Hi, parents and other conscientious grown-ups!
Before seeing New Village Arts’ production of The Nutcracker with young children, it’s a great idea to get a sense of content.
Is it scary? Is it sad? How young is too young?
As one of the playwrights of the show, I want everyone to see it and enjoy it. As a father and preschool teacher, I want you to do what’s right for your kids. And, of course, every child is different. While this is the West Coast Premiere of THE NUTCRACKER, it has been produced annually for the past seven years by the House Theatre in Chicago.
With that production, we’ve had three and four year olds come with their families and have the time of their lives, laughing in delight at the silly toys and their shenanigans, shouting in defiance at the mean rats who are trying to ruin Christmas, and following right along with the deeper themes of the show without any trouble at all. Some of my four year old students who saw the show last Christmas played pretend as spooky rats well past Valentine’s Day. We’ve also had sensitive (and I don’t use that term disparagingly) six year olds who needed to leave the theater at the scarier moments. In many cases, they’ve still raved about the show and wanted to hug all of the actors at the end. Only a couple of parents have reported bad dreams and sleepless nights, but it has happened and it breaks my heart. And so I want to help you make the best choice for your family.
Things to know:
The play begins with the implied (and offstage) death of Clara’s older brother, Fritz. He returns in the form of a magical nutcracker (a gift presented by Uncle Drosselmeyer) to help save Christmas from villainous, British-accented rats. The goofy adventure that unfolds is spurred by the grief of losing a loved one, and the rest of the family’s journey towards healing. Think about some of your favorite Disney films – Frozen, Bambi, Lion King – each has a similar loss at the beginning of the story that propels the characters to find hope and love.
Clara’s toys come to life and are hilarious and lovable – It is a holiday show, after all! They include a robot, a monkey, and a baby doll. The final scene before intermission takes the characters to the backyard where there is a ton of confetti snow.
The Rat King is the much alluded to scary villain of the play and is the “big bad” the heroes must defeat. He is portrayed by a giant puppet with red glowing eyes that surrounds the space, accompanied by dark lighting and a loud, scary voice-over (also British). He threatens and tries to eat our heroes. It is meant to be scary. We meet him once, near the end. It is the most intense sequence in the play, when all hope seems lost and our heroes are in the most danger. It is the climactic face-off the play’s action is building towards.
The heroes win!
The show is about two hours long with an intermission halfway through.
Nothing I’ve mentioned so far is really much of a spoiler, and matter-of-factly taking the suspense out of the story is a good way to relieve some anticipatory anxiety. I don’t recommend laying it on too thick though, or giving multiple warnings with a concerned look on your face… you may end up causing more suspense than the play does. I suggest something along the lines of, “I heard that at the end there’s a really big scary puppet, and if you need me you can sit in my lap, but I don’t think we’ll be too scared.” The actors will also be in the lobby after the show to give high fives, sign the specially designed programs for kids (complete with coloring pages and a word search).
Sitting a few rows back from the stage can also be a good emotional buffer for younger kids. In any case, don’t let your young kids sit by themselves. They may need to borrow your lap, and there’s enough grown up stuff going on that they may need to ask you a question or two. Last year in Chicago, I sat in the front row with a six year old family member, and when we finally met the Rat King, he held onto my arm as tightly as he could (which I loved) and asked in a rather loud and urgent whisper, “Why did you write this part?!” (which concerned me). In the end, the heroes won, the monsters were vanquished, the Nutcracker was laid to rest, and Clara was reunited with her parents. And my six year old relative said it was“awesome!” And even though he closed his eyes (mostly) during the Rat King sequence, when the play was over he declared, “That was so scary!” with the giddy pleasure and pride of someone who had just braved an excellent roller coaster. He also wanted to take a look at those puppets after the show, just to reassure himself that they weren’t real. This is welcome. Some informed families have asked to see them before the show starts, and any actor or crew member at The House will be happy to help you do just that. Letting them see that the Rat King is actually just paper maché and bicycle lights can go a long way to helping them remember that it’s all pretend.
If your kids already enjoy a delightful fright, if they talk about ghosts and mummies at Halloween and like playing games with monsters and scary bad guys, if lying on the floor and pretending to be dead (for a minute) is occasionally an element of their pretend games, then I predict they’ll be just fine. Better than fine; I predict they’ll have a total blast! But if being chased by the tickle monster upsets them and the idea of death causes them significant concern and anxiety (a normal developmental stage that can come at a variety of ages), then now might not be the right time for this show. Based on our experience over the past couple of years, I would feel safe recommending this show for most kids five and up, and for some kids who are still three and four. But you know your kids, and if you have more specific questions, the staff at New Village Arts will be happy to answer them.
