On paper the candy-colored tale of Hansel and Gretel may seem like a great idea for a new theatre-for-young-audiences play. But then you think about it: Two abandoned children, baited with treats by a witch who wants to eat them, triumph by frying the hag in her own oven. How do you spin that into a positive moral?
For playwright Bryan Davidson, whose new Hansel & Gretel Bluegrass runs at 24th Street Theatre in Los Angeles through Dec. 11, the impulse to adapt one of Grimm’s grimmest fairy tales wasn’t undertaken lightly. Instead, Davidson’s adaptation, set in Depression-era Appalachia and featuring traditional American music by the Get Down Boys, grew out of real-world concerns expressed by the largely low-income population that lives in the vicinity of the theatre in central L.A. Artistic director Debbie Devine and executive director Jay McAdams have made outreach to that community a major focus of 24th Street, which has also developed a stellar reputation for creating meaty, artistically sophisticated shows for young audiences, including Walking the Tightrope, Man Covets Bird, and La Razón Blindada, and which commissioned Hansel & Gretel Bluegrass from Davidson.
I spoke recently with Davidson—whose day job is as a creative executive at Disney Animation Studios (“It’s basically dramaturgy, but I can’t say that here—it’s not an animation-friendly word”) and whose stage writing credits include War Music, Banned and Burned in America, and Reflecting Back—about the challenges of adapting a tale people think they know well, mining it for contemporary resonances and deeper meanings while still creating a palatable entertainment.
I heard about this show coming along some time ago—it seems like it’s had a long development period.
It had a long gestation because I don’t think the piece was where we needed it to be in terms of emotional resonance until now. It’s also a tech-heavy show.
So why this story, and why now?
As part of the commission, I was sort of workshopping ideas, sharing pages, doing interviews in discussion circles about what’s happening in our city. A few ideas kept bubbling to the surface, and one was food insecurity. It’s a big issue in our nation, but also in L.A. County. There was this statistic that 1 in 6 people here experience food insecurity. At 24th Street, they literally open their doors to their neighborhood, where there’s also sometimes a sense of insecurity around family structure: You might come home from school, and your parents, who may be undocumented, may not be there for a variety of reasons. We were also looking at all the headlines about unaccompanied minors being sent across the border—the thought of entrusting your child’s life to a smuggler is an intense thing to consider.
So Deb [Devine] said: “We gotta do Hansel and Gretel.” I said, “Absolutely not!” My first impression was of a candy house and a witch—really cartoony. But then I stared thinking about it, about the emotions behind it, the fear of abandonment, which is so primal. We were clear that we didn’t want a candy house in the woods with gumdrops on it. And as Deb is always saying in rehearsal: “That’s kid’s theatre—we don’t wanna do that. We wanna do something sophisticated.” So we’ve tried to keep true to the emotional integrity of the fairy tale while at the same time giving it adult emotions. These are two kids dealing with loss and fear.
We asked ourselves: What do you need to have in a story about Hansel and Gretel? What are the audience’s expectations? One is that at some point, someone might get shoved into an oven. We tried to keep the trail of bread crumbs in the story, but it got too complicated—it was taking us an hour just to get to the forest. So we scrapped that, and I don’t think anyone misses it. Also, in the original there’s an evil stepmother. We decided to jettison that; it felt very melodramatic, and there’s an undertone of misogyny—we were uncomfortable having both her and an evil woman in the woods.
Where does the bluegrass come in?
My wife is from central Kentucky, so I’ve spent a lot of time in the state. It’s a beautiful state, amazing people, but also it’s got such history of hardship. And we were thinking: How do we justify someone getting so desparate that they would abandon their kids in the woods in the middle of the night, as the father does here? I was reading about the Great Depression, and about a series of crippling labor strikes that made people really desperate in that area. And we wanted to create a world that was distant enough that it allowed for a sense of magic, but real enough that it felt authentic, had some grit to it. It’s also a land where people tell stories.
Another thing we got really excited about was the music. Once we settled on the place, I set about schooling myself on the music of Kentucky. It can be both really haunting and really joyous. The other thing to take from that music is a sense of spirituality. This is a play where people talk openly about, and are often quoting from, scripture.
Yeah, I noticed a lot of great old hymns: “I’ll Fly Away,” “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” “Amazing Grace.”
They’re also public domain, which doesn’t hurt. But music isn’t just a background thing here; it’s also a big theme. Gretel sings as a way of connecting with her past—with her late mother, who taught her the hymns.
You mentioned audience expectations, and one is that the witch is a villain. I notice in your script that she seems more sympathetic, more humanized—up to a point.
