Arts Features & Reviews

TVY Rising: Peeking Inside Theater for the Very Young

If you don’t spend time around babies regularly, bringing them to the theater — say, for a performance of Theater for the Very Young, or TVY — may be a strange concept. As primary caretaker to a 3-year-old and a 10-month-old, I’m often astonished by how very simple parts of our world can entertain them for extended periods of time. As I type this introduction, my own baby is completely consumed with trying to open my water bottle. He also stayed enthralled through 45 minutes of the clown antics of Beau and Aero at the Orlando Fringe Festival (suggested age: 7 and up).

For overviews of TVY, as distinct from Theater for Young Audiences (TYA), read these good articles in American Theatre and The New Yorker. I want to help artists understand how to create better, smarter theater for all ages, so I interviewed playwright Madhuri Shekar, who worked with the Alliance Theatre in Georgia to adapt the picture book A Bucket of Blessings into TVY.

Read more on The Clyde FItch Report.

Why TYA Should Join the Dark Side (of Fairy Tales): my extended interview with Gypsy Thornton part 1

I had the pleasure to interview Gypsy Thornton of Once Upon a Blog recently. Segments of our interview appeared in the article “Why TYA Should Join the Dark Side (of Fairy Tales)”, but she had such great insight that I gained permission to publish our extended interview. 

CINDY MARIE JENKINS: Sometimes people are surprised to hear how dark the origins of their favorite fairy tales are. Why do you think that is?

GYPSY THORNTON: I think this comes from generations where people have been exposed to Disney and ‘softened’ retellings more than the traditional fairy tale collections kids grew up with before. Before video, you couldn’t just ‘pop on a show’ to entertain the kids so story collections were very popular. Collections of fairy tales before the 80’s often included one or two lesser known ones and although the language was always kid-friendly, there were usually hints in the text and illustrations that both initial conditions and, eventually, punishments for the evil-doers were quite severe.

Enter Disney marketing the new ‘princess culture’ of the 80’s that began with their hit animated musical

Marissa Meyer’s sci-fi adaptation of The Little Mermaid follows the original much more closely than Disney. -CMJ

The Little Mermaid, and the era of PC tale telling of the 90’s. Absolutes tended to disappear. Evil wasn’t so much ‘evil’ as misunderstood, and everything and everyone could be rehabilitated. 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 and punishment is given when they’re broken. When villains are vanquished, despite that there is often death involved, kids are greatly comforted by the fact that death is final, meaning that evil- or evil person – cannot return. The hero and heroine are now safe to truly live happily ever after, and the kids feel they personally are too.

One of the effects of ‘soft’ fairy tales is that you end up with watered down versions of the tale, which makes them easier to dismiss. They’re less relevant to life as they no longer have as much resonance and kids don’t learn many valuable things from them anymore. Fairy tales weren’t a variety of stories with elements of wonder anymore – they became distillations of dreams, magic and the incredibly fantastical. Magic had flourishes and sparkles, a thrilling soundtrack and cheering at the end of every story. Unlike the stories of real people with an element of the fantastic that gave them choices, all the new protagonists were already special and magical things happened because of it.

The big take-away is that fairy tales are for ‘little kids’ and people who can’t deal with reality. I don’t think it’s a coincidence we’ve ended up with generations that are taking longer to leave home, to get married and start their own families. Being able to deal with ambiguity, having tools to battle challenges and fears and encouraging creative thinking – these are all things embedded in the ‘less sparkly’ fairy tales. When you read and hear these ‘less fantastical’ tales as children, with their black and white boundaries, their clear-cut rules and rewards, it’s a safe forum to learn these things from and to expand your understanding into as your knowledge of the world grows. When you read them for the first time as an adult, the full weight of all the implications can crash in at once, making them seem a little frightening. Despite being obviously fantasy, they can feel ‘too real’. It’s an interesting irony.

One of the things almost guaranteed to make fairy tale students and scholars groan is an article that pronounces ‘you’ll never believe the dark origins of your favorite fairy tales!’. Every second headline seems to be using this ‘clickbait’ these days, but talk to anyone who found an ‘old fairy tale’ in a difficult childhood and you’ll hear they were, and remain useful tools – for hope. [CMJ note: see my article about the musical Into the Woods]

Photo credit unknown.

The quote that ‘fairy tales are more than true – not because they tell us that dragons exist, but that we can defeat them’ (GK Chesterton) is well worn but remains so relevant. In the ‘sensational’ discovery of ‘horrors’ in older versions of fairy tales, people can’t help but see 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. A surface glance will indeed make people shy away if they’re unfamiliar, but fairy tales have staying power, not (just) because they dwell in the dark places (and recognize life is sometimes awful), but particularly because they show people the possibility of coming out the other side.

Hope is a powerful thing and fairy tales have that in spades. Nice fairy tales are ‘nice’ and are great for dreaming. There is nothing wrong with that – at all. But fairy tales that encourage you to get up on your remaining limbs and keep going? They’re the ones that tell you life is worth living, no matter how tough it gets. Unlike dreams that have a tendency to vanish in disillusionment, these are the stuff of hope. Unfortunately, in our contemporary era, the trade off of (relative) stability is that we have a tendency to try and shield our children from disillusionment, instead of seeing it as inevitable and preparing them to cope.

