The hero of the Arden Theatre’s upcoming production of Charlotte’s Web enters the stage on aerial silks. Multidisciplined performer Ayana Strutz is Charlotte, author E.B. White’s courageous and clever spider, the best friend, and ultimate savior of “Some Pig” Wilbur.
This is Strutz’s first time headlining as both acrobat and actor. It’s also her first time doing children’s theater.
In June, the 22-year-old graduated from the nine-month circus program at The Actors Gymnasium in Evanston, Ill. This month, she and her fiancé drove to Philly from Chicago, where she’s been part-timing as a dance teacher and performing as Moana at Disney princess parties.
Portraying literature’s most cherished arachnid is a big deal for the 4-foot-11 Strutz. Here, she discusses her path to and the demands of playing fearless, selfless, strong — and incredibly flexible — Charlotte.
What’s it like, auditioning for the role of a spider?
I had an interview with the Arden over Skype, and sent them some videos of my silk choreography. For rehearsal, I wrote a list of the things I can do, acrobat-wise. In rehearsal, Whit [MacLaughlin, the director] would be like, ‘I want you to do something here. What can you do?’
What can you do?
I’m tumbling and doing contortion and acrobatics. There’s a lot of silk choreography. It’s very physical show.
Have you always been an acrobat?
No. I started dancing when I was 4. … As a child, I was always attracted to very physical moves, physical dance, jumping around. I would beg my mom, ‘Can you please put me in a gymnastics class?’ She would never let me do it. She’d say, ‘You’re gonna crack your neck.’
I was a dance minor in college. After I graduated, I moved to Chicago. There was a circus school nearby, The Actors Gymnasium. I thought: I’m on my own; I’m going to enroll myself in some aerial and contortion classes.
My grandmother on my mom’s side — she’s Japanese and lives in Japan — she used to be a gymnast back in the day. Her dream was to be in the Olympics, but she was forced to give it up to get married and have kids.
When I was visiting her, she pulled out her old gymnastics outfit. She wanted me to try it on. It fit me perfectly. Then, I was like: You know what? I’m going to pick up where my grandmother left off.
How was circus school?
It was a lot — a lot of crying, a lot of emotional, mental, physical challenges. I was training 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., every day. But when I’m up in the air, I just feel it in my blood: It’s where I belong.
I found circus so much later in life. I was 22. My body isn’t broken yet, but it’s getting there.
I needed to make myself more versatile to get booked in things. If I go in an audition, and they ask if anyone has any special skills, I can say, ‘Circus.’ These days, a lot of performers have a lot of tools in their toolbox — anything to be a well-rounded performer.
How does Charlotte move?
I use the silks as a method for coming in and out of the space, going up and back into the barn ceiling.
To walk, I do a back walkover I call “The Exorcist” walk, like when [Linda Blair] is going down the stairs in a back bend. That’s the most spidery type of movement.
Or, I walk on my hands. And I’m just being low to the ground. When [spiders] see someone, they retract and try to make themselves small to not be seen.
And you do this while reciting lines?
Yes. The last time I had so many lines was back in high school. I’m so used to doing just dancing or just circus. The challenge has been stringing together the movement, being the character and saying the lines — the whole operation. I have to always tell myself I’m not just an acrobat doing a trick and telling a line — I’m playing a spider.
How do you stay in shape?
The challenge will be keeping up my stamina and strength, to go from silks to tumbling and back to silks for two hours, twice a day, for 90 shows.
Probably my body will adapt to the pain. It’ll probably get used to the energy I have to put out throughout the show. I just have to make sure to discipline myself and do my abs, my abdominal workouts. It’s been hard with all the Philly cheesesteaks. It’s been a very big struggle for me.
Did you read “Charlotte’s Web” as a child?
I remember reading the book probably like in first grade. It was on everyone’s reading list. I also remember watching the movie a lot, because it’s my dad’s favorite. But it had been a while for me, so I had to go back and reread the book.
It’s a wonderful story about being humble.The spider sacrifices so much for friendship. During the read-through, all the girls in the cast were crying our eyes out. It really touches my heart. It’s definitely made me not kill spiders.
What’s your favorite part of the play?
It’s probably the end, when Charlotte is weak and telling Wilbur that she can’t make it back to the barn. She’s just had her babies and spun all the words in the web. He asks why she’s done all this for him and says he’s done nothing for her. She says, “You have been my friend.”
It’s so simple.
Spiders are very isolated beings. They do their own things and stay in their own corner. Charlotte decides to come down from her web to try to build a friendship with a pig who could easily kill her. The building of friendship and connection ... it really touches my heart, and I hope it touches the audience, too.