Ginger has been used in many ways for thousands of years, from ancient Greek and Chinese recipes and medicines to spices of the Middle Ages to the Christmas tradition of cookies and, of course, gingerbread houses. But how did the gingerbread we know today come to be, and when did it become so popular at Christmas?

Ginger itself is a knobby root that hails from Asia, from the Middle East to China. Ginger made its way to Europe in the 1st century AD, and gingerbread variations through France, Germany, Scandinavia and England began rising in popularity around the 1400s. Ginger is mixed with honey and molasses to give gingerbread its trademark sweet spongy, cake-like quality. Each country has its own spin on gingerbread, with many delicacies being referred to as “pepper cake” or “pepper bread.” Many countries in the Middle Ages had Gingerbread Markets!

Making shaped gingerbread (like gingerbread men) was a 16th century spin on the confection. Queen Elizabeth I of England (who reigned from 1588 to 1603) popularized shaping and decorating gingerbread people when she decorated cookies with the likenesses of other kings and queens of Europe! Gingerbread was so popular in England during this time that it even made it into a line of William Shakespeare’s 1597 play Love’s Labour’s Lost. Many European bakeries still craft gingerbread hearts, and it was once a symbol of affection to give gingerbread to another person.

Like many Christmas traditions celebrated in America today, gingerbread came to our country with early German settlers in the 1600s. In Germany, the art of baking and crafting ginger sweets goes back nearly 600 years, and gingerbread is such a delicacy that the occupation of gingerbread baker is not only in high regard, it’s in a league and class all of its own!

The gingerbread capital of the world is indisputably Nuremberg, Germany, where a gingerbread baker’s league was established in the 1640s. Only certified bakers of Lebkuchen (gingerbread) were allowed to craft gingerbread creations for many, many years… with the exception of Christmas and Easter, when it was declared acceptable for any household to make their own gingerbread cookies. Lebkuchen bakers fashioned kings, hearts, animals, and other beautiful shapes out of gingerbread, purchased at high prices and crafted exclusively by hand until the later 19th century, when mass production techniques made a major impact on European industries.

The gingerbread house itself has a history dating back to the early 1800s – it’s hard to say whether the practice of making gingerbread houses inspired the Brothers Grimm or if it was the other way around, but after the publishing of the Grimms’ still famous fairy tale Hansel and Gretel, gingerbread houses became quite the rage. Though the practice of decorating cookies with colored icing was already an established tradition, a house was a new undertaking. Icing or chocolate holds flat pieces of gingerbread together, while bright candies trim windows and roofs, chimneys and doors. Much like the house that Hansel and Gretel stumble upon in the woods, these houses are fully edible works of art, irresistible to children and marvels of artistry to adults.

The tradition of constructing gingerbread houses also made its way to America (and specifically, to the Museum & Theatre). Many real Victorian homes that appear to have “icing” around the roofs and windows are referred to colloquially as “gingerbread homes.”

Other gingerbread treats through the years have included gingerbread nuts – which evolved into what we know as ginger snaps, Swedish Papparkakor, and animal crackers.

Conflict and Resolution at the Candy House

The Brothers Grimm published their story of Hansel and Gretel in 1812.  It has been adapted into an opera (1893), an animated shadow puppet film (1955), and even a Bugs Bunny cartoon (1954).  Now, just over two hundred years after the original publication, our troupe of nine playmakers has created a brand new Hansel and Gretel telling, with its roots in the original story but its spirit in the here and now.

In our last week of the project, Hansel has found himself in a cage, Gretel gets him out, and the siblings defeat the Witch and return home.  That’s a lot of ground to cover, but our actors were hard at work determining just what kind of an ending we might see onstage this fall.

One of our favorite games to play in this process is one in which the actors show us snapshots of action, speaking only one line of either dialogue or inner thought to tell the story of that single, frozen frame.  By doing this, we can see many different aspects of a scene we might not have thought of otherwise.

