Monday, April 22, 2019

If you build it, we know they will come…. but if you challenge them?

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.

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    0 Response

    1. kpkovac

      kids have always been capable of more than we give them credit for, which is a great thing. many of us just get sucked into a lowest common denominator mentality, based on no child left behind and history. or, we get into a once burned twice shy mentality instead of continuing to push the curves….


    2. I was one of those people with concerns about “Fairy Tale Life” and whether the younger kids in the audience, age 5-7, would follow the more narrative biographical elements of this show. I have a great deal of confidence in Ernie’s mastery of visualizing stories for young children – but still found myself holding my breath a little. It was exciting to see this age group enraptured by the show! However, I caution us all to not get wrapped up in the “dumb it down” debate. I think that is a broad and vague statement. I’m pretty confident no producer, director, writer actor and so on will say they WANT to dumb down a production. I think the challenge is making a show age appropriate and really understanding who your audience is. We all know there is an enormous developmental difference between a 5 year old and an 8 year old. My bigger concern is we’ve really struggled to get audiences in for “A Fairy Tale Life” despite it being called “A must see” by That to me is the bigger concern for us all! How can we “challenge them” AND get them to come?! Karen Cardarelli, Executive/Artistic Director, Emerald City Theatre

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