Entering the Dark Forest: An Interview with John Gentile

An Interview with John Gentile, Adaptor/Director,

on Adapting and Staging Tales and Poems

from the Brothers Grimm

by Jane Barnette, Resident Dramaturg


JSB: Can you speak to the genealogy of this project?

JG: My interest in the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm goes back to my childhood when my father used to read them to me. His reading of “The Bremen Town Musicians” remains a favorite memory.  Since then, I have worked with Grimms’ tales in my storytelling classes and adapted some of the tales for a studio production at KSU back in 1993.  Dark Forest is a very different production in many ways. It is a fully produced mainstage production, enhanced (enchanted?) by the work of very talented designers, Erik Teague, Jamie Bullins, and Rebecca Makus. I decided that I wanted the design to reflect a poeticized, eroticized medievalism, since the tales reflect not only the world of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century of the Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm but also the feudal world of medieval Europe. Frankly, I wanted the production to avoid obvious postmodern juxtapositions with contemporary design because, personally, I feel today’s theatre does that so often now it’s almost a cliché. I also delayed the production a year to work with Erik Teague as costume designer since I knew this project was ideally suited to his own aesthetic and talent. My adaptation serves to return us to the original versions by Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm and to experience them in their full power and magic. Additionally, Dark Forest features the poetry of contemporary writers whose work extends, deepens, and challenges the classic tales. For those audience members whose understanding of the Grimms’ tales is primarily informed by the Disney animated versions, Dark Forest will invite them to see the stories in new ways.

JSB: How did you arrive at this version of the script?

JG: I knew that 2012 marks the bicentennial of the initial publication of the Grimms’ Kinder- und Hausmärchen (Children’s and Household Tales) and I decided that I wanted to revisit the script from the 1993 production for a possible new production. I began revising the script by dropping many of the tales from that script and considering different ones. This time, I was interested in the tales that take us to the really dark places, stories that explore extremes of emotion, as well as those that feature that strong sense of poetic justice so prevalent in the Grimms’ tales. I wanted to avoid obvious sentimentality, which can diminish the power, to my mind, of these stories. I also decided that I wanted to feature the poetry of contemporary poets who are working with the Grimms’ characters and stories, in order to give us different ways of experiencing and thinking about these fairy tales. I suppose I want it both ways: I want to return us to the original Grimms’ versions as an antidote to the Disney-ized expectations and I want to move forward to new ideas about these characters and tales. Finally, I want to feature lesser-known stories among those that now are among the canon of classic fairy tales.

JSB: The script has an unusual structure.  Can you tell us about that?

JG: Dark Forest does not follow the typical dramatic structure of a play. Its structure is more like a musical composition with its use of counterpoint; the different stories create the script’s forward movement and its emotional rhythm. Even more interesting to me is the question of voice in Dark Forest. The script is remarkable its polyvocality. Mikhail Bakhtain speaks of heteroglossia with its complex variety of linguistic codes and types of speech in narrative works of literature. But what I am referring to is the multiplicity of voices in Dark Forest that goes beyond the surface level of the different characters and narrators in the stories and poems. I am referring to the extraordinary polyvocality of the author’s voice in Dark Forest. I suppose the question I am asking is: Who is the storyteller? The answer is far more complicated than to say: the narrators of the various tales or the Brothers Grimm themselves. On one level, the script represents the voices of the various storytellers who told the stories to Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, whose names the Grimms recorded. One could even go further back to mention the variety of voices embedded in the original storytellers’ versions because those telling were themselves based on oral and literary sources. Then, on another level, the script represents the voices of the Brothers Grimm, who edited the stories in a variety of ways. Then, the script represents the voices of the different translators; I did not base Dark Forest on just one translation of the Grimms’ tales but worked with several. Then, there are the voices of the contemporary poets, whose poems serve to expand, deepen or challenge the Grimms’ take on these stories and characters. For instance, the two poems that I’ve written for this script serve to give voice to the inner monologues of Faithful Heinrich in “The Frog King” and the Sorceress in “Rapunzel,” significantly deepening those characters through soliloquy while still maintaining what we know of them from their respective stories in the Grimms’ collection. Then, there is my voice as selector and adaptor, which gives shape to and orchestrates the script as a whole. Then, of course, as with any play: there’s the performance level, which presents the voices of the actors—and beneath those the voices of the two directors and their creative team—whose work shape the interpretation of the stories in manifold ways.