Actors Edyson, Sierra, Zara, and Chloe freeze in various day-to-day stages of Hansel being in the cage.

We see Hansel in the Witch’s awful cage: “Tomorrow awaits,” Zara’s Hansel says.  “Hopefully I’ll be out soon.”

The oven (Aiden) awaits the Witch (Sam), but the Spirit of Reunion (Sierra) is here for Gretel (MacKenzie) and Hansel (Erica).

We see the Witch preparing to cook the children: “Don’t think,” says MacKenzie’s Gretel, steeling herself, “just do it.”  Meanwhile, Aiden’s oven is ready: “Oh, boy,” he exclaims, and even the inside of the oven (played by Charlie and Chloe) is ready to do its job while the Witch (played by Sam) meets an end.

The Witch successfully vanquished, the children gather jewels and run away, seeking the help of a duck to cross a river: “He’s much too weak to carry them across,” thinks Erica’s personified riverbank.

We saw happy endings and sad endings, and even a very kind witch who likes to sing (in a song written by Erica and Charlie) about the awesome things she does on her days off.  (Like feed the birds… with poisoned bread.  Well, perhaps she isn’t too kind.)

The Witch (MacKenzie) lures Gretel (Chloe) into a false sense of security.

Before we left this part of the process, actors weighed in on just what the playmaking experience was like, most chiming in that, well, “it was fun!” I couldn’t agree more!

“This is like… behind the scenes of behind the scenes,” said Chloe Dearborn.  “There’s a lot of different minds thinking of lots of different ideas.”

Sierra Aponte Clarke agreed, “It’s the part of the play that the audience doesn’t see.”  And Sam added, “It’s like rehearsal without the play.”  They’re right: even though I have compiled over fifty pages of material from the actors, to create the script itself I will have to carefully pick and choose what makes it into the final draft. But there will always be a full story behind the scenes.  Rehearsals are always full of discovery as actors and directors figure out how to make actions fit the words… but this was discovery to create the words.

“[The playmaking process] is very open to anything,” MacKenzie Jones said.  “You can create whatever you want.  You can go with so many different things.  It’s cool when it’s a story that you know… but don’t really know: you

Actors, from left, Sam, Charlie, Erica, MacKenzie, Aiden, Chloe, and Edyson were some of the contributors to the script… you’ll hear their words, and more, this fall!

can revisit it in a new way.”

This has been such an exciting project!  I couldn’t have been more happy to spend the last few weeks with this creative group.  Reba and I will be hard at work compiling all the actors’ hard work into a real script over the summer.

What lies in store for Hansel and Gretel?  You’ll find out this fall, in our first actor-created mainstage production!

Brittany Cook has been working with the Children’s Museum & Theatre of Maine since 2011. She has served as Musical Director, scoring and playing

the original music for our mainstage productions, and she has worn many other hats as well! Brittany will direct our fall production of Hansel & Gretel.

What Makes A Witch

“Hello, darling Hansel,” says a Witch (Sierra) in a monologue based on a statue she created this week.  “We have some yummy work to do.”

Well!  Witches sound pretty menacing.  But what does a witch look like? Sound like? Move like?

How can you tell if someone is a witch?

Our actors warn of a few signs to watch out for: scary cackle, white hair pulled back in a bun, bad breath, skin as tough as bark… these are only a few signs that children walking alone in the woods should watch out for, according to our recent playmaking brainstorm sessions.

Hansel and Gretel had better be careful.

Though the woman may at first appear harmless, she soon locks up Hansel, and orders poor Gretel to help fatten him up for roasting.  Our actors wrote scenes and songs, and created still images and dances to tell of the scary things happening inside that tempting candy house.

“Why dance?” you may ask.  Aren’t we writing a script?

Well, as they say, a picture may be worth a thousand words… if this is true, dances speak volumes.  In a silent dance, we see nothing but raw emotion. We see the Witch’s hunger, Hansel’s despair, Gretel’s dilemma; all of these are key to setting the right scene for the story we want to tell.

