Sarah Grimke is a Philadelphia producer

Espie is a queer mixed race director and producer

 

Sarah

So did you see an evening show or a school matinee?

Espie

I saw a Sunday matinee so the audience was almost entirely parents and their children

Sarah

Pockets- I’ve worked for and with the Arden before, and while I have some questions about the work environment there, and I’m not always in love with their season choice- I am always 100% in love with the work they do for children. So, I wanted to like it.

Espie

I didn’t have a ton in my pockets other than working with a few of the actors.  I’ve actually never seen a show at the Arden before and was really excited to see their children’s theatre.  Also, it’s been awhile since I had seen a musical, and I was really ready and looking forward to getting swept up in song.

Sarah

Do you want to start with design? It was upstairs in their smaller stage, the Arcadia theater, and in the proscenium setup for that space. I’m always amazed what they do in that room, ’cause I can tell you from experience there’s not much to work with. very little grid height, very little- if any- wing space.

Espie

I thought having the clouds on the pulleys was such a smart way to communicate flight.

Sarah

They used the height they did have really well. There were ladders hidden on the sides of the stage so that the lead character, who is supposed to fly, could be “on the ceiling” while everyone else was below. That plus the pulleys gave some great effects. Nick Benacerraf did set, and this made me want to see what else he can do. I hope to see his work again soon.

Plus, with puppets and these kinds of effects- it just made me feel like I was looking inside a kid’s imagination. I just immediately felt like kids were going to go home and use sheets to represent water and climb trees to pretend they were flying.

Espie

I didn’t think about that, but that is so true. At times, I got distracted by the amount of blue sheets that were used to represent the lake.  There were a few points where I found myself thinking about how swallowed up the actors were by all of that blue as opposed to what was going on in the scene.

Sarah

That didn’t happen for me, but I could also tell that the staging was pretty sight-line dependent so I might have just had a good seat for those moments. I definitely didn’t have a great seat for some, so that makes sense.  Were you high up or lower down? The Arcadia has a very steep bank of seats.

Espie

I was low – in the second row.

Sarah

I was a little more than midway up and I could tell that my height was a real advantage to the swimming scenes. I feel like a raked stage might have helped them with sightlines, but again they would have lost some playing space. 

Those seats are just so steep that the difference between views is massive for each person, and Steve Pacek, while a wonderful performer, is relatively new to directing and that’s a hard space to direct in.

Espie

I agree about the raked stage. It is a tricky space – I wished that the area that was used as the Light Princess’ window was used for more than one song

Sarah

That’s true. I feel like this show needed more playing area. I would love to see remounted with more space and some script changes. Since they were pressed for space,  have a playing space only be used once seemed like a wasted opportunity.

Lighting did a good job in that I didn’t notice it and I think that was the point in this one. The smooth transitions and allowing for difference in multiple settings totally worked!

Costumes (Jill Keys) were pretty and functional but there was a super awkward moment in our talkback where the actors playing the King and Queen explained that because the queen was “more in charge” she “wore the pants” and that’s why her costume had pants and that the king “was more emotional and wimpy” and that’s why his coat resembled a dress.  I almost leapt out of my chair.

Espie

Woof, that’s unfortunate.

Sarah

Don’t say that stuff ever, but absolutely not to children!  I hope that was just an actor gaff and not a costume designer idea that hung around the entire process without objection.

In that vein, there was one character I found problematic: the witch. I think having the evil character a woman played by a man is a distinct choice-especially in this social moment. Plus, the main characters all had a Christian practice of christenings and churches while the witch said “Mazel Tov” at them and all of that just rubbed me the wrong way.  One of the reasons I really love the Arden’s work with Children’s Theatre is that they work really hard to make sure their plays are filled with diverse casts and that they aren’t filled with damaging ideals. So, I was sad to see all of that slip through

Espie

Yeah, I didn’t understand why that character was a woman beyond upholding stereotype. The tweed coat having breasts so clearly sewn in made me a bit uncomfortable – it was not necessary and it enforced the gender binary.

