Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Article Series: Why Do Theaters Tend To Dumb Down Fairy Tales?

Julie Taymor's The Magic Flute
Why DO theaters tend to go 'kiddie' in adapting fairy tales? Why the insistence on political correctness and happy endings for every one? Even the bad guys?
Matthew Bourne's Sleeping Beauty

Fairy tale friend Cindy Marie Jenkins, who writes for The Clyde Fitch Report ("the nexus of Art and Politics"), is currently doing an in depth article series, posted monthly, over the period of a year, investigating and discussing how we can make better, smarter theater for young audiences, or, as a theatrical colleague said: "We want to do children's theater that doesn't suck!"
Theater Rudolstadt's Pinocchio
In her introductory article, Cindy mentions:
Since the only “kids” show I remember seeing as a child was A.R.T.’s production of The King Stag, with puppets by Julie Taymor, it’s hard for me to stomach anything that dumbs down story for children. They are much more intelligent than most TYA (Theater for Young Audiences) gives them credit for being.
BalletLORENT's Rapunzel

We agree. Kids theater in general tends toward 'safe', but fairy tale theater tends to take that to the extreme, crossing the line from 'safe' into downright saccharine. But why? It certainly doesn't need to. Why is this the trend? What is it about children's theater, and even more so, fairy tales, that causes productions to develop in this direction?
Imago Theater's La Belle: Lost in the World of the Automaton (Beauty & the Beast)

Our Fairy Tale News Hound originally came from a working theater background of many years and has quite a few thoughts on the subject. Fortuitously, she was asked to be interviewed to discuss the issues with adapting fairy tales in particular, and with the introduction up and the investigation well underway, we thought it was high time to share so you can follow along if you're interested too.

You can find the introduction, 

The second installment, which our Fairy Tale News Hound had the opportunity to chime in on, along with Debbie Devine, the director of 24th Street's recommended production Hansel and Gretel: Bluegrass, is titled:
which you can find HERE.

To bookmark the series you can click on the screenshot image above, or go HERE, searching with the tag Talking TYA.
Note: All images shown here are from recommended productions, that is, "not sucky" fairy tale theater, to which you can take confidently take young folk to enjoy and experience quality shows and performances.
24th Street Theater's Hansel and Gretel: Bluegrass


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  2. I grew up visiting the Brüder-Grimm-Märchenfestspiele (Brothers Grimm Fairytale Festival - the "fairytale" has since been dropped from the title to be more inclusive of their other work) each year. And each year there were surprises. A tale which one writer, one director saw as a deep family tragedy could get adapted into light-hearted fun-for-the-whole-family two years later. And vice versa. But both approaches worked and most plays were really good.
    Of course not all plays were. Not every ambitious script is a good script. Not every goofy performance is a funny performance. But all writers all directors were clearly trying to convey a message. And I appreciated that as a child. The plays were suited for children, but they were written for a general audience.

    Now that wasn't always working out. Once the adults in the production did not notice that all 12 fairies dropping their metal plates at once when the evil fairy cursed Sleeping Beauty was too much for the sensitive ears of children. Some plays were critizised for being too dark for children (I remember a performance of the Evil Queen from Snow White that as an 8-year old I could stomach, but was maybe too scary for the younger kids in the audience judging by their reactions) or simply going over their heads. Others were seen as too simplistic for adult viewers. I've since moved and don't have the chance to go to the festival anymore but from what I heard they started determining suggested minimum ages for each play, the result being that now there is a designated "kiddie" play each year that gets the "Ages 4 and up" seal. To me that is a bit sad, as it does away with the premise that the festival was entertainment for all ages, but if it means that the rest of the plays gets to stay mature and 4 year olds don't get traumatized by evil queens anymore, maybe it's a good decision.

    Except for the "all ages" approach there is something else that sets the festival apart from other fairy tale productions: The Brothers Grimm are right in the title and therefore straying too far from the source material is frowned upon by critics and audiences. I wonder how limiting that feels to the writers, especially since there always is at least one new script per season and the number of tales that can fill 2 hours is limited, which means new aporoacges to old tales are needed. The good thing of course is that kiddifying the plot is not an option. Tales are not forcefully made harmless to be "Ages 4 and up". A Hansel and Gretel without famine and abandonment would not be accepted by the audience. Instead the "Ages 4 and up" plays are baswd on tales that are already onthe harmless side.

    Maybe that's a good takeaway? If a theatre company is uncomfortable with showing darker aspects of fairy tales to young children, why adapt dark fairy tales at all? There is a lot of positive, kid-friendly folklore to pick from that often isn't any worse than the classics. Folklorr that has its own story to tell and own message to convey. Especially if you're not limited to Grimm, but have the whole world to pick from.

    But I know what the problem is. Both adapting well-known "dark" fairy tales and lesser known light-hearted ones means taking risks. And that seems to be what those creators are afraid of.

    But isn't that what theatre prides itself on? That unlike evil, corporate Hollywood theatre takes risks? A shame that theatre for children seems to be the exception. Children especially deserve high-quality entertainment.