Solving the riddle of Rumpelstiltskin

IMAG0876-1Allison has worked with our theatre for several years, stage managing shows and contributing her creativity to our dynamic program. She is currently assisting Theatre Artistic Director Reba Short with Playmaking: Rumpelstiltskin, a collaborative playwriting process in which young actors work together to develop a script.

One of the very first questions that came up in our first week of playmaking was, “Who is Rumpelstiltskin?” We even wondered, “What is Rumpelstiltskin?”

Those Grimm brothers are certainly mysterious about the magical little man. As we dive into playmaking, our group of young actors has made it a mission to solve these riddles for our future audiences. Reba and I posed the added challenge of thinking outside the box, encouraging these creative minds to reach beyond the original fairytale as they bring this story to life.

At our first meeting, we read through the very beginning of the story and used movement, writing prompts, and tableaux (or frozen pieces from the story) to explore the Weaver, his daughter, and the King/Prince (or as we’ve labeled him, a “Pringle”) who meets them. After only one day, we collected a rich basis for what brings this girl to the Pringle’s castle to face that seemingly impossible task of spinning straw into gold.

IMAG0861At our second meeting, our Playmakers were eager to jump into the puzzle of Rumpelstiltskin himself. Topher, a Children’s Theatre veteran, bravely volunteered to be the model for Rumpelstiltskin’s form. The group proceeded to fill in the outline of his body with words about his identity and intentions, even exploring parts of his appearance. But they were certainly not finished with just the inside!

The second stage of this project involved thinking like Rumpelstiltskin. What are his first words to the Weaver’s daughter? After all, he needs to catch her attention and convince her to trust him with just one sentence! Perhaps he is indignant -“How dare you not notice me?” wrote enthusiastic new-comer Leah.) Or perhaps he’s playful, singing “La la la, I am a man who can help you, la la la.” Or maybe those mysterious Grimm brothers were onto something: “I am as big as a shoe and I can help you,” is an intriguingly cryptic greeting contributed by actor Sydney.

We ended our first week by brainstorming answers to these four statements:

I am as big as ___

I am as small as ___

I am as kind as ___

I am as forgiving as ___


There are so many possibilities! Can you think of any?

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.