First-Years Explore Adult Truths Hidden in Fairy Tales

By schwartzsa | January 10, 2012

By Jenna Reim ’12M

Adjunct Professor of English Lisa Gratz posed this question to students in her First-Year Seminar, Little Red Riding Hood or the Big Bad Wolf: Writing Yourself into Folk and Fairy Tales: “How do these antique [fairy tales] continue to thrive, grow, and fascinate as a basis for scholarship in our modern technology-driven society?” As students searched for the answer, they also discovered how these bare bones stories allow readers to connect contemporary and historical interests and conflicts through symbolic truths.

“My hope is that, ultimately, by analyzing a variety of interpretations and by crafting their own, students will gain an understanding of how their cultural heritage has been transmitted
through the metaphor of folk and fairy tales, and decide whether or not these fictional stories still retain the power to clarify the emotions and psychological conflicts that are present in all of us,” says Gratz.

Each week, students dissect these tales to examine theme, conflict, character archetypes, plot patterns, magical objects, settings, journeys, and conquests. They discovered how fairy tales have a way of allowing readers, writers, and filmmakers to color in features where there are none.

“I’ve learned a lot of things I didn’t know before about fairy tales—particularly that there are a lot of discreet ways that fairy tales address very adult truths in the world in a very creative way,” says Meghan McDevitt ’15. “We’ve done a lot of readings written by psychologists who feel that children learn life’s biggest lessons thorough fairy tales and that no other children’s books come close to teaching them these things.”

The course also explores fairy tales from a historical context. In the first few classes, for instance, students studied three different versions of Little Red Riding Hood to see how the plot and the priorities of the story changed dramatically over time in the hands of men: Perrault, the Brothers Grimm, and Hans Christian Anderson.

Learning community excursions also are part of the course and allow students to gain a deeper understanding of the subject matter. For its first trip, the class went to the Philly Fringe Festival to see The Devil and Mister Punch.

The show introduced students to the theatrical concept of the “fourth wall,” which is a commonly used device in many modern interpretations of fairy tales. The fourth wall acts as the divider between the audience and the performers, allowing the performer to tell their story. The discussion of the four walls leads to the topic of the elements of fairy tales, and is a concept the course currently is focusing on. “The structural elements of fairy tales can even be used as models to improve our creative writing abilities,” Gratz says.

For the second trip, students traveled to the Gershwin Theater on Broadway in collaboration with another first year seminar, Monsters in Our Midst, to see Wicked, a prequel to Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz.

Coursework culminated with a group project that requires students to write their own plays, taking a modern approach to a traditional fairy tale character, and then to perform them. To help students in the this process, Gratz called upon Bill D’Agostino, playwright and winner of the 2011 Montgomery Theater Too’s Adaptation Competition, to speak to the students about his personal experience adapting fairy tales creatively. His award-winning play, Fairy Tale High School, blends popular fairy tale characters like Cinderella, Jack, and the young shepherd from The Boy Who Cried Wolf, with elements of pop-culture media.

While imparting advice from the writing process to production, D’Agostino explained that what works on the page doesn’t always work on stage. Knowing the difference is what makes a writer a good playwright. While it was difficult to let go of certain elements on the cutting room floor, D’Agostino notes that the audience’s reaction to the world he created made it all worth it. “People were falling in love with these characters that didn’t exist before I wrote them,” he says.

The course culminated in with two performances. On Nov. 13, students performed their short plays for the campus community around a special bonfire.

“Regardless of who we plan to become after college, stories will always be important to all of us,” says Gratz. “We gain a sense of who we are through narratives, the telling of stories to ourselves and others about what has happened to ourselves and others about what has happened to us.”