Why Theater Should Join the Dark Side (of Fairy Tales)

Here’s the second column in my series asking why theaters dumb down their shows for kids. Since this one focuses on fairy tales, I want to share it with my readers here. 

Let’s delve into a pretty common denominator in the world of theater for young audiences (TYA): fairy tales. There is no end to internet lists “revealing” or “discovering” the dark origins of fairy tales, yet it is so surprising that, once upon a time, we actually told children scary stories? Shocking!

Many of the original versions of fairy tales were told to help children and adults confront the very real dangers of their times. Hansel and Gretel is an excellent example and very likely the most well known: it’s famine and hunger that motivate the mother or stepmother (depending on the version) to convince her husband to abandon his children in the woods. Most stage productions hide that part of the tale. It is fear of the darkness inherent in the stories that can cause playwrights to move too far in the other, more saccharine direction, leading to meaningless takes on fairy tales that now feel like the norm. When we remove fear from a fairy tale — or any story — we remove its connection to our lives, and that dumbing down affects theater audiences for a lifetime. Without true connections to our own feelings, fears and joys, why bother attending?

Read more at The Clyde Fitch Report

Read Part 1: Why do Theaters Dumb Down TYA (Theater for Young Audiences)?

Caleb Foote and Angela Giarratana in “Hansel & Gretel Bluegrass” (Photo: Cooper Bates)

Hamlet Fan Fiction and the 2016 Elections

Years ago, someone put a bug in my ear for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, which of course brought me to one of my favorite stories, Hamlet. I started exploring the idea of presenting them simultaneously so that audiences could choose to see one play, the other play, or mix and match at will. I began on the textwork. I quickly felt limited by thinking about it in theatrical terms.


I enlisted a razor sharp friend Abby Wilde who was willing to hash out our questions over


One of my favorite photos of Abby is when she worked with me on am outreach project : Shakespeare Everywhere

Google chat.

The more we questioned, the more confined we felt by Stoppard’s characterizations. Abby and I dropped Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead and focused exclusively on Hamlet. 

We asked all the questions, we turned all assumptions on their head.

We “Gosford Park”-ed it. We looked at every servant and minor character’s motivations, questions, reasons for being there. Could they have much more to do with the story than to simply carry spears and deliver information? The more we dreamed beyond anything we’d seen on stage ourselves, the more possibilities we found and the more mysteries opened.

Here is where I understood how all my outreach, content writing, examination of journalism, obsession with those who write history, and desire to create art for social good, all collide.

check your sources memeIn this age of highly curated news feeds, need for black/white narratives, and the necessity to always check the source (and Snopes) before sharing an article, could I use the Hamlet story to help an audience think more critically during an election season – and beyond? By leading them through a story where in one scene you may believe Hamlet is correct, and in the very next you reconsider all your assumptions that led you to that conclusion?

Take the idea that everyone is the hero of their own story, flesh out all the characters’ stories and draw an individual to understand why those who are clearly the enemies at the beginning, really believe they are doing the right thing, and maybe, just maybe, the ‘good guys’ ….aren’t always good? I believe that storytelling through different narratives and perspectives can help people become better citizens within their world. Perhaps the Hamlet story is a way to test that theory.

That is the point where I felt even more constrained by the concept that this was to be a theatre project. While in continuing discussions with Noah J. Nelson, (NPR affiliate, Turnstyle News, No Proscenium) on immersive productions, I decided the best course of action was to continue exploring these stories with no idea of where the end product would land.

I only knew that my target audience was not those who are already enamored with Shakespeare. Oh, the Bard lovers will certainly satisfy their nerdy fix, but my major point was to move as far away from a traditional Shakespearean experience as possible and to serve as the gateway drug for people who just like a good mystery.

And that’s when I knew for sure that the product couldn’t start as theater, or I would once again only reach those who already enjoy live productions.

