Birds chirp and ducks quack. The leaves dance in the breeze. Gentle waves lap against the shore. Sounds like the perfect, relaxing hideaway doesn’t it? Yet, instead of a reclusive spot to take a nap, this scene provides the backdrop for Serenbe Playhouse’s summer production of The Ugly Duckling.
Driving to the “theatre,” I pass through idyllic Serenbe neighborhoods down to a gravel road where modern society seems to end, and the majesty of time passed by greets me. Goats graze next to the road and a stable looms in the distance. If it weren’t for signs directing me to the spot, I would have thought I drove too far. Nestled in a meadow, a rustic pavilion overlooks a small lake, and it is here that I sit down with Brian Clowdus, founder and Artistic Director of Serenbe Playhouse, and speak to the cast members performing that day.
While live theatre in a park or an amphitheater is nothing new, what makes Serenbe’s production different is the fact that there isn’t a traditional performance space. Last season, The Jungle Book’s set was built around a tree house in the woods, and for this season’s The Ugly Duckling, the stage has been built inside a lake.
“Every production is a one-of-a-kind experience, something unique,” he states, his face beaming as he speaks of the productions. For The Ugly Duckling, there isn’t modern lighting, nor do the actors use microphones. All of this reminds me of how it must have been watching one of theatre’s original plays on a Greek hillside.
To help the audience, who is mostly used to air conditioned theaters, the staff has gone out of its way to make it comfortable. “We want to provide a good experience, and since people are not used to seeing a play outside, we want to make it as comfortable as possible,” he mentions. A tarp covers the seating area. Bug spray and sun block are also offered to audience members as they arrive.
A Novel Approach to a Familiar Story
While it is technically a children’s play, it contains enough wit and heart to keep adults entertained. Discussing the mixed age groups in the audience, he states, “The play has a level of humor for any age group, and it has an element of humor and fun for adults. I feel it is important to have theatre that everyone, adults and children can enjoy.”
From cultural references such as “Brangelina” to poking fun of celebrity baby names with Chicken and Cat calling Ted, the “ugly” duckling, “Bookcase,” the witty sophistication of the dialogue keeps the parents happy while child friendly “potty humor” as Ted attempts to lay an egg and passes gas instead keeps the children laughing.
Meanwhile, the deeper themes of the story are not watered down. “There is no need to dumb it down for children,” he mentions. The story resonates. From what I saw, children get it and like it. Likewise, adults appreciate the reminder of the simple, yet powerful message.
What makes the story powerful is the significance of realizing self worth. Born out of an idea to address the rash of teen suicides last year, The Ugly Duckling helps children (and reminds adults) to see themselves in a different light. “The beauty of theatre is that it can impact people,” he mentions.
As we discuss the origins of the play, the question arises: which concept was first, the story or the staging. “The story was first,” he says. “When I was talking with Joanna [Joanna Brooks, the choreographer], we walked by the lake and thought what if we built the stage in the water.”
Creating the Water-Side Adventure
Upon arriving to watch The Ugly Duckling, nature’s splendor gives a powerful performance. A tranquil lake, surrounded by trees and a meadow, sits, watched over by a willow tree and a small bridge. Bisecting the lake, a stage can be seen, submerged underwater; however, the whole area eventually becomes the stage, immersing the whole landscape into the play. While we discuss the backdrop, he comments, “We could never create fake scenery that looked that good.” Without this scenery, the production would definitely not be the same experience.
Building the stage took a new approach to stagecraft. Traditional set building was out and construction contractors were brought in to build it. The stage was built over the water, like a dock, and then lowered a few inches under the surface. With this type of staging, everyone from the actors to the costume designer needed to adapt.
Actor Will Shuler states, “It is a completely different world, not like normal theater.” Agreeing, Andrew Crigler, the show’s star adds, “Once the stage was built, we had an hour or two to get to it before we began rehearsals.” Even with the adaptation period, the unsettled weather pattern of summer often has its final say.
By: Kenny Norton