Cultural Narratives, Fairy Tales, Theatre!

In Praise of a Petty Children’s Show

(Apologies in advance for the inside jokes.)

People who have not lived in Toronto long may not know about one of the city’s most enduring Christmas traditions: the Ross Petty Christmas Pantomime. Ross Petty is the producer of said show and has been for years. Every show is a wacky variation on a fairy tale, rather like Fractured Fairy tales. In true pantomime fashion, the audience is invited to participate: the fourth wall is broken, questions are asked of the audience, pop-culture references are made, heckling of the show’s villain is strongly encouraged, and children are brought up on stage to aid the hero and so on.

This year’s show had something especially clever in the story. Something that made it relevant in a way that many fairy tale adaptations are not.

The fairy tale chosen for this year’s pantomime was Sleeping Beauty. Many of you are most familiar with the Disney movie version of the story. Disney is forever being accused of sanitizing fairy tales and in this case it’s true: the Disney adaptation of the story differs from either the Brothers Grimm version, Briar Rose, or Perrault’s version, Sleeping Beauty. But Perrault, Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm were all folklorists collecting traditionally spoken tales to create their respective volumes, Histoires ou Contes du temps passé, and Kinder und Hausmarchen. As I have said before, a story changes in the telling and this is especially true when a spoken tale is transferred to written or print form. The Grimms’ version removed any trace of adultery, cannibalism or- most importantly, rape -in their telling of the sleeping maiden story, first known as Sun, Moon and Talia. Disney is hardly the first to adapt a old tale to suit the current audience’s needs.

Script writer Jeremy Diamond has also made changes to Sleeping Beauty while adapting it to the pantomime stage. The tale follows much of the old material so as to be recognizable. There’s Princess Rose, who is kind and lovely but suffers a curse because her parents snubbed a powerful evil fairy. All spindles are banished from the land, followed by all other pointy threats…save the one that fells Rose. She falls into an enchanted sleep that can be broken only by True Love’s Kiss. Tragedy befalls the kingdom (of “Torontonia”).

What to do? The Queen wants to be “romantically efficient” by rounding up the local Princes (excluding Prince Harry who is absent due to being on a date with “the Girl From Suits”) and having them form a line to kiss the magically unconscious Princess Rose. The King is appalled by the idea. So is the Princess’s hopeful lover, Luke the Lovesick Lutist. When pushed, the young suitor responds:

“No! I’m not going to kiss her unless she wants me to!”

Instead, he enlists the help of the resident Good-Fairy-in-Training to help him get to Dream Land where he can find Rose so she can wake herself up. Thus, the Princess is not awoken by her Prince with a magical kiss…because he wants to be sure she actually wants said kiss first.

I wonder if the writer was asked to make this change or if the idea came naturally to him. Either way, it is a compelling innovation to a traditional story. Luke reinforces his intentions when he confronts the evil fairy who started it all.

“Step aside, (Villain) I’m here to kiss the woman I love…if she’ll let me.”

The lad’s hesitation comes across as somewhat comical, but the sentiment remains strong. He only wants to kiss Princess Rose if she wants him to kiss her. Only when she replies that she does want his kiss does the kiss occur.

Because Rose’s consent matters. It matters to her love interest. It matters to the story. And, it is implied, it should matter to the audience. Said audience is made up of families with young children.

All of the kids who saw Sleeping Beauty: The Deliriously Dreamy Family Musical learned that you only get to kiss people who want you to kiss them. No hero or princess would want to do otherwise- and neither should we. This adaptation that is a far cry from the story’s dark past and makes the tale relevant to its’ present day audience.

And it includes cross-dressing, pop music, dancing, guest star appearances, and an abundance of sass. Because that’s how you do musical theatre.

More info about the show can be found at: http://rosspetty.com. It will be playing until January 7th. Hope to see you there!

 

 

My favourite resource on fairy tales can be found here.

 

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Cultural Narratives, Graphic Novels, Manga, Nerd Culture

Equvialent Exchange

equivalent

Image from Tumblr 

In order to obtain something, something of equal value must be lost.

This is the Law of Equivalent Exchange, the founding principle of alchemy in the world of Full Metal Alchemist. The manga series, and subsequent anime series, ask fascinating questions about the roles of science, technology, and religion.

The manga has the tightest fantasy-world formula I’ve ever encountered. The rules of alchemy are perfectly summed up in that first line: in order to create something, some other physical thing must be used up. In this way every character’s supernatural powers are limited. You cannot make something from nothing; if you want to create a giant wall to stop a flood, then you need enough surrounding ground or rock to provide the substance of said wall. If you disassemble something into it’s parts, then you now have the leftover matter to deal with. Bypassing the laws of nature requires huge amounts of energy and horrible sacrifice. In the Full Metal Alchemist’s world, power comes at a price, as is the way in our world.