In the fairy tale, she basically just wants to eat the kids. We tried to dramatize that, but it got super-weird, super-fast. So we moved more toward an idea of emotional hunger. She’s a woman who wants to possess something of beauty, which is Gretel’s singing voice, and is willing to destroy someone to keep it, and that’s Hansel.
So kind of a Gollum figure, though without the redemption.
We see her before the kids do, so we’re aware that she doesn’t have the best of intentions. But it’s important for the story that Hansel and Gretel are plausibly seduced by her; they can’t seem stupid for falling into her spell.
The main thing is, we needed her to earn her own demise. It’s very dark that Gretel kills her at at the end. She’s a very mixed role model, Gretel: She finds her own way in the world and speaks her mind, but she also tells a lot of lies and kills an old woman. I talked to one 9-year-old boy during previews and I asked him who his favorite character was; he said, “Gretel.” I said, “Tell me why.” He said, “At first everyone tells her she can’t do anything, but she ends up being kind of a badass.”
I didn’t think about that—it’s not only the witch who might become a tricky character if you humanize her.
Yeah, I struggled with how much I could redeem some characters. In the fairy tale, you know, the stepmother just sends them off and the dad goes along with it; then the stepmother dies, and the kids come back to live with him. I didn’t think that made a lot of sense, so I added some shoe leather—the dad regrets leaving them and comes back to look for them. You want to feel good about them going home to someone who’s not a horrible parent. I mean, they’re all flawed characters.
As you developed the show, did you try pushing the tone too far in one direction or the other? And were you thinking about how much young audiences could handle?
There were moments where took a character or a moment too far and then we pulled it back. But Jay and Deb love to push the boundaries of what should be in a kid’s show. And formally it’s a complex show; it’s got multimedia, a pretty sophisticated use of tech. For me it was great to be given permission to write a play for young audiences about loss and fear and abandonment.
Speaking of tech, both the narrator, Bradley Whitford, and the band, the Get Down Boys, are pre-recorded on video, right? Tell me about that decision.
The framing device is that this is radio show where the host gets a letter that pricks his conscience, so he tells this story. He’s our guide to the world. We spent a day recording Bradley, and Deb spent time with the Get Down Boys. Actually, with all of the video and music cues recorded before we put the show on its feet, we kind of painted ourselves into a corner. It was a very interesting process; I’ve been rewriting every night through previews, but I have to write around that basic limitation.
Was that a creative compromise, to not have all the performers in the same room, or was it your intention from the start?
Part of it was just availability and scheduling. Also 24th Street would love for this show to tour, so the question of how modular, and what is the simplest version we can tell, was a central concern. At the core of the story is this triangle of characters.
What is the age range for the piece?
As someone who doesn’t have kids, it’s hard for me to judge. It’s intended for 8 and up. It moves pretty quickly, but it does deal with some adult themes. But I’m still writing a play I’d want to see. I’m hoping this is accessible to family members of all ages.
I just realized that though I do have kids, this is not a fairy tale I’ve ever told them. And why would I? It’s pretty twisted. So now I’m wondering exactly what expectations will be coming in—it might be adults more than kids who have preconceived ideas about the piece.
Something that Debbie and I sussed out was: What is the knowledge of audiences about this fairy tale coming through the door? It’s not a go-to bedtime story for most kids. So it’s gonna vary from person to person. For those who do know the story, there are some surprises. At Disney Animation, I was on the team that worked on the film of Rapunzel, which became Tangled, and it was the same discussion. Here’s what an audience is expecting: a girl in a tower who lets down her hair. So then the question is, How can we subvert those expectations? How can we flip it?
You don’t just adapt fairy tales at Disney.
No. With Zootopia, for instance, we wanted to make a film about bias, and that felt very fresh. What I do is provide research and engage the writers with experts in the field as they’re building the story, giving feedback on their outlines, doing table reads. It’s all about, How do we make this the best story? It’s a lot like theatre; it’s so iterative. It’s very similar in terms of process and culture too: It’s about trusting in your fellow collaborators and trying to tell the best story.
So you adapted Hansel and Gretel to address food scarcity and family instability. But what do you think is behind the original fairy tale? What’s it about, at bottom?
One of the first things I went to when I was working on this was Bettelheim and The Uses of Enchantment; his point of view is that these fairy tales are maps of survival for children. Very early on, humans realized that we need to tell our children stories about resilience in case we’re not there for them. But reading a fairy tale is one experience; an hourlong drama in a theatre is another thing. You need to invest the characters with some kind of believability so it feels like a three-dimensional experience.
Along those lines, it strikes me that the harshness of the Depression and the barren setting takes the place of or somehow justifies the simply inexplicable evil—abandonment, murder, cannibalism—of the fairy tale.
Well, you want to create a pressure cooker of a world where people make bad choices.