One of the reasons for playing pretend, one of the reasons for going to the theater, is to practice the things we are afraid of. Casting our lots alongside imaginary heroes is a great way to practice our own heroism. Going along for the ride as a young girl faces monsters, and as her family faces grief, may cause moments of real fear in us. But the courage we gain by going on the journey is also real. And when we can’t quite muster it on our own, the courage lent to us by sitting on our parents’ laps and hiding our eyes behind their sleeves, or even by sharing a cookie in the lobby though the play is still happening… that’s real, too.
A NOTE FROM THE DIRECTOR
In 1997, a friend dragged me to see the original film version of The Full Monty. Instantly, it became a personal favorite. When it was announced that it would be turned into an Americanized musical, my feelings were mixed. It could be really exciting as a musical, but it could also lose the emotional qualities that were at the center of the original story. So it was with some trepidation that I headed to the Old Globe in the summer of 2000 to see the pre-Broadway production. Happily, my fears were put to rest. The musical still held on to the essence of the film. It still had heart and wasn’t afraid to show it.
“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself”—FDR’s famous quote during the Great Depression could easily be a tagline for this show. These men are all suffering from economic insecurity, and that insecurity leads to other insecurities about who they are, what they are worth and what is really important. Sometimes we need strip ourselves down, get at the core and understand ourselves before we can show others who we are. I think that is the beauty of this story. It’s not the surface that counts, it’s what’s underneath.
And, of course, sometimes you just need to dance!
Manny Fernandes, Director
Actor Dana Case, playing the role of Marty, shares her impressions upon reading CIRCLE MIRROR TRANSFORMATION for the first time:
- I like the simplicity of it. The musicality.
- Quick snippets that are filled.
- Sort of Pinteresque. So much between the lines.
- I care about these characters.
- It starts out seeming trite, but steadily grows in depth.
- Ends with hope.
I jumped at the chance to direct this Obie Award-winning play because there are so many things that I love about Annie Baker’s work: the motley crew of quirky characters, the naturalistic way that her characters speak with sparse, nuanced dialogue, the clues that are revealed but not put together until scenes later, and her fascination with small-town sensibilities.
Annie Baker was highly influenced by Chekov, and, like Chekovian characters, these Shirley, Vermont residents are preoccupied with learning to accept disappointment in their lives. The lovelorn characters, regretful over misspent youth and missed opportunities, bump up against each other in poignant moments that are touching and awkward and funny.
I was drawn to the role of Marty immediately because, like her, I am a teacher. I must admit, I still tear up a little when Marty is disappointed that Schultz’s family exercise hasn’t worked — she feels she has let him down. Most of the exercises that Annie Baker showcases in her script are based on the teaching practices of Viola Spolin, whose work was intended to help actors focus their awareness in order to respond authentically to the given circumstances of a script. “Circle, Mirror, Transformation” is an improv favorite that acting teachers have used for years.
One of the challenges in producing Circle Mirror Transformation is the many blackouts and the lack of an intermission. Annie Baker is obsessed with pauses and silences and cares more for content than form. “Circle Mirror Transformation without pauses is a satire,” she says, and she provides a chart with instructions as to the duration of each pause or silence, long or short. We are honoring the playwright by following her instructions exactly as prescribed.
My painful separation from the show has already happened – we opened. The experience is kind of like sending kids to college; as a parent, you want to hover, but you also know that they need to forge ahead on their own.
I first read CIRCLE MIRROR TRANSFORMATION with a group of NVA actors. Dana Case, Jack Missett, Daren Scott, Amanda Sitton, the late Sandra Ellis-Troy (pictured left), and I were participating in an Ensemble retreat out in Palm Desert. We read about 6 plays that weekend, and, of all the plays we read, this one stood out as the most exciting for NVA to produce.
We applied for the rights to produce the play, but we were denied for two years in a row because of other planned productions. We were thrilled to receive the rights for Season 13, which enabled us to produce the San Diego premiere of this prize-winning play.
What I love about this story is that it arrives at universal truths through simple storytelling. The show is remarkably subtle. Annie Baker trusts her audience to get to know these characters and travel with them through the story. She gives us time to meet them, time to get to know them, and time to share what they are going through.
There’s no big dramatic action that happens in this play. It’s about ordinary people in a small town, going through relatively ordinary things. But, through the work of a creative drama class, the characters’ inner workings are revealed: slowly, comically, intimately, and beautifully. It’s a perfect piece for the NVA stage.
Come and take the time to get to know Marty, James, Theresa, Schultz, and Lauren. We firmly believe that you’ll be glad you did.