Living in a Fairy Tale
As artistic director at the NW Children’s Theater, Sarah Jane Hardy brings classic fairy tales to life by adapting them into theatrical performances and adding a modern twist. Keep reading to find out how Snow White’s seven dwarves became spirits and how Alice ended up in a “jazz” wonderland.
Before moving to Portland in 2001, Sarah Jane, 46, made many stops along the way, traveling all over the world and studying multiple subjects. Growing up in England, Sarah Jane loved the theater, attending shows when she was a child and eventually participating in musical theater as a professionally trained dancer. After being a performer and teacher for years, she decided to take a break from the performing arts and go back to school – as a science major. However, by the time she was in her senior year, she realized she couldn’t stay away from the performing arts. She graduated with a double major and then earned an MFA in directing.
For the past eight years, Sarah Jane has been producing and directing all of the shows at the NW Children’s Theater. Sarah Jane collaborates with writers, composers and actors develop story concepts and bring them to life. “A huge amount of my job is really inspiring creative communication,” Sarah Jane says. From script development, rehearsals and design meetings, Sarah Jane is involved with the whole production process.
Sarah Jane’s education and wanderlust has helped her to explore her imagination and create a fantasy world for children. “Inspiring young audiences through live storytelling feels like I did some good,” Sarah Jane says. “I maybe made a difference.”
Have you always been interested in children’s theater?
It wasn’t my passion to work for children’s theater when I was studying. I was very interested in avant-garde theater. But because of my strong dance, choreography and teaching background, I was employed by children’s theater a lot in various different places. The more I worked in children’s theater, the more I realized that the freedom that I got from investigating ideas and the theatrical form, exactly what had drawn me to the avant-garde, is what drew me to children’s theater. Once I got into children’s theater, I never left.
What’s the theater scene like in Portland?
It’s vibrant, creative and collaborative. It has a strong focus on children. A lot of the families and organizations that I work with are very understanding, respectful and supportive of the relationship with the arts in children’s lives.
How do you pick what stories you want to bring to life?
I pick season by season. For the holiday show, we focus on stories with tradition and nostalgia. We also try to do something that is very multi-generational, hoping that children, parents and grandparents will all come to the theater together. In the spring, I try to do a fairy tale. Once those two season titles are in place, then I start looking to balance. I look for gender equality, adventure and humor.
I want to have opportunities when I’m reading a script. I want the experience to be immersive for the audience. That’s really important to me. I enjoy a rowdy house. I don’t enjoy so much a house where people sit perfectly still and watch without moving. I like the audience to be spellbound when that’s appropriate for the show, but I love to see the kids in the audience bouncing up and down in their seats because they’re so physically engaged in what they’re seeing. That’s one of the magical things about theater, that it generates a spontaneous response with a present artist.
How do you adapt a classic story that we all know into something new and exciting?
We’ve done a variety of different things with different stories. As far as the story itself is concerned, we don’t make a lot of changes in that particular instance. For example, when we do a fairy tale, I try to get at the essence of the story. What is it about this story that has made it survive for hundreds of years in many different incarnations? We try to fish out what we believe to be one of the central themes of the fairy tale, and then we build it from there into something that we think is going to be exciting for our audiences.
We did a version of Snow White several years ago. That show is all about beauty and the power of beauty at both ends of the societal beauty spectrum. A young person realizing that they’re beautiful and that there’s power in that, and then a person aging and recognizing that society or themselves has less use for their beauty. How do you deal with those two things? We chose to make it an anime show. We leant heavily on a lot of the tenets of anime and manga. Instead of seven dwarfs, we had seven spirits.
We also did Alice in Wonderland that was a jazz opera where we had all of the characters represent jazz icons in history. We were able to have a six-piece jazz combo onstage for all performances, which was just magical and exposed thousands of children to not only the story of Alice in Wonderland, but also the world of American jazz from traditional through contemporary.
Do your children influence your scripts?
Absolutely! I have two young daughters and they have made me far more understanding of the audience’s experience in general. I know what it’s like as a parent to take your children to an event. Having children of my own freed me up psychologically from trying to appeal too much to parents when the show was happening.
As a parent, when I take my children somewhere that’s specifically for them, I gauge the success of that experience based on their experience. It really doesn’t need to appeal to me if they’re having a great time. If I focus on the children having a good time, the parents will be more appreciative than if I put in a bunch of jokes that go over the kids’ heads, then if I try to weaken or dilute the experience so that it is appealing to everybody all the time. And of course, my girls like to come and give me notes and tell me what I’m doing wrong.
Do you have a favorite play you’ve produced?
That is so hard. I think that there are moments within shows that I feel like we nailed it; we got there. I don’t know that there’s one show that I would elevate above all of the rest. That’s like saying which child do you love the most? I can’t answer that – I love them all! I feel like some of them we get closer to what we dreamed. Sometimes we surpass what we dreamed. What I see on stage is the realization of thousands of hours of conversation and creativity. When I look at it, I see it as very contextual. It’s difficult for me to be objective.
Why is theater so important?
I ponder this question quite a lot because it’s what I choose to do with my time. At different points in history, it’s been important for different reasons. At this point, for Portland in 2015, it’s important because of a continued need for and love of storytelling and watching stories come to life. It’s really an important part and that is timeless. With theater, there is a real-time experience and a non-digital, person-to-person connection. You’re connecting with everybody in the audience. It’s a community. Every audience is a community. Every experience, every performance is different and unique. That relationship between the audience and the live actor is tangible and relevant and reminds us that we are all on this planet together, we’re all in this together, and there is really no substitute for person-to-person connections and experiences. It’s a shared community experience.
Postscript: I have fond memories of going to NW Children’s Theater with my dad and sister. I can confirm that real life stories stay with you and influence you as you grow up. It was a special treat to interview Sarah Jane Hardy.
Photography by Roger Porter