When I was approached to work as a dramaturg on Zach Theatre’s new one-woman adaptation of The Little Mermaid, I was nervous. I grew up on Disney movies. I sang along with Ariel, exploring my underwater cavern and admiring my treasures while brushing my hair with a dinglehopper. For weeks after watching Cinderella, I carefully set a pair of black ballet flats beside my bed to slip into when I woke up, so I could waltz around my bedroom singing with the friendly neighborhood birds. I adored Belle, and I never left home without a book.
But this was in the 80’s before I had any concept of the critical attention given to Disney’s female representations, yes—even my dear Ariel. As an adult, I am no longer an Ariel groupie. I have evolved into a critically engaged graduate student who refuses to buy my nieces anything related to Disney or princesses. So here I was, debating working on this new adaptation of The Little Mermaid, and asking myself: How could I work on a fairytale that portrays dangerous views of femininity, and is so antithetical to my own feminism?
Perhaps needless to say, I accepted the position of dramaturg with a bit of trepidation. I wanted to ensure that I was representing my values and beliefs, while also supporting the Zach Theatre’s goals for this production. Nat Miller, the director, was also concerned about the motivations of the Little Mermaid in her sacrificial quest to become a human. He didn’t believe that the prince solely motivated her actions throughout the story and wanted to delve into other possible motivations.
In order to investigate this, Nat engaged a middle school drama teacher in a dramaturgical partnership and positioned her Drama I students as youth dramaturgs. Before rehearsals began, we held dramaturgical workshops with two different theatre classes. To prepare for the workshop, students read a portion of the script—from the beginning of the story (drawn from Hans Christian Andersen’s original tale), up until the moment when she decides to take the Sea Witch’s potion and lose her voice, giving up her family and life under the sea forever. Our guiding questions for the workshop were, “Why does the Little Mermaid take the potion? What motivates her to make this decision?”
In order to investigate these questions, I facilitated a discussion analyzing the character of the Little Mermaid in her moment of decision. Using the image of a head and shoulders, we wrote the outside forces acting on her in this moment and wrote those on the outside of the shape. Then we connected these external forces with her internal state, naming the thoughts and feelings that resulted from these forces. We embodied these emotions by creating individual and group tableaux and spotlighting some possible thoughts in her head—where the students spoke a line of dialogue or made a sound to vocalize her internal state. Then we improvised a scene where the students embodied good and bad “angels,” offering their advice to the Little Mermaid about why she should, or should not, take the potion.
The youth dramaturgs offered insightful ideas that surprised both the director and me. They deeply identified with the Mermaid’s desire to be something more than herself—to go on adventures and see the world and to finally fit into a world that she so badly wanted to be a part of. The students also felt she may have made this decision out of rebellion—a stubborn refusal to follow the path that her father and grandmother laid out for her. Some of them also connected with the idea that perhaps the Mermaid was living a lie—that she was trying to live in a body that wasn’t indicative of who she really was.
To conclude the workshop I led students through a sociometric activity that asked students to identify their opinions about the Mermaid’s choice. In response to the question “If you were the Little Mermaid, would you take the potion?” some students confided that they would rather make a huge sacrifice to live a life full of adventure, than to live a life full of predictable outcomes.
With the youth dramaturgs’ ideas buzzing in our heads, we returned to the script with fresh eyes. These ideas helped us shape the story around the conflict of a young woman (Mermaid) torn between the person (mermaid!) she was born as and the person she felt she was meant to be. This internal conflict helped us revise the script and craft a story that challenged the storyline many of us are familiar with. With this adaptation, we strived to interrogate and broaden the audience’s experience of this classic tale, and it wouldn’t have been possible without the collective brain trust of the students.
So, what can we gain by engaging young audience members in the art-making process? We can empower young people through the art form by positioning them as experts and embracing the power of their experiences and ideas as young people as potential for art. Lastly, we’re fostering young people who critically engage with and appreciate art. Through intentional youth dramaturgy, we can create spaces where young people feel welcome in the audience and as co-creators in the work.