June 5, 2023
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Life & Culture

Audiences return to familiar cartoon with stage production

Sitting in the dark as the opening is unveiled, the low hum of the cello mixes with the rest of the instruments to lull audience members back into the spooky but familiar fall foliage of the Unknown — filled with pumpkins, skeletons, ghosts and singing frogs.

Macabre Theatre’s production of “Over the Garden Wall” brought familiar characters from the beloved series to life April 7–9 in Clarke Lounge. The Cartoon Network miniseries originally ran Nov. 3–7, 2014, and was well received with a 93% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Nearly nine years after its original run, fans are still interacting with the series — spawning fan pages, cosplays and hundreds of fanfictions. In December 2022, a student-run stage adaptation of the show was uploaded to YouTube.

First-year student Nick Williams played Wirt, one of the series’ protagonists. Donning the familiar blue cape and red cone hat Wirt wears in the series, Williams portrayed the adventures of Wirt, along with his half brother Greg and their bird guide Beatrice in the Unknown as they try to find their way back home. For Williams, he said the experience of working with his fellow actors was unforgettable.

“All of the people who got on the show and even came into the audition room, most of those people knew the thrill and loved it,” Williams said. “They were passionate from the moment I walked in [to the audition]. … We all knew it from our childhood.”

Williams said he began watching the show online sometime after its original run while binge-watching other classics, like “Adventure Time” and “Regular Show.” However, Williams said that “Over the Garden Wall” had a certain Americana charm to it that entranced him on his first watch.

“I remember being spooked by it as a kid, but there’s something so pure about the voice and emotion that are shared [in] the themes of liminal spaces, being stuck somewhere as you’re growing up and not really understanding the world around you,” Williams said. “But for me, I related to it as someone who was figuring out how he was expressing his emotions to the world around him.”

First-year student Thatcher Schulmeister, who played Greg in the production, has a similar fondness for the show. They said they grew up watching the show with their brothers and would make it a tradition to watch the series each fall. When they found out about Macabre’s production of the show, Schulmeister said they excitedly called their brothers to tell them the news.

“I think ‘Over the Garden Wall’ is more than just like two brothers’ journey home,” Schulmeister said. “I think it’s two brothers’ journeys into each other’s lives. I mean, Wirt realizes he needs to step up as an older brother. … And so I think watching the TV show definitely strengthened my relationship with my brothers.”

This relationship to the show, Schulmeister said, strengthened his own bond with fellow cast and crew members.

“I think that chemistry between actors is a very important thing to have, especially when you’re playing siblings,” Schulmeister said. “I think people mostly focus on chemistry between love interests … but you have to have a very close bond when you’re playing siblings, and so Nick and I clicked very easily. … He very much has that older brother feeling to me.”

Adapting a cartoon into a live-action theatrical production posed its fair share of problems, senior Rebecca Rivera, who directed the production, said. On top of reaching out to the show’s creators directly to get permission to stage the performance, Rivera said she was in direct contact with The Blasting Company, the band behind the cartoon’s whimsical soundtrack. While the band had no existing sheet music for many of the scores, Rivera said she was able to work with the band for almost a year to transcribe some of the show’s music so that it could be used for the orchestra.

“It was fun and also a little challenging because there are things that happen in the cartoon that would be really impossible to do on stage,” Rivera said. “So translating some of those scenes took a little bit of tweaking to figure out how we would do it, but it was fun and I think the designers had fun trying to find a way to make those stylized costumes and props that you see in the show.”

The love shared for the original work helped create solutions for some of the logistical issues the cast and crew faced. Rivera said that while she was unable to cast an actual bluebird for Beatrice, first-year student Sonora Cohen-Rider stepped up as props designer to engineer a bluebird puppet for Beatrice’s actor, senior Zoe Johnson, to use.

All in all, Rivera said that the process of working with the cast and crew was rewarding.

“They’re so nice and intelligent and talented, and it was a lot of fun getting to work with them to bring all their various characters to life,” Rivera said.

As the lights dim and the actors take their final bows, audience members say goodbye to the show — but the cast and crew of the production walk away with memories that will last a lifetime.

“I think the most special part about this is that we all kind of became friends,” Williams said. “And that doesn’t always happen, especially in college productions, because there are so many people that are coming from so many different places.”