Everyone knows that fairy tale features show up in threes: three wishes, three little pigs, three bowls of porridge. But here’s one that might not be on your list: three weeks. That’s the time it took 35 children ages 8 to 13 to prepare and rehearse this enchanting production of the Norwegian fairy tale traditionally known as “Tatterhood.” Boxtales Summer Theatre Camp is a function of the professional theater company Boxtales, which was founded almost 20 years ago through the Lobero Theatre’s Literary Arts Outreach Program, and later became an independent nonprofit theater company. The soul of Boxtales is a commitment to the educational value of world mythology and folk tales, but this is not learning from the neck up; rather it is full-body-and-psyche immersion. Their physical approach minimizes set and costume and maximizes movement, mime, puppetry, and acrobatics. Onstage music and sound effects accompany the shows, always performed by the actors themselves. Beguiling masks, seemingly fashioned from the twilight world of dreams, add to the entrancement. And aerial silks frequently allow performers to float, weightless, 12 feet or more above the stage.
From the start Boxtales has brought this blend of myth and magic to local schools through their interactive performances. The Boxtales Summer Theatre Camp, now in its ninth year, takes education to the next level and immerses young artists in the whole process of interpretation, choreography, and performance. Cofounder and director Michael Andrews spoke of desire and responsibility when accounting for the high level of engagement displayed by the performers.
“We try to teach the kids to work collaboratively and to take responsibility for the work, the space, and each other as a community,” he said. “This helps focus on the work. We have found that groups of kids are hard to manage so long as they are not engaged and challenged with something they care about. When they want something, there’s not much that will stand in their way.”
The Wild Child presents the tale of an unhappily childless queen, who elicits help from a peasant woman skilled in folk fertility magic and succeeds in becoming pregnant. Yet, careless with one particular detail of the instruction, the queen gives birth to a most unusual pair of twin girls. Tatterhood is a restless, wild, ragged thing, born riding a goat; her sister, however, is well-mannered and fair in every conventional sense. The queen holds fast to the beautiful daughter, while Tatterhood gallops through the court, strong-willed, screaming, and rolling in the mud. The queen, fearing the corrupting influence of one daughter on the other, attempts to divide the two, but the girls prove inseparable in love and loyalty. When the kingdom is raided by trolls the comely daughter’s head is stolen and replaced by the head of a calf. Tatterhood proves fearlessly resourceful in leaving the kingdom with her sister and pursuing the antagonists. Wrong is set right, and Tatterhood’s rough ways and shoddy style are revealed to be a magical veil hiding a splendid being.
The performance level of this youth theater was truly impressive. One might expect the common forgivable flaws of a short-term summer camp: flat or muffled lines, problems with timing, uncertain pauses, domination by a few strong performers and an inert chorus of the rest. But none of this proved to be the case. Responsibilities were actively spread throughout the cast: dozens of short narrations were shared by as many cast members, each one an impressive orator. Pacing moved evenly and naturally without evident cues by the directors. Uniformly dressed in performance black, the children conjured imaginative worlds with minimal means. Bamboo poles were used to create rafters of a barn and, later, the hull of a ship rocking at sea. The raised thrones of the king and queen were, amazingly, the legs and arms of other children on their backs. Choral vocalizations of farm animals and the ninny chattering of courtiers were obviously fun for the kids, and very funny to the audience. Special skills included impressive juggling and slap-stick humor by the court jester (Noah Block) and aerial silk dancing by Olivia Powell.
I asked Andrews about particular instances of creative input by the campers. “Too many to count,” he answered. “Ours is a rigorous collaboration. We encourage kids to keep the ego out of it and to keep the creative channel open. The kids often come up with the best, juiciest ideas and feel the pride (like parent to child) of seeing their idea live on the stage. The next lesson of course is watching their idea change through the process of collaboration and become the product of many.”
One outstanding feature of this story is the type of the girl hero. “We were responding to the fact that the majority of these folktales are written by and for boys and men,” explained Andrews. “We have been collecting great stories with female protagonists that keep the female characters on equal footing with their male counterparts. We’re doing our humble part to balance this gender inequality. In a culture that still damselizes female characters in film, television, and video games, we have much work to do in offering healthy alternative narratives for girls and women.”
Beyond evoking an admiration for these young artists, The Wild Child leaves audiences feeling nourished by a restorative measure of good ol’ Jungian integration. Boxtales always manages to play to the neglected margins of the psyche, where the world is raw and primal, and normative notions of right and wrong are blurred or inverted. Even the best-explained myths leave a residue of ambiguity, and Boxtales seems to celebrate this as the lump that leavens the whole. “Humans are metaphor makers,” said Andrews, cutting to the essence. “It’s a birthright. We think that a vital theater is one where the audience is not spoon-fed predigested material but is led to interpret meaning for themselves. In our approach we hope to leave room for an image, an emotional response, or an intellectual revelation to bloom in the imagination of the audience member, rather than hitting them over the head with what we refer to as the metaphor frying pan. We start with the idea that people are clever, intelligent, and creative in the language of symbols. We, of course, extend this trust to children, holding that we are born with innate intelligence.”