Read the series “Talking TYA on The Clyde Fitch Report, including “Why TYA Should Join the Dark Side (of Fairy Tales)”, (part 2).

Read more from Gypsy Thornton on Once Upon a Blog

Honoring the Tony Winners That CBS Didn’t Show

The Tony Awards broadcast continued a long-standing protocol this year. Namely that numerous awards were given prior to the CBS broadcast, with clips shown after breaks — you know, when everyone in your viewing party is rushing back from the bathroom or filling their libations. Many people on Twitter, for instance, were surprised and unhappy that James Earl Jones’ acceptance speech for a Lifetime Achievement Award was not aired.

Among these honorees are the designers, people without whom the worlds of each production, we can all agree, would not exist.

Read more at The Clyde Fitch Report. 

 

We Watch, Too: A Parents’ Roundtable on Theater for Kids

In my first entry of this Theater for Young Audiences (TYA) series, I said I didn’t want to make assumptions on what people think or want from children’s theater. I know most of my desires for pushing the conventions of TYA come from my own childhood and from my new experiences of introducing a small human to the theater. But I was left wondering: How do other parents feel? I interviewed four mothers to see how, and if, their experiences aligned with mine.

I spoke with a mother of three who chose to remain anonymous. I’ll refer to her as Jane in this article. Her children are two, five and eight. Aubrie Canfield has a three-year-old and 10-month-old. Shellie Gauthier has a three-year-old, 13-year-old twins and a 15-year-old. Enci Box has a two-year-old and five-year-old.

Read more at The Clyde Fitch Report. 

 

It Wasn’t Diversity That Killed Comic Sales, It Was These Archaic Publishing Methods

I want to read more comic books. I want to be a regular reader of a series and follow a character through a larger arc, then be intrigued by another character and go down the rabbit hole of their story. But the way that comics are released just doesn’t work for me anymore.

I’ve tried. I’ll wait months for a title to be available in trade if it means I can read it when I want to read it—on my schedule and terms. Asher Elbein’s new piece in The Atlantic explains why many of my favorites are canceled or in peril by the time I buy their trades, and that just drives me more and more to the indie presses, or even away from comics at all. It is no coincidence that the more so-called “diverse,” i.e. not default white male, titles are the ones that interest me (Alex Brown says a lot of how I feel whenever “diversity” is blamed for poor sales.). If you haven’t kept up with the billionth Spiderman or which Robin is actually Robin since before you were born, it seems like there’s no place for you.

Read more at The Mary Sue. 

A Modern “Poe Man” at Orlando Fringe

I love fringe festivals. They’re such a great way to take chances on new art and artists, and I devote time every year to coverage of the Hollywood Fringe Festival. I didn’t get to attend as much as I wanted to at Orlando Fringe this year, but here are my thoughts on what I did see.  

You choose a one-man Poe show at a Fringe Festival, your odds are 50/50 at best.

PoeMan_2017_450

Devennie has a series of images for his show, and this is my second favorite.

I’m glad I caught Poe Man by Joe Devennie: I admittedly entered the show a bit snobbish and left with a firm appreciation of Poe’s lasting effect on the American psyche.

 

I think of Poe, I think early America: rough, young yet still slightly tinged with a British sound. That’s why I’m glad Devennie begins with “The Telltale Heart”. His no-frills approach to the language eases you into his way of telling this story, his Poe — closer to the cool High School English teacher than a muggy idea of Poe drowning in its own importance and expectations.

Devennie draws his “Telltale Heart” narrator straight from the headlines of “He was such a nice, normal boy. I had no idea he could do this sort of thing” [19th century spoilers: he murders a housemate because the old man’s eye puts him off.] We are at least five minutes into his telling before Devennie even raises his voice or shows any signs beyond normalcy. You could be asking him where the nearest bathroom is before he slips into the first sign that something is not quite right.

It’s a great way to present this story, and one that feels all too real in the American of today.

Hop-Frog

I don’t recall ever reading this one. A dwarf, forced into slavery as a court jester (and often the subject of ridicule as well), takes a well planned, maniacal revenge on the King who causes his and his only friend pain.

Devennie uses his well-honed storytelling chops to great effect. I found myself wishing we were actually around a campfire, hearing his words illuminated by chance with fire. Also, love this story! Any show that makes me want to crack open that thick hardcover of The Collected Works of Poe I’ve had for two years has earned its ticket price.

Poe’s description of the slow toll that abuse and bullying takes on a person’s psyche also feels too relevant and real in today’s world.

The Raven

Devennie started The Raven strong, with an old Southern “let me tell you a story on my front porch but I’ve had a few too many” vibe. It was well done and Devennie certainly more than did it justice. The character, however, didn’t reveal anything new about the story. I almost wish he had never left his “porch chair,” and told the whole tale from there. Even though it didn’t add up, ending a Poe adventure on “Nevermore” is never a poor choice.

His last show is an hour after I am publishing this, but he is an Orlando Fringe regular, so keep him on your radar for next year. 

 

PoeManSuperman

This is my favorite image for his show. 

 

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

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)

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