So during my son’s naps in the car, I furiously type or scribble what could be described as Hamlet fan fiction. These start as narratives simply to develop the back story and open up entirely new ideas. Many of the ideas about Horatio also tie into my other works, including a trilogy of plays called MYTHistories (the Fatima story, how Dionysus turned into the mythology of Jesus and a third centered around Houdini) as well as the novel in progress based on the Oresteia. Once I combined those long-simmering ideas with Hamlet, something clicked inside of me that I cannot shake.

In every one of these stories, a protagonist’s story and legacy is unknowingly being written by another, sometimes by their family’s expectations, then eventually through….others to be revealed.

I’m insanely thrilled at how all these ideas and obsessions of mine now foster such an intricate and creative universe. As a fan of the worlds in Tolkien, Marvel, Star Trek, Doctor Who and The Lunar Chronicles, and a lover of James Burke’s Connections, I know I can dive into this sci-fantasy-dystopian for some-utopian for others-Orwellian storyline and take it through centuries of development. I can gear it towards increasing the audience’s perspective, causing people to truly consider their sources and think about their decisions and how they can change their story for the better.

I need to allow the characters and their individual stories to dictate the genre and medium through which their perspective is told.

The idea of exploring the Hamlet story through many mediums, simply choosing the one best suited to each character and situation, excites me greatly. It is hard for the outreach strategist in me not to plot out every storyline and decide how to tell it, but I know the ideas must come organically.

Some of these stories need to be read before the 2016 election, no matter who’s your candidate. Voters must be educated in how to look beyond the headlines. I will share what I have here.

Of course, the Outreach Nerd in me has a larger scheme: by elaborating on stories that are somewhat known and building new perspectives within them, I eventually hope to overlap the readers with audience. Hosting multiple stories in same universe but found in varied genres and mediums holds a high potential for overlap, and one that could be more effective than any short term outreach strategy that exists in art forms today. Just look at how John Green’s YouTube presence helps his book/movie sales, and what he and his brother have been able to do for education with their fame among young people.


MYTHistories: Election Season

A MYTHistory to me is the difference between what we are taught vs what we learn to be true later.

There is another side, however, and that is the automatic idea that if it’s in a news source, it must be true. Although most people now understand that is not the case, when a headline comes into our path with which we agree, it is easier to forego critical skepticism.

Here is something I posted on Facebook after a fantastically funny photo was shared by at least 3 out of 4 people I knew, and it turned out to be a hoax.

It’s important to take a step back and confirm validity before Sharing. You all, more than anyone else, know that I am subject to Sharing without Confirming just as anyone is. In an election season, when we all want so badly for our side to vote, it is easy to just hit Share.

I learned in the past year is that it takes much more effort than just double-checking the headline doesn’t come from The Onion. We are all citizen journalists, in that we have an audience. We must take that responsibility.
Everyone has their own perspective. We interpret truths based on our own perspective. We must agree to disagree sometimes (and I am not talking about the combination of the words “legitimate” and “rape” in this context).
Convincing someone they may possibly need to review everything for which their party stands is a lot harder iif we share false information. There is no reason for anyone to know a picture is fake except for the fact that even I learned Photoshop last weekend.
Just take a second.
1) Confirm your headline is not from The Onion or “Kind of almost News” site
2) Find it on more than one source
3) Check the date
4) Is there a Photoshop-Proof site? I’d love to have that one. Run it past that site to see if there is even a chance of Photoshop?
Facebook PSA for the day. Don’t share just because you want it to be true.
A hard reality, to be sure. I know firsthand.

commitment to the story

Last year I work-shopped a play about MYTHistories at The Indy Convergenceand shortly after realized this theme is my life’s work. My novel in progress is a MYTHistory, my Jesus play from last year definitely is, and the the multi-disciplinary work I will workshop this year in Indy investigates how the MYTHistory of the Virgin Mary affects young girls and women.

Every day I will post something about the process or definition of what a MYTHistory is. But here is the gist:

People write history. Everything we know was told through someone’s lens, someone’s perspective. 

