Style” is still the writer’s bible. Children love him for his animal books, though. And the cast revelled in dressing as farm animals and carrying on human conversation. Asked about her favorite part of the acting company, Cross said “You get to meet and make some great friends. You come here, you can be yourself. Sometimes, at school, kids tease. It’s always safe here. It’s really fun.” Cross, in her third year with the company, previously played in their productions “How the Children Stop the War” at the Studio Theater and “Holes” at Portland Stage.

Gina Laramore-Jones plays Templeton, Uncle, and Fern, and is also in her third year with ACOG. She attends Presumpscot Elementary School. She said her favorite aspect to acting was getting up on stage. “I like having a good time, making people laugh.” Next up for Laramore-Jones is “Seussical, the Musical” put on by Stages. She said she also likes ostriches, wherever she can find them – in books or at the farm.

Cat Bernier and Kaylie LaCour are friends who love spending time together at ACOG. Bernier, who plays Charlotte, the sheep, and the chorus, goes to Hall Elementary School and is in her second year with the company. LaCour plays Edith Zuckerman, goes to Lyman Moore Middle School, and has been acting with ACOG for four years. “Everything is all happy and exciting here,” Bernier said. “We can always do a new project, and all the plays are fun.”

“This is a place where you can be safe, and hang out with your friends,” LaCour added. Both stressed that it wasn’t all fun and games, however. It is a lot of hard work, to memorize lines for several characters, but persistence pays off. “The more rehearsals the better. If you miss any, you don’t know where you are,” LaCour said. Part of the Ensemble group for middle to high school girls, LaCour is working on “Lord of the Flies” next. She plays Rachel, the female version of Ralph from the William Golding novel. One of the signature styles of the company is the way they interpret and reinvent male-centered works through female perspectives. For example, they produced “Queen Lear” to offer a female POV on the Shakespeare regicide. The Fledgling group of the company is comprised of beginning actresses, aged 8-11.

Mackenzie and Maiah Marles keep acting all in the family. Mackenzie goes to Portland High School, and was in the company for seven years. Even though she left the company three years ago, she still has volunteered for the last two, and plays Mrs. Arable in the play. She is involved in the musical theater class at Portland High, as well as the Drama Club, which produced “The Curious Savage” most recently. Her younger sister, Maiah Marles, has been with the company for three years, since she was six. “I left Charlotte on stage a little too early today,” Maiah says of her day’s first performance. “She had to improv a little bit.” Not deterred by the slight miscue, Maiah was buoyant about the next show that evening. “I love the plays, when everybody finds out their parts. When I heard I was going to play Wilbur.. that was exciting!” Mackenzie said she got into theater because she enjoys pretending to be someone she’s really not. “The memorization is tough, but I’ve gotten used to it. I get really nervous if a line is skipped. I’m not sure if I will be able to pull myself back to where I’m supposed to be. Usually, though, someone is pretty good at saving the scene.” The sisters practice at home as much as possible, and thereby limit the potential misspoken lines.

Jen Roe, the executive and artistic director of ACOG, is excited about the power of this production company that uses the arts to strengthen the minds and spirits of young girls. The company was founded 16 years ago by Odelle Bowman, who stepped down last year. Roe’s first year in this new position has been filled with exciting challenges.

“Strengthening and empowering youth benefits all of us in the greater Portland area and beyond. Resilient girls are better able to withstand the stress to which they are subjected, can adapt to change, and can move through adversity. That means we get safer, healthier, more prosperous communities with lower crime rates, less substance abuse, and fewer girls having babies before they reach their own adulthood,” according to the theater company’s brochure. “We get young people who care about, appreciate, and are invested in the communities in which we live,” it reads.

one of Paul Revere’s bells

is located in a Portland church. Know which one?

I didn’t know anything about it until this year. The things I don’t know could fill a long book, but I’m kind of embarrassed to have such a cool, historical artifact so close and not know about it.

This may prove Young’s point about memory, that we can only remember privately what we have learned publicly, and that public memory is only partly formed by us.

Samuel Adams is “the great man who cleared the way for Washington,” and may be known in New England now moreso because of the beer named after him.

I was surprised to hear the Declaration of Independence was not read aloud for fear of the Anglophobia it incited, that the stifling of it was constructed, not incidental. It seemed to make more sense that in the years after the tea action, people were too caught up in the tumult of war to pause for historical penning.

glitterati

By Timothy Gillis

Maine writers got together Thursday night to raise money for the Telling Room, Portland’s non-profit writing center for local youth. Scores of fans joined the writers in a fancy fete at the Masonic Temple on Congress Street, enjoying live music from “This Way” and more than fifteen different hors d’oeuvre catered by Blue Elephant. The second annual fundraiser allowed locals to meet and chat with their favorite authors, who were distinguished by a glitter bead necklace. The main event of the evening was an auction featuring fine art, photography, ski vacations, jewelry, and a cooking class. All money raised went to support programs offered by the Commercial Street writing center.