JSB: Help us understand a bit more about the dramaturgical process of rehearsal—what research informs your adaptation and direction?

JG: I immerse myself in the stories. I taught the class Performing Folktales and Fairy Tales last fall and featured the Grimms’ collection to permit the students and me to work with the stories in performance. I also read criticism and interpretations of the tales from various scholars who come to the Grimms’ from different disciplines. Their work helps me consider different ways of thinking about these stories. Among them are Jack Zipes, a distinguished scholar of the Brothers Grimm and the Western fairy tale tradition, whose work is informed by the critical theory of the Frankfurt School, as well those scholars whose work emphasizes psychoanalytical interpretations of the stories. The essay by Leland Roloff, a Jungian analyst and my dissertation advisor at Northwestern, on “Snow White and Rose Red,” for instance, shapes my interpretation of that tale.  I also added the figure of the Green Man as a kind of narrator and presiding deity for the performance. I had researched the figure of the Green Man for another project and when I was considering ways of embodying the forest – its energy, magic, mystery, beauty, and danger - which was so important to the Grimms, I was drawn back to the Green Man.  The figure of the Green Man, by the way, does not feature in any of the Grimms’ stories (although the Wild Man, a similar figure in some ways, does). However, the Green Man image may be found in churches and cathedrals across Germany and the rest of Europe. In fact, the most beautiful Green Man face that I have ever seen I saw on a visit to Munich. I decided that I wanted the Green Man to serve as the animating force or instigator of these stories, as the embodiment of the numinous forest, which as I have said features significantly in the Grimms’ tales.  My thinking about the forest was confirmed by Jack Zipes’ comments in his fine book, The Brothers Grimm: From Enchanted Forest to the Modern World, where he writes:

           The forest allows for enchantment and disenchantment, for it is the place where society’s

           conventions no longer hold true. It is the source of natural right, thus the starting place

           where social wrongs can be righted. . . .The forest is unconventional, free, alluring, but

           dangerous. . . . As Urwald (primeval forest), the forest is the seat of tradition and justice;

           the heroes of the Grimms’ tales customarily march or drift into the forest and they are rarely

           the same people when they leave it. The forest provides them with all they will need,

           if they know how to interpret the signs. . . . The Grimms themselves were fascinated by the

           forest. (67 - 89)

Once I developed a revised script, I worked with student actors to present a dramatic reading. My work with the cast permitted me to hear the tales and listen to the actors’ responses and suggestions. Audience feedback to the reading was also very helpful in making decisions and moving forward with the script, as were comments by those artists on the production’s creative team, the designers and my co-director, Henry Hylan Scott. The adaptation process is never really done until the show closes – and then only until the next manifestation. I will continue to work on this script all during the rehearsal process as we bring these fairy tales into reality. 

Works Cited

Zahner-Roloff, Leland. “‘Snow White and Rose Red’: Contained Oppositions.”Psyche’s Stories: Modern

      Jungian Interpretations of Fairy Tales. Ed. by Murray Stein and Lionel Corbett. Vol. 2.  Wilmette,

      IL: Chiron, 1992. 111 – 22. Print.

Zipes, Jack. The Brothers Grimm: From Enchanted Forest to the Modern World. New York: Palgrave,

      2002. Print.

"The forest, dark and impenetrable to the eye, like deep water and the sea, is the container of the

unknown and the mysterious. It is an appropriate synonym for the unconscious.”

- Carl Jung, Collected Works, Volume 13 (1983): 194.

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