The unlike many fantasy stories, the FMA’s cast is made up mostly of working people: machinists, doctors, engineers, farmers, soldiers, and tradespeople. Everyone in the cast – men and women, physically handicapped or not – works for a living and is proud of it. The only exception to this rule is a foreign prince, Lin. Lin is portrayed as an eccentric freeloader, who is an occasional ally, but mainly an unwelcome outsider. And while Lin does act as a mouthpiece for ideas about loyalty and leadership, because he is royalty, he is the odd one out. FMA is a fantasy story that has little time for the Divine Right of Kings, or even aristocracy. Rather, this is a story about the doings of alchemists.

Alchemists are the scientists of the FMA world. They are expected to serve the country that supports them and their work – and are called to task when this duty is not met. Even when the protagonists, Ed and Al Elric, are snowed-in at a northern army base, they are put to work to earn their keep. You’ll notice that this is a far cry from the Fellowship dining in various lordly keeps along their journey! Hospitality certainly exists in FMA’s world; it’s just underplayed. The expectation is that those who want to eat will work for it.

A day’s work for a day’s bread. Give and take.

Alchemy aside, it’s a rather capitalist idea.

There is give-and-take in all aspects of our lives too. Almost nothing is without cost in time, money, or effort. Like the alchemists, we recognize that you cannot go through life expecting something from nothing. The concept is presented in FMA as a moral philosophy, as well as a fantastical/scientific principle. On the surface, this seems like a good idea. It has balance, fairness.

But here’s where equivalent exchange breaks down as a moral philosophy: it leaves no room for gifts.

I don’t mean an exchange of gifts, the kind that has turned Christmas into a consumer holiday and has given birth to the shopping-incentive that is Valentine’s day. I mean an honest, simple act of giving someone something without any expectation of reciprocation. Giving someone something because you want them to have it, enjoy it, benefit from it. Not a loan. Not a favour to be repaid. Not a barter of goods or skills. Giving for it’s own sake.

In capitalist societies, such gifts are rare. Many things are gifts in name only: the drink from a flirtatious stranger at the bar, the condo development that includes the building of a public school, the tax-deductible donation. These come with an underlying quid pro quo; expectations of something in return. We know this instinctively. We see it outright, if we look clearly. And we look for it when an ambiguous gift is given.

Worse, this the give-and-take idea is often applied where it shouldn’t be. The notion of “earning one’s keep,” proudly a part of FMA’s ideology, can be too easily used as a conceptual stick to beat one’s dependants with. Internet advice blogger, Captain Awkward, wrote about this idea when she addressed the concerns of a controlling parent who wrote in to her:

“I think that the money you give your kids for their upbringing and education is a gift, not a down payment on controlling the rest of their lives.”

The good Captain makes a strong point. Give-and-take, or equivalent exchange, should not be applied to dependants. If it is, you end up with the real-life version of Principle Skinner lamenting “Mother…insists I pay her back retroactively for the food I ate as a child.” (Simpsons episode 7, season 8) The gift of help, when the recipient really needs that help or cannot manage without it, shouldn’t come with strings attached.

Now, in the doldrums between the Holidays and Valentine’s Day, I hope it gets easier to brush back the strings. In an economy that is unstable and at a time when everyone is a little less sure of their futures, give-and-take seems harsher than ever. True gifts may only get rarer, but I hope not. I think the only way to get through hard times is to give when you can without expecting something in return…and to receive without guilt. If this sounds difficult, that’s because it is. But in order to change bleak prospects, difficult things have to be done.

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Cultural Narratives, Graphic Novels, Mental Health, Nerd Culture

How a Graphic Novel Helped me Cope with Clutter

There’s nothing like coming home to find the doorway blocked by five bicycles. I’m not a fan of walking sideways like a crab but I’ve done it regularly because I have to if I want to get inside my home. I’m a millennial living in the two bedroom apartment I grew up in. I do this because my beloved job – which I’m lucky to have – is part-time and pays minimum wage. I’ve crunched the numbers and I can’t make rent, pay back my student loan, and eat too.

“But what’s up with the bicycles?” you ask. Well, everyone in my family, myself included, has multiple hobbies and side projects. Repairing and selling old bicycles on Craigslist is one the more lucrative projects, so the bikes are here to stay. The result, when combined with our mountains of reading material and rescued furniture waiting to be repaired, is a state of constant chaos. Living surrounded by a dozen or so bikes, bike parts, repair tools, stacks of magazines, and piles of papers was normal for me until I went away for school. You can’t know that your normal isn’t other people’s normal until you have something to compare it to.

I love possessions as much as the next person. As a nerd I’m acutely aware how much nerd culture is about stuff. You want to show the world what you love so you buy the shirt that features the game/movie/show/comic symbol on it. This year’s merch will let everyone know you were at a particular festival or convention. Fashion speaks and nerd fashion does so loud and clear: This is what I love. This is who I am.

Household possessions are much the same. I like this fact: one look at my room and you know what you’re dealing with. My book shelves tell you things about me. The art on my walls tells you where I’ve been and what I’ve been up to. On my shelves are a few of my favourite things.

Everything in my room says something about me. What does a cluttered house say? Far too much.

