Dallas — A much needed respite from the heat is upon us. There is something magical about the fall in Texas. Bright, crisp skies signal endless possibilities; shorter, cooler days harken back to school nights with the excitement of Halloween right around the corner. As temperatures turn cooler and thoughts turn to Autumn, many theaters in Dallas begin new seasons. It is the perfect time for storytelling.
There appears to be a trend this fall in Dallas theaters: Fairytales.
Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine famously repurposed multiple fairytales for their 1987 musical Into the Woods. Each story (Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk, Rapunzel) begins as we know it. But after each plot plays out, we see the continuation of each in a way the original tales do not; each story lends itself to a different moral, which is really the intention of fairytales. They give endless possibilities for teaching lessons, and exist in every culture on earth. Fairytales have also seen a resurgence on TV with shows like Once Upon a Time and Grimm.
Both WingSpan Theatre Company and The Drama Club have tapped into these ideas this year and will begin their respective seasons with fairytales. They won’t be the kind we’re used to though.
The Drama Club, coming off a killer reentry into to the Dallas scene with last year’s Faust, will present Wild, Wicked, Wyrd: Fairytale Time, a collection of four short plays adapted by Dallas playwrights from fairy-tales and folklore from around the world. John M. Flores melds Mayan mythology, trickster tales of the Koasati Tribe, and a White River Sioux legend for his plays Lighter Than Air and Just Desserts; Michael Federico pulls from the Brothers Grimm, Irish lullabies, and old American music for Mother Holly; and Maryam Obaidullah Baig draws inspiration from the 18th -Century story Masnavi Sihr Ul Bayan by Mir Hasan and her own tale of the Whataburger Tree for Jo Chaho Tum. Wild, Wicked, Wyrd will also run in repertory with The Incident, a mysterious and dark evening of storytelling of its own.
Husband and wife team Producing Director Lydia Mackay and Executive Artistic Director Jeffrey Schmidt run The Drama Club along with Managing Director Whitney Holotik and a company of artists who each bring different talents to the table.
Mackay was intrigued by the idea of fairytales because of their endless possibilities. The company exists on a small budget and a story with no limits was very appealing.
Holotik says the creative freedom in fairytales lends itself to endless possibilities: “They are the earliest form of storytelling, and they all seem to have a darker element.”
The Drama Club artists all seem to be attracted to a macabre sensibility, says Mackay, who played Mephistopheles in Faust. She liked that her character wasn’t an “exact representation of evil, it wasn’t too on the nose.” Darker elements with a lighter touch appeal to The Drama Club.
For Wild, Wicked, Wyrd each playwright created new stories rooted in ancient myths or folktales from around the world. Maryam Obaidullah Baig’s story draws from a Pakistani myth that she’s woven into modern day Texas. John Flores wrote two plays based on native and meso-American folktales. Mackay says she was blown away by Flores’ writing.
“He’s an incredibly prolific writer. We told him we wanted him to write a new play and he came back with three he had written just in preparation for the play he wanted to write,” Mackay says.
Flores has also created sound design for the plays with Jim Kuenzer. Schmidt, who co-directs WWW with Christie Vela (Flores’ wife), quips that he’d like a performance of just watching the two of them manage all the wires from the sound setup they’ve created for the plays.
For WingSpan Theatre Company, Producing Artistic Director Susan Sargeant wanted the perfect fit for its 19th season. “WingSpan’s Mission Statement is about bringing quality plays that have seldom or never been seen in Dallas/Fort Worth, with an emphasis on plays written by and/or about women.
Breadcrumbs by Jennifer Haley uses fairytale iconography to “investigate and explore the dark woods of the past,” says Sargeant. A character struggling with memory loss is an accurate template for a fairytale. The two-hander features an older writer and her young caregiver following a “breadcrumb” trail to uncover the past. Haley received the 2012 Susan Smith Blackburn Award for her play The Nether, which had its regional premiere at Stage West in the spring.
Stephanie Dunnam plays half of the two-woman play, and says her first impression was the beautiful language of the play.
The images that are conjured can have a magical and poignant quality that is almost surreal, while still containing universal experiences and responses to those life experiences,” Dunnam says. “Knowing that it aligns with the Hansel and Gretel fairytale gives us a freedom that is not always possible with a more realistic environment.”
Dunnam’s co-star, Catherine D. DuBord, says the magnificent thing about fairytales is that they are universal. “You find them in all cultures, all continents, all races and all levels of society. Fairytales are written versions, that originally derived from oral traditions. They serve as transitional material to introduce the youngest generation to the darker aspects of real life.”
A play about memory and loss can take on many dark elements, Both actresses agreed it was important to explore those aspects of the human mind. DuBord discussed the take on Hansel and Gretel, “in the beginning, we venture into the dark, dangerous woods where both characters are forced to fight for their own survival.”
Dunnam explained how fairytales remind her of dreams and the symbolism that can exist in explaining dreams.
“Joseph Campbell’s The Power of Myth has been influential throughout my career. In his research, he confirmed the fact that many fairytales from different cultures in the west have similar characters and storylines, tying us together in ways we may not realize consciously," Dunnam says. "The concept of an Everyman or Everywoman sharing universal feelings about life may be as a result of these fairytales or mythology that we share.”
Sargeant was drawn to the idea of the fairytale as a way of exploring the human psyche. She says they have played a part in everyone’s life, helping us find meaning and serving as a “pathway to discovering our essential selves.”
These two theaters are creatively exploring the potential that exists in myth and storytelling. Tales that mold over time, adapting to virtually any situation are blank slates. The differences in the works The Drama Club and WingSpan are producing demonstrate the malleability of the fairytale. Each will explore different facets of humanity while still sussing out some kind of essential truth in the world.
After Jack climbs the beanstalk in Into the Woods, he sings about the journey he’s just made into the sky, reminding the audience that the journey is just as much here as it is there:
The roof, the house, and your Mother at the door.
The roof, the house and the world you never thought to explore.
And you think of all of the things you've seen,
And you wish that you could live in between,
And you're back again,
Only different than before,
After the sky.
» More info in our calendar listing for Breadcrumbs, which has a preview on Oct. 6, opens Oct. 7 and runs through Oct. 22 at the Bath House Cultural Center
» More info in our calendar listing for Wild, Wicked, Wyrd: Fairytale Time, which runs Oct. 15-29 at Bryant Hall on the Kalita Humphreys Theater campus
You can usually find a production of Into the Woods somewhere in DFW, but we recommend the national tour of the Fiasco Theater production coming to AT&T Performing Arts Center in May 2017. More info here