Follow the ‘once upon a time’ through the fairy tale world: The Secret in the Wings at Studio Theatre

The Secret in the Wings, Studio Theatre. Photo by Mat Simpson.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

Don’t let the ‘happily-ever-after’s fool you. Fairy tales are not, contrary to popular belief, a Disney invention, the have-a-great-life tag to rom-coms on a roll.

The production that opens today online, in the Studio Theatre season,  follows ‘once upon a time’ into the obscure reaches of the Grimm catalogue and colour palette, and beyond. Into the dark tangled playground of the subconscious, childhood fears, adult taboos, strange transformations where fairy tales live.

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 The Secret in the Wings, by the star American playwright Mary Zimmerman (Metamorphoses), is “particularly bizarre,” declares director Elizabeth Hobbs with delight (adding “theatrical,” “weird” and “quirky” for good measure). “When I read it I laughed out loud. I didn’t understand it but I was so intrigued!” That’s why she chose the 30-year-old play for her thesis production (she emerges from the U of A with a master’s degree in directing).

“It offered a lot of freedom, creatively, for devising,” says Hobbs, an associate director of the Fringe (where she’s been in charge of the street performers and of the Kids’ Fringe). “I’m really interested in marrying script to devised (theatre).” And this is a play that invites the performers to participate, to improvise whole sections. She quotes the playwright: “text is only one instrument in the orchestra.”

Hobbs’ cast of nine “are great movers and singers,” Hobbs says. One of the actors, for example, is a ballet dancer, and offered to do a scene en pointe. It’s in the show. A lot of what we’ll see “comes from the cast coming up with cool stuff, shaped by me…. All theatre is that, I guess. But this one is wildly so!”

The Secret in the Wings, Studio Theatre. Photo by Mat Simpson

Hobbs and co have been let loose on an intricate mash-up of six existing but very obscure fairy tales, a couple from the Brothers Grimm and all very different stylistically. As she describes, “they’re told individually inside a larger frame-work of Beauty and the Beast” — cut off right at their half-way point of maximum suspense, and separated by interludes. In the second act, “the characters step outside their own individual stories and into the larger frame.”

She hasn’t seen the film version of The Secret in the Wings yet (available today through Friday) but her production has had six live performances for a very limited audience of nine (plus her) in there 300-seat Timms Theatre. Rehearsing in COVIDian times has been a creative challenge: nine actors, 115 props, 75 costumes. Consider: “the actors, all masked, two metres apart, no physical contact, entrances and exits” — in a show where a boy carries a dead body offstage, partners dance, and marriages are consummated with a kiss. “In some ways it’s been a blessing, not a curse,” says Hobbs of the restrictions. “We’ve had to devise creative solutions…. And it’s hyper-theatrical, nowhere near realism in the first place. So we’ve leaned into that.”

Meanwhile Hobbs has been in Calgary workshopping a new version of a play, Fish At The Bottom Of The Sea by Edmonton’s Nicole Schafenacker, that she first directed at the 2008 Nextfest. Slated to be part of Firefly Theatre’s circus arts festival in late June, it’s a one-person show (starring theatre/circus artist Leda Davies) with “a big aerial component, bungee loops…” It taps Hobbs’ own training (in Australia) as first a stilt walker and aerialist. “I’ve always  been inclined to the physical,” she says with a certain comical understatement.

“A celebration of the theatrical and the childish imagination,” The Secret in the Wings may be complicated but “ultimately the message is so simple,” says Hobbs. Simple, perhaps, but eerily à propos at our moment in history. “Ultimately, kindness and generosity will get us through this short time we have together on this earth.”

Not quite the full ‘happily ever after’, maybe, but a restorative nonetheless in an isolating year.

Tickets for the online production, streamed through Friday, are available at uastudio@ualberta.ca or 780-492-2495.

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