In the graphic novel Bad Houses, by Sara Ryan and Carla Speed McNeil, every item piled around the protagonists’ hoarder house holds a memory. Danica struggles to hold onto the life she once had – the time when her husband was alive and when her daughter Anne was a child – and the things that remind her of happier times. Her memories physically invade the house and her hoarding reveals deep emotional pain.

Anne feels like their accumulated possessions are all speaking to her at once, whether she wants to hear them or not. This pains her, making her long for space of her own. When Danica hides some of the hoard in Anne’s room, to create an illusion of order for a house guest, Anne is reduced to tears. I imagine I’d feel the same way if my personal living space were taken from me.

Privacy Meme

Hands up everyone who knows this feel.

 

The millennial generation knows too well the need for a room of one’s own and the ache of lacking privacy. Many of my friends have lamented over not having any truly private space while living in their family homes. But when your parents are paying the rent, they don’t see problem with walking through your space to see if you left the window open or to retrieve a sock that made its way into your drawer. Logically they have a point, but the feeling of violation is almost physically painful.

The pain of losing privacy is second only to the pain of being surrounded by too much stuff. A heavily cluttered space is exhausting to look at. Too many textures, shapes, things can all come together and overwhelm your eyes. I find I’m anxious if I’m surrounded by too many things or if I have too little room to move. Different people respond to their environments in different ways, but hoarding draws out a visceral reaction.

My physical reasons for being unhappy around clutter are pretty obvious. Reading Bad Houses made me understand the emotional reasons for my clutter-anxiety: the things that clutter the main living spaces of the apartment aren’t mine and neither are the stories they tell. I worry that the stuff will creep into my room and start to influence the self-expressive space I’ve curated for myself. Like Anne, I hear and see more stories than I can manage whenever I’m surrounded by my family’s things. I can only handle so many memories, or so much information, at a time.

I’m not alone in worrying. My Mom was thrilled when I built her a little bookshelf out of old wine boxes. I did this thinking we’d free up space elsewhere, not thinking about how a collection of books reflect on the owner. When her books were on the shelf, she said she felt like her soul was suddenly bared there in the living room – and I knew exactly what she meant. By trying to help her I accidentally stomped on her sense of privacy.

Living with my family is a work-in-progress. It won’t be forever, but while I’m with my folks we’ll have to take turns filling the space we live in. And if all the things get too invasive, I’ll always have a book to hide in.

Bad Houses can be found here.

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Cultural Narratives

We Begin with a Story

Do you know the story of the Three Dolls? I first heard it at a storytelling festival, but I couldn’t tell you where it was first told. That’s often the way with stories.

The Three Dolls goes something like this:

A King, who was famous far beyond his own land for his wisdom, was sent a gift. Because his time was far less suspicious of unmarked packaged than ours is today, the King opened the strange gift. Underneath the wrappings were three identical dolls.

Confused about the cryptic present, the King sent for his advisors. There in the King’s court the advisors examined each of the dolls, looking for meaning. Not a one could explain the gift to the King.

However, the court storyteller had been watching. And, once the advisors had finished shrugging their shoulders in confusion, the storyteller approached the King.

“Sire, I believe that I have the answer to this question. May I show you?”

The King agreed. The storyteller thanked the King – and pulled three hairs out of the King’s long beard. (The length of one’s beard indicates wisdom, as we shall discuss later.) This affront to the royal facial hair did not go over well. The storyteller spent a moment mollifying the monarch before taking hold of the first doll.

The storyteller carefully threaded a hair through the first doll’s ears. The King’s hair slid in one ear and out the other.

“Ah. This doll is a fool; nothing ever remains in its head for long.”

The storyteller then took up the second doll. This time the hair did not come out the other ear, but remained inside the doll’s head.

“This doll is knowledgeable. It will always remember what it learns.”

Finally, the storyteller picked up the third doll. This time the long hair went in one ear and out the doll’s mouth. And the end of the hair took on a slight curl as it came. The storyteller smiled in recognition.

“This one is a storyteller. Any tale it hears will be told, and every time that tale is told, it takes on a new curl. The story changes with the telling.”

A story changes with the telling.

This is true of story adaptations – the novel-to-movie transformation comes to mind. I silently roll my eyes every time someone goes on and on about how a movie is so different from the book that it is based on. Yes, there generally is more backstory, world-building and subplot in a novel; novels are a different art form from movies. Form shapes content and how the audience will react to the story. Changing the medium will always change the story.

The stories we tell about our lives are much the same. Memory is notoriously changeable. The stories we tell about the past are inevitably shaped by our situation in the present.

If you look carefully at the stories that prosper today, in movies, shows, games, and books, you can see our ideas about the world reflected in them. Patterns start to emerge. Some of them show slow cultural shifts. Far too many of them show aching nostalgia for ideas of the past. The latter are popular, problematic, and starting to attract scrutiny. I personally question the foundations of many reoccurring stories – maybe you are too.

Do you see stories in the world around you? Do you tell them? Were you told a particular story so often that you believe it?

Which stories do we need to tell – and which can we do without?

Why do we love the stories we love?

I won’t say that I know all the answers, but I have my suspicions.

And oh, do I have stories to tell…

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