New take on Fairy Tales

  • Article by: KARLEE WEINMANN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 2, 2008 - 11:19 PM

A new troupe is tackling such issues as depression and ADHD in kids in a theatrical setting to help break down stereotypes.

As Little Hood arrives at her grandmother's cottage one morning, she's horrified to find the big, bad wolf and a mean crow trying to con the old woman and eat her. But Little Hood knows just what to do.

She unleashes her secret weapon: her Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), which allows her to focus on many things at once to protect her grandma and herself from the terrible twosome.

This revamped version of "Little Red Riding Hood" debuts in a private performance today of "Fidgety Fairy Tales," a musical aiming to break down negative stereotypes associated with mental health disorders. Public performances begin Tuesday.

For some of the actors, ranging from 10 to 17 years old, the musical strikes familiar chords -- they have mental health issues like the ones spotlighted in the show.

It's the first play by Open-Up Theatre, formed by the Minnesota Association for Children's Mental Health.

Matt Jenson, the association's community arts liaison and the show's playwright and director, said the cast attended two workshops before rehearsals started. At the first, they learned exactly what mental health disorders are. At the second, they addressed stigmas associated with disorders. Throughout, cast members spoke of personal experiences.

"By the end, we wanted to be sure they really felt like they knew why they were doing this," Jenson said.

Within three days of circulating postcard advertisements, Jenson said, one of the free shows was booked up. More performances might be added, he said.

Three separate stories make up the production: "Little Hood," "Sleeping Handsome" (on a depressed boy who needs to seek treatment) and "Rapunzel" (on an anxiety-ridden girl too afraid to leave her tower).

The fairy-tale theme is intended to use a lighthearted approach in describing ways those with mental disorders contribute to the community, said Marya Hart, the musical's composer and music director.

"It gets the point across without being preachy," she said. "Having the information delivered with music and dance in a fun format and by kids makes it kind of approachable to an ordinary person."

Jared Smith, 16, plays Little Hood's grandmother and Rapunzel's friend, Princeton, who ultimately helps her face her fears. Smith has acted in numerous productions, but it was different working with some cast members who have mental health issues.

"We as cast members are kind of ambassadors for mental health disorders," he said. "Most plays are less deep in a way, less involved in the community."

"In theater, a lot of times, there's only one way they expect you do things, which is to read over your script and practice your music at home," Smith said, "but we had to experiment with different learning styles."

Sometimes, parents described how their children learned best, Jenson said, but each actor is unique.

"Different actors need different things. They need different information to connect to their characters and see how their role connects to the story," he said. "It's really about making connections. The way into that is different for everybody."

The musical's opening audience will be at the Fairview Mental Health Services program for children with mental health disorders. It most commonly serves kids who have depression or ADHD, like Sleeping Handsome or Little Hood.

Dustine Meyer, that program's director for child and adolescent services, hopes the children can learn coping strategies from the characters.

"There's a decreased social isolation for them to see kids experiencing what they experience," she said, adding that light shed on mental health could ease the burden for those with disorders.

"People really don't want to see it as a problem," Meyer said. "They don't want to accept that it's there, which makes it really difficult for people with mental illness to get help."

Often, Jenson said, people with mental health issues are painted as villains. These stories couldn't be further from that stereotype.

"This is our chance to portray them as the heroes," he said.

Karlee Weinmann is a University of Minnesota student reporter on assignment for the Star Tribune.

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