We are able to see how Hansel moves, how Gretel frets… and just what does a witch look like again?

Sam and Aiden help to transform Sierra into a Witch statue.

Actors help each other embody the characters in still image montages.  This week, we saw frozen scenes of the Witch taking Hansel to his cage, and dances to get the playmakers moving and looking like hungry witches and frightened (yet resourceful) children.

We know that Gretel will soon save the day, but that part remains yet to be written!  Now that we have an idea of what our witch looks like, thinks like, sounds and smells like, we can figure out exactly what Gretel and her brother must do to outwit her!

One more week of playmaking to go – let’s see that script start to take shape!

Brittany Cook has been working with the Children’s Museum & Theatre of Maine since 2011. She has served as Musical Director, scoring and playing the original music for our mainstage productions, and she has worn many other hats as well! Brittany will direct our fall production of Hansel & Gretel.

Read more of Brittany’s posts about the playmaking process here.

Follow That Singing Bird!

Charlie backs up Sam as he sings a reggae tune with lyrics written by Chloe, Aiden, and Erica

Hansel and Gretel aren’t the only ones in the forest looking for a meal… those breadcrumbs on the path are looking pretty delicious to the birds.

“Perfect!” crows a rooster (Erica).

“I wonder what they taste like,” a hummingbird (Mackenzie) wonders.

A little sparrow (Chloe) chirps out simply, “Foooood!”

We saw birds of all kinds on the breadcrumb trail this week in playmaking, where actors moved about the space as birds of all kinds: a finch, a robin, even a penguin… we never know what we’ll see in this forest!

Every bird moves differently, and every bird sings differently. Actors got in touch with their inner birds as we worked out Hansel and Gretel’s greatest plight: the breadcrumbs have been eaten, and they’ve lost their way.  But one helpful bird, according to the original Brothers Grimm story, sings to them a song that coaxes them onward.

But they never said what kind of song it was.  Luckily, we’ve got some great songwriters in the group (and I mean everyone)!

Is it a song of warning?  Don’t go in the forest any further?  Turn back?  Or is it a song to guide them to the sweet but treacherous candy house lying a few more paces down the path?

Playmakers broke off into three groups. Each group devised lyrics to a possible song that the bird could sing to the wandering siblings.  Then, we switched it up: groups passed their songs onto the next group over, and the second group were the ones to write the melody, based on a song style we assigned them.

We saw some lyric heavy metal birds, choreographed R&B birds, even reggae birds, all trying to entice Hansel and Gretel to come with them into the forest, where they came upon the candy house.

With all those different kinds of bird songs, I know I might be inclined to follow.  We’ll see what Hansel and Gretel decide to do soon!

Brittany Cook has been working with the Children’s Museum & Theatre of Maine since 2011. She has served as Musical Director, scoring and playing the original music for our mainstage productions, and she has worn many other hats as well! Brittany will direct our fall production of Hansel & Gretel.

Hansel and Gretel vs The World

Hansel and Gretel are to be taken into the forest… and left there.

Mackenzie and Aiden read from a six-line script they wrote together.

Everyone knows the story.  But how is that going to happen in our version?  We don’t know yet, so we’re coming up with as many possibilities as we can.

Each of our playmaking meetings is equal parts writing and moving around.  Sometimes the moving around is to warm up, sometimes it’s composing a short dance routine, sometimes it’s acting out a six-line scene our actors have crafted.

Writing is a warm-up, too, and a very important part of the process.  It begins with writing prompts.

“I love going on trips, but I don’t really like getting there.”

This is only one actor’s response to this past Tuesday’s prompt: four sentences about a trip you didn’t want to take.  After a brief greeting and check-in, the actors dive into the prompt, which fires up brains and gets everyone on the same page for one day’s chapter of our playmaking journey.

These prompts draw from real life events—actors shared stories of not wanting to drive all the way to Florida, of being afraid of plane rides, even of not wanting to audition for a play—that could potentially help us create the fantasy world of Hansel and Gretel.

