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?
It’s easy to blame Disney for sanitizing fairy tales. Rewatching Cinderella (even Disney’s version that embodies post-World War II American optimism), I couldn’t believe how much screen time was taken up — literally — by the cat-and-mouse game. Yet most Disney movies begin with the death of one or both parents, usually the mother. I’ve seen many movies with my son where one or both parents die, and the only one that upset him was a non-Disney movie, The Land Before Time, presumably because the death isn’t glossed over with a narrator or obscured imagery. You see Little Foot’s mother killed by a T-Rex and you feel that loss. We can see movies for children unafraid to turn their protagonists into orphans in the first five minutes, but theatrical adaptations often won’t allow the villains to be scary, opting to make them buffoons instead.
To look deeper into this issue, I interviewed Gypsy Thornton of Once Upon a Blog and Debbie Devine, director of Bryan Davidson’s TYA play Hansel and Gretel: Bluegrass, running at LA’s 24th ST Theatre through May 21, featuring the noted TV actor Bradley Whitford. I wanted to discuss darkness in fairy tales and why theater artists really can embrace it.
Cindy Marie Jenkins: Gypsy, sometimes people are surprised to hear how dark original fairy tales are. Why do you think that is?
Gypsy Thornton: In the “sensational” discovery of “horrors” in older versions of fairy tales, people can’t help but see that they can’t be dismissed as easily. They speak on many harsh things, and, as such, can be related to the harshness of real life; they show people the possibility of coming out the other side. Hope is a powerful thing and fairy tales have that in spades. People are once again discovering fairy tales have teeth. The older tales’ explorations of both the good and bad in humanity, and the fact that the choices people do or don’t make have serious consequences, are like a wake-up call. In our relatively comfortable way of living — no actual wolves in actual woods; infant mortality rare, not common — and with helicopter parenting and every child winning a prize, we still find our own childhoods harsh but the childhoods of hundreds of years past were much more frightening than that. How did people survive? We shudder at the thought.
CMJ: Debbie, in your research, did you find any stage adaptations of Hansel and Gretel as dark as the original tale?
Debbie Devine: It was as if every production was afraid to tell the tale of children being abandoned by their parents. They just didn’t want to go there; they didn’t want to tell that tale. And we very much wanted to tell it, so [we set it] in Appalachia in 1830s coal mining [because] we discovered that, in fact, during the Depression, the coal-mining towns were so horrible that the parents were leaving their children behind, knowing that — hoping that — they would be better taken care of. That somehow they would survive because the coal-mining towns were just so awful, terrible and terrifying and dangerous. So they, out of love, did this.
CMJ: I can understand parents in the audience being hesitant to let their kids think they’d abandon them, even out of love. We want our children to know we will keep them safe, but there are a number of ways we can give their fear a name so they can pinpoint it, maybe cry over it, then confront it and conquer it.
Another question I had: is it harder for a stage production to go as dark as an original fairy tale because of the very nature of it being performed live, with no barriers between emotions and the audience?
GT: Kids ask real questions and if things aren’t neatly tied in a safe bow, that can become something a parent may have to deal with — something they’re perhaps not ready for. There’s also the idea that fairy tales are “sugar tales” — full of fantasy, pretend and magical things, all of which shouldn’t really impact long-term thinking or world perception. Fairy tales are the opposite, of course, as anyone trying to adapt a fairy tale to the stage knows when they begin to do their research. I do feel if more awareness was given to this aspect when writing theater for youth, theater for multi-generational audiences, it would change a lot of approaches to the production, including the tendency to talk down to younger audiences.
CMJ: It seems there are certain tools we can use to create better, more intelligent theater for young audiences. Debbie, what did you and Bryan use to keep the play all-ages accessible?
DD: Music has become very important — understanding how to use it more effectively. The bluegrass of The Get Down Boys, which performs in the show, is really upbeat, toe-tapping, melodic music — right there in very dark stories. It’s this wonderful juxtaposition and works perfectly for this story because you’re seduced by the music, but the lyrics were so heartbreaking.
CMJ: Did you find yourself making any changes that did lighten the story in any way?
DD: The father who abandons the children goes to look for them. It is a turning point in the story. He realizes what he’s done…but [the audience] realizes they don’t need him. They needed him in the beginning, but they have each other now. They have the strength and the power. So it has that classic ending that everything is going to be all right.
GT: Ironically, one of the things I’ve found helps kids feel safe is when things are more extreme: black and white, good and evil, rules are rules, punishment is given when they’re broken. When villains are vanquished, despite death often being involved, kids are greatly comforted by the fact that death is final, meaning that evil — or an evil person — cannot return.
CMJ: At 24th ST, there’s a cool educational program encouraging students to tackle villainy through their own adaptation of Jack and the Beanstalk. But Debbie also mentioned that some parents are afraid to send their kids to any place where immigration agents can find them.
DD: We wanted to do [a fairy tale] that had darkness around it — that had the power of really speaking to the resilience of children, and that absolutely is connected to our community and what they are facing and continue to face. We have always believed that children have the capacity to stand up to anxiety and fear and difficulties — that fairy tales were designed to help children understand how to do that, to give them that courage.