After a year of various drafts, two readings, an international trip, and a healthy rehearsal process, the latest project I’ve written and directed, A Fairy Tale Life, recently previewed and opened in Chicago. Based on the life of young Hans Christian Andersen, the play weaves togethers biographical elements of Andersen’s life with over 30 of his works including Thumbelina, The Red Shoes, The Emperor’s New Clothes, The Swineherd, and The Nightingale. In addition to blending together Andersen’s life and art, the play also blends together different forms of storytelling like music, dance, and puppetry. Imagine if Mary Zimmerman (Metamorphoses) had a love child with Gregory Maguire (Wicked and Confessions of an Ugly Step-Sister). Before previews, there was a lot of great positive feedback about the show, but of course there were those that feared it was “too sophisticated for kids,” “used too many big words,” and “just wondered if kids would get it.”
The morning of the first preview, I was confident the response of the eager young audience would prove those “too sophisticated” critics wrong… that is… until I saw 350 bundled bodies march through the lobby and take their seats. I don’t know why the rosey faces of Third Graders coming in from the Chicago cold made me begin to doubt everything I had created…. maybe it was the amount of sparkle shoes…. or the High School Musical sweatshirts…. or the coutless number of Bears jackets that whizzed past me….but I began to think maybe the “dumb it down a bit” crowd was on to something….
I immediatley prayed, “Please, please, Patron Saint of of Original Children’s Plays I hope these Third Graders love my play even though it is not starring Hannah Montana. Please, let them have fun even though the Disney Channel had nothing to do with it. I hope they discover and feel something!!!!!”
The lights dimmed and….. the house was silent…. one of the most attentive preview audiences I’ve ever seen!!! They laughed and cheered… and literally gasped and applauded…. but they got it! They ate all that “too sophisticated” stuff up! In fact in the post show talk, many of them identified with the imaginary world that young Hans had created for himself. Many of the “too sophisitcated” posse were excited that yes indeed the audience went there with their hearts and immaginations…
While driving back home I laughed at my morning’s insecurities and wondered, “Why does challenging a children’s audience past the limits of Nickolodeon and Noggin still make some people nervous?” Then I called upon the Patron Saint of Original Children’s Plays again and asked, “Hasn’t this challanging our audiences debate been going on since the beginning of time???”
Tim Frank as the teen Hans Christian Andersen in A Fairy Tale Life.