After all, those two are about to embark on a trip they really don’t want to take.

Thursday’s writing prompt: write five sentences about a time when it was you against the world.  Doesn’t that sound like two children against all odds, left alone in a forest?

It did to our playmakers!  All of our playmakers’ experiences could easily be

the same kinds of hardships that Hansel and Gretel have to face.  So, time to get writing! Here’s a peek into the process….

Actors pair up and create stories armed with wit, multicolored markers, and knowledge of the part of the story Reba has just read to them. They get down to work, furiously writing through different scenarios: all the ways Hansel and Gretel’s parents could rudely awaken them for their trip to the forest; eight lines to that justify the parents’ decision to leave the kids alone in the forest; things Hansel could do or say to comfort his sister while they are on their own against the world. Ultimately, we’ll sort through all the resulting script pages, group brainstorm sheets, tiny scrap papers of dialogue to mine for playmaking gold.

At the end of each rehearsal, we get to see the finished products the actors worked on throughout the meeting.  We see short scenes, dances and tableaux (or frozen images, like statues telling a story); we hear scared Gretels and brave Gretels, wicked stepmothers and worried stepmothers… so many different directions our story could go!

We’re tackling the play one small segment at a time, and haven’t even seen that delightful house made of candy yet!  But we still have a month to go in our playmaking process, and plenty of writing and acting ahead.

I wonder how our Hansel and Gretel will brave their journey and face the world.  Only time will tell, so let’s keep writing!

Brittany Cook has been working with the Children’s Museum & Theatre of Maine since 2011. She has served as Musical Director, scoring and playing the original music for our mainstage productions, and she has worn many other hats as well! Brittany will direct our fall production of Hansel & Gretel.

Let the Playmaking Begin!

When you think of the story of Hansel and Gretel, what comes to mind?

A big candy house?  A trail of breadcrumbs?  I bet you can think of all sorts of things right off the top of your head.

Now just think: any of those elements of the story could be the building blocks for a brand new script, for a brand new play.

Theatre Artistic Director Reba Short and I have both written some material for a few of the recent takes on fairy tales that have been performed here at the Children’s Museum and Theatre of Maine, but this spring, we’re doing something different.

We’ve begun meeting twice a week with a group of nine Children’s Theatre actors in a unique setting: the kids aren’t rehearsing, they’re writing, and acting out (or simply freeze-framing) their own material.  That’s right, this time, kids are writing the script!

This is playmaking.

Drawing from the original Brothers Grimm story, some real life stories from the actors in the form of writing prompts, and lots of improvisation, we’re gathering material to create our fall production of Hansel and Gretel.

“Hansel, I’m scared.  I’m scared of what’s out there.  In the forest.”

These words, written by playmaker and theatre veteran Zara Boss, were spoken during our Thursday meeting this week, and who knows?—Gretel might end up saying them in the final version of the script.

But right now, we just don’t know.  And that’s what makes playmaking so much fun.

I love this process, because anything is fair game… I never thought that the breadcrumbs on the path or the spices in the witch’s kitchen might be characters themselves, but ask any of these actors, and they’ll tell you exactly what spices and breadcrumbs are thinking about:

Actors freeze as breadcrumbs during a warm-up.

“If only I was as popular as that paprika!” laments Aiden Davenport as a spice, while Edyson Pines mopes as a breadcrumb, “Those good-for-nothing kids, they left me behind!”  Meanwhile, on the other side of the room, breadcrumb MacKenzie Jones cries out, “There are birds here!”

I’ll be blogging about our process and progress each week as we continue to discover the world of Hansel and Gretel to create our original take on the tale.  I, for one, can’t wait to see what this group comes up with next!

Brittany Cook has been working with the Children’s Museum & Theatre of Maine since 2011. She has served as Musical Director, scoring and playing the original music for our mainstage productions, and she has worn many other hats as well! Brittany will direct our fall production of Hansel & Gretel.