When a theatre tackles a classic, there are usually two ways to approach the production; do you stay true to the period and style in which the story is set or do you keep the themes and characters and inject them into a new time or location?
When the Enchantment Theatre Company of Philadelphia began to develop their stage adaptation of Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit™ Tales, its artistic team made the decision to go back to the source; the original illustrations of Beatrix Potter herself. And why not? After all, the tales of Peter Rabbit™ is one of the most beloved pieces of children’s literature of all time with over 45 million copies sold in 36 languages. And Potters own whimsical detailed drawings helped set the standard for children’s illustration for decades to come.
“Our job was to stay true to the spirit of [Potter’s] book without copying it,” explains Landis Smith, Enchantment Theatre’s artistic director in charge of production. David Russell, who designed the scenery, costumes, and props for Peter Rabbit™ Tales, was in England when the agreement with Potter’s estate was finalized. So he reviewed hundreds of images in the estate’s digital library and his design was inspired by some of the unpublished illustrations he encountered.
David’s very detailed art held true to Potters’ vision; a rich detailed watercolor and pen style that instantly evokes the feeling of the Victorian english countryside.
TRANSLATING PAGE TO STAGE
Creating Potters world would depend upon reproducing the designs in a way that would be in keeping with the tenor of the production; immerse the cast in the world Potter created. While hand painting the art was an option, the Enchantment Theatre was building to tour heavily, and the concern was that painted drops may not hold up to the rigors of repeated load-in load out.
“We felt the art would be more consistent if we had it printed on fabric. and we appreciated the process Big Image uses to set dye into the fabric,” says Smith.
Durability, ease of use, and precision were also critical. Smith custom-built the metal framework so that load-in and set-up could be completed in four hours (or less), regardless of stage dimensions and facility conditions the stage crew would encounter during the show’s international tour.
“This was a very complex design that required a lot of decisions,” Smith says. “For example, we had to decide whether to use a chain or a pole at the bottom of the fabric to weigh it down. The trusses were assembled, then the fabric was hung from these to form the borders and legs. We also decided to hang some lights on the trusses in between the fabric portals to make sure the design looked good in all locations.”
Smith reviewed the full range of fabric samples that Olle Lindqvist, president of U.S. operations for Big Image, provided before arriving at a design solution that combined translucent and opaque fabrics. “I could tell by working with Olle that he was detail-oriented and very knowledgeable,” Smith says. “He knew immediately what could or couldn’t be achieved when using specific fabrics.”
Even though Smith trusted the printing process to work, there were a lot of pieces that needed to be trimmed and precisely finished. Some were hemmed and others were cut with a hot knife. Velcro was sewn along some of the edges so that we could fasten everything into place and also dismantle the set quickly. There were so many variables to keep track of to ensure everything was functional and beautiful under the lights.”
Lindqvist concurs, “It was very unusual to sew two different fabrics together to form a drop – especially when one of the fabrics was lightweight and very sheer [Trevira Voile] and the other was opaque and heavier [Rolltex 229]. Our sewing staff had to determine how to create seams that didn’t wrinkle or pucker. They did several tests before deciding it was best to use a half-inch overlap and straight seam to connect the two fabrics.”
With the U.S. tour in full swing and performances on the horizon in Canada and abroad, the stage crew has had ample opportunities to set-up and strike the set. Smith says it is not only holding up well to the rigors of the road, but “wherever we go, people literally gasp and say ‘this is gorgeous.’
So BITN doffs its hat the The Enchantment Theatre Company and its realization of the world of Peter Rabbit. Staying true to the world Potter created Enchantment has blended the elements of theatre to create a truly one of a kind experience and homage to the beloved classic.
To learn more about the Enchantment Theatre Company of Philadelphia check out their website at www.enchantmenttheatre.org
Of course, if you would like to speak to us about this production and your own feel free to reach out to us too!
Article originally written by Heather Beal Constellation Creative