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Standing in front of the set for The Phipps Center Children's Theater production of "Charlotte's Web" are set designer Tiffany Fier, left, and Shannon Foy, who stars as Charlotte, the spider. Fier played the same role 10 years ago at The Phipps. She was asked back by director John Potter to create the set for the new production. Photo by Meg Heaton

Former Charlotte returns to create new web

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Despite what some may say, you can go home again and sometimes with pretty wonderful results.

Tiffany Fier came home this week to see her set design for The Phipps Center's production of "Charlotte's Web" take the stage. She is familiar with both the play and main stage.

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She played the title role of the compassionate spider that saves a pig in The Phipps 1999 production of "Charlotte." Director John Potter remembers that Fier, who graduated from Hudson High School in 2000, "tried out for every role she could back then and landed several."

Fier, now 27, liked acting and theater in high school, but didn't think she would be pursuing any of it as a career when she headed off to college at UW-La Crosse.

"I thought acting was fun in high school but I knew how hard it is to make a living at it so I was pretty sure I wouldn't head in that direction," said Fier.

She remembers giving some thought to chemistry but an Advanced Placement class at HHS had her rethinking that as well. But then she landed a part in a college production and got "sucked in again."

Today, Fier has a master's degree in set design from Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind., and is a scenic artist for the American Players Theater in Spring Green. She also is a freelance set designer, which brought her back to The Phipps to design a new web for Charlotte.

For Fier, the design process starts with the director's vision and then combines with her own. She does visual research, drawings and models, all which she runs by the director. Most of the communication between Fier and Potter and Phipps technical director Mark Koski took place via e-mail.

Fier told Potter that her vision of the set would be different from the 1999 set. "That one was pretty realistic. I mean, it was a barn and a farm and a fair scene. I had something pretty different in mind - the same basic elements but with more of a storybook look."

The web was then and is now at the center of the story. In 1999 it was made from rope. Fier recalled having "bruises everywhere" from climbing all over it. In discussions with Potter she told him she wanted her web to be bigger. "I kind of took the idea of it and exploded it. It is four times bigger than the one I was in," said Fier.

Working with Koski, the decision was made to construct the web of 3/8-inch steel rod. When Fier arrived last weekend, she was pleased to see the finished product.

"Mark -- I love him. It is just amazing what he does. You just don't see the caliber of work he does in community theater in other places. And the volunteers he has are just awesome. I wasn't sure if I would get half of what I wanted, but I got it all and then some," said Fier.

One of those volunteers is Mark Sturino. Fier went to school with his son and he was a volunteer when both were involved in Phipps productions back then.

Fier spent the week tweaking her design and helping to put the finishing touches on it with Koski and his volunteers. She won't be able to attend opening night because she is teaching a class on Saturday but leaves content that her part of production is ready and well done.

Two Charlottes

Shannon Foy, who plays Charlotte in the current production, talked with Fier about the play.

Foy, from Cottage Grove, Minn., is a senior at the St. Paul Conservatory for Performing Artists and has applied to colleges from New York University to Yale to the University of Minnesota and already knows she wants a career in the theater.

Foy says that director Potter frequently reminds the cast that "Charlotte's Web" is set in a simpler time before cell phones and television, when kids played outside, went to county fairs and enjoyed the summer.

"But it is a nice place and time to revisit," said Foy. Fier says in some ways it reminds her of the way her husband, the son of a dairy farmer, describes his life growing up, although she knows most prize-winning pigs wouldn't be spared from auction but would actually bring a bigger price.

But both agree that the message of the show is timeless. "It's about friendship, love and helping each other," said Foy.

As actresses, playing a "compassionate" spider was something of a challenge. Both said they were conscious of not making the spider seem too human but human enough to care about what happens to a pig.

Fier's favorite scene in her production was when she rapelled down from the stage grid onto the web. "That was just plain great."

Foy says her death scene with Wilbur is at the top of her list. "We're in this serious talk about death and then Templeton (the rat) creeps in and I have a really hard time not breaking up. He's great."

Potter says the current production has a strong musical component. He doesn't remember a great deal about the 1999 production but he knows audiences will enjoy this one just as much if not more. "It is always about raising the bar."

Tickets

The musical runs for 12 performances Feb. 13-March 1 on Fridays at 7 p.m., Saturdays at 2 and 7 p.m., and Sundays at 2 p.m. Tickets are $20 for adults, $18 for students age 13 and older as well as seniors, and $15 for children 4 to 12 years old, with a $2 discount for the opening weekend. The show is not recommended for children under age 4. For reservations, contact The Phipps ticket office at (715) 386-8409 or visit www.ThePhipps.org.

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Meg Heaton
Meg Heaton has been a reporter with the Hudson Star Observer since 1990. She has a bachelor’s degree in anthropology and Native American Studies from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.
(715) 808-8604
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