Backstage with ‘Mirette’

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(Host) The play “Mirette” is based on the children’s book “Mirette on the High Wire,” by Vermont author Emily Arnold McCully. A three-week run of the musical starts this weekend at the Eclipse Grange theatre in Thetford.

VPR’s Susan Keese went backstage for a closer look at this musical story of youth and age.

(Keese) Mirette is a play with something for everyone in the family. There’s music, drama, slapstick, juggling, trapeze – and at the heart of it all, the high wire.

It’s set on the cobbled streets of nineteenth century Paris where a little girl named Mirette lives in a boarding house run by her widowed mother.

(Kristin Tate) “And the boarding house is where all the circus performers stay, so Mirette loves to see the circus performers. But she starts to feel a little bad because all the circus performers have something they do and she doesn’t really have her talent. So she’s kind of looking for her talent.”

(Keese) That’s Kristin Tate, the 12 year old seventh grader from Lyme, New Hampshire, who plays Mirette. Tate has no shortage of talent, but in the play she’s searching.

One of the boarders tells her that it often takes a special person to help you find your destiny. When a mysterious and decidedly unfriendly tightrope walker moves in, Mirette decides that he’s the mentor she’s been waiting for. Especially after she catches him practicing on a low wire he’s rigged up in the yard.

“What are you doing here?”
“Would you show me how to do that?”
“No! I don’t like you watching me.”
“But I can walk the whole length of the wire.”
“Obnoxious child! I don’t want you anywhere near this wire. Do you understand? A wire is sacred to the one who uses it.”

(Keese) The high wire artist is played by Alex Cherington. He’s a professional actor who lives in Hartford, Vermont when he’s not performing around the country.

As it turns out, the mysterious boarder is in fact the great Bellini. He’s a famous tight rope walker who disappeared after he panicked on a high wire above a busy market.

(Cherington) “He’s totally afraid of the failure that he had. It’s done, he’s finished, in his mind it’s finished, he can never be up there and that was his life. So he’s just drifting and no one can help him, in his opinion.”

(Keese) But Mirette keeps practicing. And Bellini sees that she has a gift. In this duet, he’s still trying to discourage her, but beginning to soften.

(Bellini) “It makes you do the things you never dared to do before;
Then when you’ve conquered those, it makes you want to conquer more.”
(Mirette) “But I feel alive;
when I’m on the wire;
I keep dreaming you will teach me so I can go higher;
Ever since the day when I saw you there;
I could feel my destiny was dancing in the air;
Right before my eyes, clear as it could be;
And I knew that very minute this was meant for me.”
(Together) “Learning who you are;
what a thing to know…”

(Keese) The music is by Harvey Schmidt and Tom Jones, who created the score for the Fantastiks. Pomfret musician Bob Merrill plays piano for the songs and circus acts that move the story forward.

Learning how to walk a tightrope is not easy. Kristin Tate learned from her stepfather, who also taught Cherington for the part.

(Cherington) “I’m definitely still learning. It takes a huge amount of focus.”

(Keese) Cherington says learning is what Mirette is all about. Bellini agrees to teach Mirette, but he also learns:

(Tate) “He learns that the world isn’t bad, you have to trust other people and she actually helped him pursue his dream to get back on the wire.”

(Keese) The message for Tate is, pursue your dreams. Faith Catlin, who directs the play says there’s a lesson here for adults too.

(Catlin) “It’s about how to redeem yourself when you get old and you can’t do your tricks anymore. It’s about how artists have to stick together and figure out how to get through and renew themselves by new relationships.”

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Susan Keese Backstage.

“Mirette” will be performed weekends through March 6 at the Eclipse Grange in Thetford.

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