Yet many of us grow up with the idea that History is infallible, that is how it happened.

Do you have an example of something you thought was Historical Truth and learned later it was more complex than you thought? That is a MYTHistory.

Locking the Door During the Lesson

by Cindy Marie Jenkins

From my blog on July 15, 2009 | diary entry from Summer 1999 

I just finished a grant.  But that’s not what this post is about.
The grant made me think about 1999, when I traveled through Romania, Bulgaria and Croatia to study theater.
To say it changed my life is the epitomy of minimization.
But I was really thinking about this woman on the plane.  Direct lift from my diary:

Wed., 6/26 (continued)
I’m on the plane now and sitting in between two of the most interesting people I’ve ever met.  The gentleman to my right is a native Argentinian, though he claims that Buenos Aires is the most European of all the Americas — North, Central & South.  He started learning languages at the age of four, and now knows five.  He teaches at a university in Germany (I think) and is disgusted that when he enters the amphitheatre (his word) that the students do not say “Good morning” back to him.  The three of us got into a heated discussion about how you really cannot blame the children today for their actions.  When the only examples they have of life come from music, TV, video games, etc., where else can they turn to?  He said that they need a family, and gangs provide that sense of family.

The woman–goodness, I don’t even know her name–and I have been chatting for a good portion of the three hours of the flight so far.  She is from Germany originally, but has spent forty-one years in the U.S.  Her father was a German colonel, and the only way she could rebel was to marry an American GI.  But he charmed her father, so it didn’t end up being much of a rebellion.  She had a self-professed American fetish.  When she learned English in school, her teacher hated her work, because she snuck in listening to American radio.  So when she was called on in her English class, she would use American slang.  Now her teacher was an Oxford graduate and he would get sooooo angry that she was slandering the English language.  The other children loved it, and egged her on.  But the teacher couldn’t give her a bad grade, because she did know her English.
So she married this GI who was quite a charmer–which led to their eventual divorce, actually [from me in 2009: Ah, the hindsight, if only I had paid attention] and he was stationed in Florida, then Mississippi.  Man, oh man, did she hate that place.  Besides the constants bugs and gators, what she really despised was the blatant racism.  She would be walking down the street, and a white man was in front of her, also walking.  An 80 year-old woman coming the other way, who was black, had to get off the sidewalk and walk in the street.  She would apparently go home raving.  They only lived in Mississippi from January until June, when they were then stationed in Illinois (two hours outside of Chicago), her husband would joke that he had to get her out of there because she wouldn’t keep her mouth shut.
Then she said that the US had just held the Nuremberg Trials at this time.  All she could think was: take care of your own problems.
When she talked about how important it was to vote, she discussed how Hitler got into power because no educated person took him seriously.  She believes (as do many) that Hitler fed off the cultural discontent started by Versailles.
Many people have asked her how could you (the German people) have “let the Holocaust happen?  Didn’t she know what was going on?” And she had to say no.  “You Americans, born and raised,” she said, “don’t understand what it’s like to live under a dictator.  As many problems as it has, democracy is still the best government around.  But dictators….well, no, we had no idea what was happening.  We didn’t know what was going on until bombs started to drop.  And I don’t know why they only talk about the Jews who were killed.  Anyone who spoke up–priests, men, anybody — were hung from the nearest tree.  And that’s when the people started realizing how many trainloads of people were being taken away.  And then I was eleven years-old when the war was over.  Our teachers were ordered to teach the children collective guilt.  We were all, every single German alive, responsible for what happened.”
When I asked her how they could teach that, she answered, “That’s what they were told to teach [I assume as part of the terms of ending WWII] : collective guilt.  One of my history teachers, though–he would lock the door during his lessons and explain in more detail.”

I raise my glass to teachers never having to lock the door–to the flawed but great democracy in which we live.
Except it’s really a republic, not a democracy.
But I suppose that’s a blog post for another day.