Saturday, January 12, 2013

On Fairy Tales and Netflix

A few days ago, I returned to Maryland from my Christmas break in Florida. I found most of my vacation rejuvenating if for no other reason than because I spent most of it in bed with the cold that would not end. I was not stuck in bed long before I decide to renew my Netflix account. Originally, I planned to spend my time in Florida learning how to drive and possibly taking a test to get my driver's licence. Instead, I worked through three seasons of Doctor Who in two or three days (it's hard to remember exactly because there was a lot of coughing, spitting up phlegm, and watching Community as well). I was not in a state to spend much time with anyone in a meaningful way, but the desire to recuse myself into the comforting realm of episodic narratives probably devoured more hours than it needed to as 2012 drew to a close. These circumstances--as well as behaviors in the past that inspired me to delete my account a few weeks ago--prompted my desire to articulate a New Year's Resolution that addressed my addiction to Netflix marathoning. 

However, on the penultimate day of my trip--a point by which I had felt better for a while--I used my Netflix account for good. I introduced my six-and-a-half year old niece to Stephen Sondheim's Into the Woods. Notes on my niece and Sondheim's masterpiece are important. Stella lives with my parents and has enjoyed a Disney upbringing. From seeing her Christmas presents and room decorations over the years, I can assure you that Disney has more to offer girls than their stock princess line. In fact, they almost design the princess model for an older aged girl, the age Stella is becoming now. Prior to that there's a big emphasis on fairies--Tinkerbell and her cadre of friends. It's the line of products that comes before the princess parade. Which now that I think of it is genius not only for marketing purposes (I think three to five year old girls would be inclined to like fairies more than princesses) but also for consumption--the switch will mean that the same customer will be willing to buy a new line of merchandise since they no longer are interested in the previous permutation you sold to them. Well, there's Uncle Allan and his jaded but realistic understanding of the Disney corporation's economic agendas. The point is Stella is a child of the Disney demographic and is getting ready to enter her era of the princess. As a card-carrying feminist, I have my feelings about the princess persona which are fairly predictable; so I don't feel like I need to rehearse them here. 

Pictured: Spice Girls Reunion Tour Poster

If Stella ends up liking Disney princesses, at the end of the day, that's not going to bother me too much.Because I can always use what Disney has made fascinating and familiar to her and show her a more excellent way. Cinderella means something to her; she knows about Little Red Riding Hood; she loves Rapunzel. These are characters that resonate with her--and less than a week ago I got to share with her some very different permutations of those stories. Into the Woods is a musical that Sondheim wrote back in the 1980s: it interweaves the stories of various familiar fairy tale characters--particularly those of the Brothers Grimm. It maintains the dark undertones and content of a number of the stories (Cinderella's step-mother cuts off the toes and heels of her step-sisters so their feet will fit into the slipper; the step-sisters are blinded by birds; Rapunzel's prince is blinded by falling from her tower; Little Red Riding Hood is eaten by the wolf), while maintaining an overall comedic sensibility. (It's like Once Upon a Time if it were written by people who did not assume their audience was made of idiots completely incapable of following a story . . . Sorry: I've been marathoning on Once Upon a Time lately). Into the Woods is a dark comedy, but one that is light and fun for the whole family. And Netflix offers a filmed version of the Broadway theatrical staging of the musical.

It's Sondheim, so it's clever and very witty. And one thing I love about it is that its return to the source material for the fairy tales reinvigorates the ethics and moral ambiguities of the stories that Disney purposefully eliminated. Disney told fairy tales as melodramas: worlds were morally polarized, good triumphed while evil languished, and music advanced the plot. Into the Woods specifically deals with the harder ambiguities of morality in adult life. Little Red Riding Hood eventually observes that "good is different than nice." And the Witch proclaims, "You're not bad; you're not good. You're just nice." And as the show comes to an end there are songs about characters needing to figure out what good means by themselves because no one can do that for you. But ultimately, the musical then turns in on itself and makes evident its question about whether or not these stories that many people have used to teach moral lessons to children are good tales to tell.

Audio: "Children Will Listen Finale" ... God Bless Bernadette Peters

There were times when my niece was bored and moments when she left the room for a little bit. But it was a three hour play and she watched most of it. She even wanted to watch it again the next day; and we did. The music is not like Disney; it's harder to memorize. She can't parrot lyrics or even tunes from it like she can songs from Tangled. Part of that is familiarity, and part of that is just that Sondheim write more complex and demanding music that's by its nature more challenging for professionals much less children. But she liked seeing the characters. And she liked watching them with me. 

At the time she kept asking me a question: is it real? Did they really cut off the toe? Did wolf really eat Little Red Riding Hood? Does the witch really have magic? These are not questions she asked of Tangled or The Little Mermaid or even a live action film like Enchanted. There was a part of each of those films that conveyed to her their artificiality. The theatrical production produced a little more ambiguity and a little more magic. It created stories she knew but didn't know. She didn't understand why they didn't show the Giant or the beanstalk that Jack sings about, but their absence did not prevent her from understanding the course of the story. I have no doubt she missed many things, including the main points of the film. From now on, any given day, I'm sure she'd still pick to watch Tangled more often than Into the Woods. I have no illusions that I have forever altered her commitment to Disney stories. But that little piece of theatre did open her eyes to different stories and different magic: worlds and conventions she doesn't know how to understand yet. She now has seen a piece of the medium that means so much to me.

When I was at home, for some reason, I remembered the time I was in fourth grade when I wrote a play. I wrote about our class taking a trip to the Kennedy Space Center (we may have gone to Space Camp that year); three other students and I wandered onto a shuttle and went to the moon or Mars. We came across a monster on whatever celestial body it was that we landed on before coming home. What I wrote was not the thing that stuck with me. No: it was that I took what was probably an off-handed comment by the student-teacher who was in charge of our class for a few weeks to heart. After I shared my play, she said something about putting it on sometime. And I am pretty sure the reason it ended up happening is because I probably asked her about it ad nauseam until she allocated time for us to do it. And whether for our pedagogical development or to get me off her back, the show did indeed go on. We did a little reader's theatre. There were copies of the script for the six or seven of us in the production. Casting was easy because most of the actors were playing themselves. The exceptions were Nick Dewey who was the alien monster and Ashley Vaughn who was the student teacher I pestered. (I honestly don't know why I remember their names; I can't remember the three students who went into space with me). We didn't really do any direction or preparation. We just read the scripts and acted part of it out--like having four seats arranged like how I thought they'd be in a space shuttle.

Is it plagiarism if you unintentionally lift the plot from an 80's film that no one remembers? 

I think about that little incident and it just makes me feel like I have so much I can write about. Whether I want to say something about myself and the path of my life or about theatre itself and how most of it is just annoying people to let you put on your show, I'm not sure. Maybe all of those things are for another post. But here's what I am thinking now: theatre connected me to other people, students and my teacher, in a way Netflix rarely has. That's what theatre has always been for me--making things, making me, feel less alone. When connections occur, the strict moral polarities you though you knew, the poetic justice you thought would be in so many things--it fades away. Its disappearance is scary and daunting but it opens your eyes to a world of conventions you have yet to learn; things you don't understand, but will. And the connections that opened your eyes in the first place can inform your education. I find it beautiful and ironic that on the cusp of the resolution, a brilliant piece of theatre provided by Netflix let me find such a connection with my niece. We both see things new and have each other to share that with. This trip--into the woods--it is a far, far better marathon than I have ever known before.