There is plenty to unpack in Asheville Creative Arts’ latest original production, The Warp & The Weft. The professional children’s theater group will debut the hourlong performance on Friday, April 19, at The Magnetic Theatre. Combining puppetry, live folk music, video and storytelling, the piece explores the history of child labor, the evolving concept of childhood and the power that comes from controlling one’s own narrative. It runs through Sunday, April 28.
Though the show’s development technically began two years ago, its director, Abby Felder, says the idea dates much further back. “The whole thing began when I was in the fourth grade,” she explains. At the time, her class was studying Lewis Hine, an early 20th-century investigative photographer, who documented child labor in America. Among Hine’s many subjects were those working in the textile mills in North Carolina.
The images of these children, says Felder, who was raised in Charlotte, led to an early epiphany. “They were my same age but clearly grew up in incredibly different circumstances,” she says. “I think that was the first moment, as a young person, where I started to think about the concept of childhood.”
The resulting multimedia production incorporates video of Hine’s images, as well as historical audio recordings of former child textile workers, originally gathered by UNC Chapel Hill. In juxtaposing Hine’s visual stories with the audio accounts, The Warp & The Weft seeks to show its young audience members how narratives are shaped, depending upon who is telling the story.
The piece also brings in excerpts from present-day interviews with local students from Hanger Hall School for Girls, as well as members of the Mentoring and Nurturing Our Students program, which works with newly immigrated Latinx students. Both groups provide perspectives on contemporary childhood, particularly as it pertains to recently displaced youths.
Too often, says Rebecca Williams, the show’s videographer, “there are lots of important voices that are missing from our narratives.” These absences, she notes, are evident in Hine’s historical work, which centered on predominantly white children.
A more inclusive production is not only a focus for The Warp & The Weft but ACA’s overall goal. In 2016, Daniele Martin came on as the theater group’s community outreach and engagement coordinator. Since that time, she’s been developing relationships with marginalized and rural communities.
In addition to her work offstage, Martin sought to enlist more performers and artists of color onstage. The group’s forthcoming production, she says, highlights this effort. Of The Warp & The Weft’s six cast members, four are people of color, including Martin.
Along with greater diversity, the upcoming production also embodies a larger trend in the theater group’s future direction. “We’re trying to shift more toward original work,” Felder explains. Moving forward, works by ACA’s regular contributing artists, as well as interested community members who participate in the organization’s incubator series, will take precedence.
In the meantime, the group continues to perform family classics, including this summer’s production of Charlotte’s Web. Set to run July 18-28, the familiar tale follows Wilbur the livestock pig and his friendship with the titular spider.
The popularity of the story, says Felder, makes it “really ripe for some magical reimagining in terms of presentation.” This will include audience participation as well as live bluegrass music. Further, Felder notes, the group is discussing the use of wooden and found-object puppetry for Wilbur and the story’s additional cast of barnyard animals.
Both The Warp & The Weft and Charlotte’s Web highlight ACA’s ongoing interest in expanding the boundaries of traditional storytelling and stage production methods. Throughout the organization’s seven-year history, Felder notes, “we’ve found that young people are an incredibly sophisticated audience … able to absorb and experience very complex things, and so we try and just push the envelope a little bit.”
The Warp & The Weft also makes explicit that in order to truly expand, multiple perspectives must be encouraged and invited to share in the experience, both onstage and off. This, says Felder and fellow cast members, makes ACA’s mission something that will hopefully resonate long after the curtain is drawn.
“I feel like theater is a very profound medium in terms of allowing young people to hold witness, but then to also experience, feel and practice things like empathy and critical thinking,” Felder says.
Williams agrees, adding that the group’s commitment to audience participation emphasizes the connection and importance of narrative. “I think there is a real value in people understanding that the act of telling their own story is a really empowering and affirming action,” she says. “It’s important to see how your story plugs into that larger story, the community story.”
WHAT: The Warp & The Weft
WHERE: The Magnetic Theatre, 375 Depot St., avl.mx/5sq
WHEN: Opening night is Friday, April 19, at 7 p.m. The show runs through Sunday, April 28. Times vary. Discounted school and camp matinee performances are also available. $23 adults/$12 students