The Telling Room programs “enlist the support of local writers, artists, teachers, and community groups to offer free afterschool workshops and tutoring, and host field trips for school groups from all over Maine,” according to their mission statement. “We also lead workshops at local schools and community organizations; bring acclaimed writers to Maine to give public readings and work with small groups of students; publish bestselling anthologies of student work; and carry out community-wide storytelling projects and events.”

Such an array of rich, rewarding programs are free for the young writers who go there, but obviously cost the center quite a pretty penny to provide. Glitterati is an attempt to help fund them, while offering a fun night out with “local literary luminaries.”

Three writers spoke about their recent works, their love of literature, and the way Maine has (or has not) found its way into their writing.

Caitlin Shetterly, author of “Made for You and Me: Going West, Going Broke, Finding Home,” found solace back here in Maine after a tumultuous trip West. Shetterly and her husband, Daniel Davis, started their journey in 2008. Her memoir chronicles the economic struggles they endured on the trip to California, where Daniel worked as a photographer.

“The memoir started out as emails home to family and friends, but became something bigger,” she said. “By the time we reached Texas, I realized there was a large group of people reading along.” Audio reports from the road for National Public Radio followed that, and the work culminated in her memoir.

They had thought the sour economy was a regional thing, she said, and they expected their luck to get better. They had a son, whom she calls Matthew in the book, and soon after realized the money slump was not particular to New England. Eventually, the situation grew dire enough to force them back to Maine to stay with family. Though troubling times, to be sure, the experience gave her material for her break-through work.

Shetterly came to the Glitterati event Thursday from Colby College, where she teaches a class on Radio. She also teaches creative non-fiction at Salt Institute. “It’s really intense. I have six students, and I get to give them luxurious amounts of individual time, something rare in this age of Facebook and Twitter.”

Shetterly graduated from Brown University, started the state-wide book club called Maine Women Write, and is founder and artistic director of Winter Harbor Theatre Company. She joined a local book club recently, and is happy for the opportunity it affords her to read things she normally wouldn’t. “It’s quite the variety. We read Julian Barnes “Sense of an Ending” and “Bossy Pants” by Tina Fey.”

Jaed Coffin’s running a bit behind deadline. But he knows the wait will be worth it. His new book, “Roughhouse Friday,” is supposed to be out now, he said, but it’s turned into a pretty big project. “I’m writing about characters who will read the book, and I want to get things right.”

In his first work, “A Chant to Soothe Wild Elephants,” Coffin recounted his trip to Thailand to be ordained a Buddhist monk in his mother’s native village of Panomsarakram. He is half-Thai and half-American, so the work was one wherein he immersed himself in a culture that was somewhat familiar to him. For his second book, he did win a middleweight title at a barroom boxing show in Juneau, Alaska, but the experience still feels a bit foreign. “I have an opportunity to say something on a large scale, but I’m writing about a culture that’s not my own,” he said.

Coffin said growing up in Maine influenced his work. He went to Brunswick High School, where he played soccer for coach Peter Gardiner, losing just seven games in four years. “Brunswick one of the places that offered old Maine and new Maine. I was lucky to grow up there and see both of those worlds. You have the college (Bowdoin), which is a world unto itself. It’s also a former mill town. It’s a place where class is a complex subject. Half of my friends were professors’ kids, the other half worked in the shipyard,” he said.

“I loved it. There were woods around, so we could go off and cause trouble. There was the quarry in Topsham, kind of dangerous areas, sinister in a way, now not so much. The land trusts have done great work to save these natural areas, but it’s less of a place to go off on your own,” he said.

When asked if he ever dabbles in fiction or poetry, Coffin said he was too compelled by real life to make stories up. He sees the Telling Room as a great place to help kids learn to tell their own stories. “I’m very grateful to be invited in, to do workshops with students. It gets me out of my studio, makes me think about writing in more dimensions,” he said.

Writing for him has always been a way to learn, to discover more about something while he is writing about it. “I love that it gives kids a medium to work some things out,” he said.

With the publication of his first book, Coffin was praised for writing in a clean, crisp style, and compared to Ernest Hemingway. “I think I overdid it a bit, though. I didn’t delve into characters as I am in this new book.” Coffin agreed that this work is more like Faulkner than Hemingway.

Ron Currie, jr., is also a fan of Faulkner. He said the original model for his latest work,”Everything Matters!” was Faulkner’s “As I Lay Dying.” Both are told from multiple points-of-view, and feature grim people who often say poignant things. Currie has also been compared to Carolyn Chute, another Maine writer. “There is a deep Appalachia there, and some of my characters definitely share that DNA.”