Sarah

There were some cool moments and ideas that were created by the “hero” and the “villain” being played by the same person, and there was just no reason to make the “bad person” appear to be dressing up as a woman.

I don’t want to walk away from that topic all together but I do want to talk about the music– which I generally found charming and to say that the kids at my show were having the time of their lives, especially when anything “magical” seemed to happen. Plus seeing a black princess was obviously just making the audience I was with explode with pride

Espie

I did too!  Again, since I hadn’t seen a musical in a while, this is the area that I feel least able to articulate, but I did leave the theater humming the last song.

This was the first show I’ve seen with an equal parent to child ratio, and it was really awesome watching all of the kids tug on their parents sleeves when magic happened.  Also, it was really cool seeing parents and children be equally invested in the show.

Sarah

I frequently tell people that when they are sad they should try to go to a Arden Kids’ show. you’ll leave humming and inspired by the youth.

I liked this one particularly because I think it was like a live-action Disney musical and I sometimes worry that “kids these days” don’t get their imaginations exercised with dragons and magic and alternate universes. Yes, I’m old and I say “kids these days.”

Espie

Yeah, I really appreciated how even though the story took place in this one kingdom – it felt like you were going on an adventure.

Sarah

Yes! And the performances were really joyful. Brett Robinson, who played the princess, made me want to explode with glee.

Espie

YES to Brett’s performance, she really tapped into the emotional through line of the piece.  Every time the princess was happy, I was smiling and every time she was sad I had tears in my eyes.

Sarah

She just embodies effervescence. I was just googling the character names for the show and I realized that the queen has a name but the king doesn’t and the queen’s name is “Queen Humdrum”- WHY?

I wish my job was to go into a rehearsal room when a script is being finalized– and just be like “here are three really easy things you could do that would make this less offensive.”

Espie

I wish the name thing surprised me more, I did find myself thinking about how undeveloped the king and queen were as characters during the show.  It was great that the queen was strong and logical, but she only used those qualities in support of the king. I didn’t know why she wasn’t running the kingdom.

Sarah

Yes! Or at least why they didn’t have a more balanced relationship in which they were both real people. I know it is a kids’ show, but I think you have to be careful about showing relationship dynamics where each person has only one trait and the couple doesn’t work together.

I think children’s theatre has a large responsibility. Most children aren’t going to think critically about whether or not the king and queen were a good couple. It will just get filed away in their examples of what couples can be and they will add it to their algorithm. They are developing critical thought right now, so what you provide them has so much more weight to it. I wish the Arden had taken that responsibility as seriously as they did the music or the scenery.

Espie

Yes.  I felt like the simplicity of their relationship also took away from the ability to complicate their feelings around the Princess’ lack of emotional gravity.  For the most part, they only communicated exhaustion, as opposed to sadness or anger.

Sarah

Yes. And it also bothered me that there was no upside to her weightlessness after she aged- only sadness.

Espie

Yeah, I kept expecting for her to discover something through her honesty or ability to use language (there’s no way that she would ever lose an argument!) or the fact that she could fly.  I was disappointed when the discovery, I guess, was that a prince loved her.  

Sarah

Ugh. 

Espie

She also never expressed wanting to change!

Sarah

I wanted more layers throughout. There were some amazing things in there, but my major beef with a lot of kids’ scripts is that they don’t put in the work, because they think kids don’t need it, but that is so wrong. Kids need the layers more, because you are shaping their world view.

Espie

Yes!  Also when you’re working with music – which I think manipulates emotions more easily than any other medium – you have to be extremely responsible about the stories that you’re cultivating.  Despite all the qualms I have regarding the princess’ autonomy, I was still crying during her and the prince’s duet as the prince  forced her to watch him die by ransoming her happiness.

Sarah

ME TOO!  It was just like every time I’ve watched any romantic comedy ever, where I’m like “THAT’S EMOTIONAL MANIPULATION AND STALKING- GET OUT!” but then I cry when they get married.

I guess I was just hoping for better than that.

Espie

I agree.  

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