In terms of region in his writing, Currie doesn’t think Maine has had too big an influence. “I’ve always wanted to write about the people I grew up with. I havent done that yet, and it doesn’t look like I will,” he said.

Currie was bought up in Waterville, home of the Purple Panthers. He graduated in 1993, and remembers playing basketball. “It’s different now. The school dropped to class B when Scott Paper closed. Now there’s talk of consolidating the four area high schools – Messalonskee, Winslow, Lawrence, and Waterville – to save money,” he said.

Like the other Maine authors, Currie’s work has received ample national praise, and been compared to Kurt Vonnegut and Raymond Carver. “The language of Carver was definitely an influence, especially in my early work, where I think the tone is similar.” The link to Vonnegut troubles him, however, and is something of a backhanded compliment. “I loved Vonnegut. He was one of my favorites, but I get nervous with the comparisons.” Pigeon-holed as a science fiction writer, or someone for young kids only, Currie said the popular belief is that “after age 22, Vonnegut supposedly doesn’t speak to you anymore.”

The critical reception for his first book, “God is Dead” was glowing, and fans weren’t too torn up over the subject matter. “I was surprised, actually. A good portion of my fan mail was from people of faith. My first fan letter ever was from a Presbyterian minister from Connecticut who said he liked the book,” he said. “Religion means different things to different people. In part, that’s what you’re trying to do as a writer: To make the particular universal.”

Currie is involved in the Telling Room through workshops he has held in the central Maine area, and he may be teaching a workshop for adults in the fall. “Had this resource been available to me when I was a kid, writing stories in my bedroom, and I’d been able to make what I was doing public, that would have been important,” he said. “I’m not overstating it to say the work they are doing is vital. It’s becoming all-too common that young people can’t put together a coherent sentence. The Telling Room counteracts that.”

Currie says the book he is finishing up now is hard to classify, that “it exists in the demilitarized zone between memoir and novel.” The book, called “Flimsy Little Plastic Miracles” is due out next year. “The best analogy I can make for the genre is ‘Executioner’s Song,’ by Norman Mailer,” he said.

A glimpse into Young Author’s Camp, a summer program at the Telling Room, sponsored by the Southern Maine Writing Project

Students who are entering grades three to nine in the coming fall hunker around tables and talk about character and setting. Some sit off by themselves, plotting their story’s next event. Others again look out the Commercial Street windows and become inspired by Portland’s maritime bustle. Though all of these students seem to be doing different things, the common component is that they are all writing.

The Camp offers themed sessions that kids can pick and choose based on their interests. Last summer, kids “Reviewed Portland,” explored “Fantasy Fiction” or got to experiment with “Audio, Video and Photography” as writers. Jon York, a writing counselor for the session “Reviewed Portland,” found his first experience at the Telling Room rich with possibility.

“The advantage is that there are no grades, hence, no evaluation. Kids feel free to just write. I struggle to get kids to take risks in class, but with the specter of ‘grades’ and ‘school’ looming over their heads, rational kids simply don’t take (many) risks. At the Young Author’s Camp, it’s a whole different game – it’s about writing, not grades or standards. It’s a fundamentally creative place, which is not like the traditional school at all.”

According to Tim Hebda, director of YAC, this environment is the precise intention of the Southern Maine Writing Project, which unites area teachers with Telling Room students.

While there are not an abundance of rules to a session of YAC’s, a few requirements do exist. One is that each camp session have a “writing marathon,” which takes writers into the surrounding environment to write and gather direct experiential writing. Authors in the YAC’s at the Telling Room’s beautiful Commercial Street location have the bustling, seacoast energy of Portland’s famous waterfront. Young writers wander (accompanied by adult volunteers) down cobblestone streets, taking in the briny smells of the fishing industry, the delicious aromas of restaurants, and the other smells and sights and sounds of summertime New England. Each camp kicks off with the writing marathon.

This is just one of the many, free programs the Telling Room offers to young, aspiring writers. Glitterati is a way to celebrate the work, and help fund it.

Glitterati Auction Items
Book Club Package that includes enough copies of Debra Spark’s new book, The Pretty Girl, and a visit from Debra Spark to your book club

A Chebeague Island Inn getaway that includes ferry tickets and dinner at the Inn

A Dinner and Writing Consult with renowned author Charlotte Bacon

An Instant Library of signed books provided by Longfellow Books that includes a book from each of Glitterati’s featured authors as well as a book from Anthony Doerr and one by bestselilng author Elizabeth Gilbert

A weekend stay at a Saddleback House during the annual Bluegrass Festival, including a gift certificate to Loon Lodge

A SugarLoaf ski package, including lift tickets

A stay for 8 at the William Dean Howells Memorial house by the sea in Kittery

Original photography by Winky Lewis