It takes two to tell Florida Studio Theatre's 'Snow White' — Director Jason Cannon and Writer Greg Banks share why.
Florida Studio Theatre is bringing a completely new meaning to the term “wearing many hats.”
The company’s latest children’s theater production, “Snow White,” features a dozen characters — and a two-actor cast to bring them to life.
MIND OVER MATTER
Director Jason Cannon says the first step in pulling this off was getting inside the heads of his actors.
“Your job (as director) is playing amateur psychologist,” he says. “You learn how each performer learns, what their process is — do they memorize first, get in the motions first, etc. Every actor is a little different in how they dig their way into the material.”
By gaining a better understanding of actors Jamie Molina and Liam Tanner, who are both FST apprentice artists, he was able to learn their needs and how to work together to tell the story authentically.
While more seasoned performers might have experience with extensive monologues or one-man shows, Molina and Tanner are both early-career actors who had limited background knowledge to draw from.
“They’ve never done anything like this before — there’s not a lot of college courses on how to play eight characters in a page and a half,” Cannon says with a laugh.
But they were up to the challenge, and so was Cannon. The actors share the responsibility of several characters such as the queen, prince and even the dwarfs at one point, so watching the other play each of these characters in rehearsals influenced what they brought to them.
They each have their own take on such characters, and Cannon says that’s one of the most entertaining aspects of the play. They’re two people of different height, voice and gender, and instead of letting that be a cause for confusion, it’s played for laughs.
But if they’re switching off roles, how does the audience stay on track? It’s all about visual cues.
Cannon says costumes are essential in this play. The dwarfs, for example, are distinguishable by baseball hats of different colors. When Tanner introduces them all, which takes a whole page and a half of the script to do, he changes identity with every change of a cap — a quick, efficient and modern way of identifying people that’s also accessible to children, Cannon says.
The same goes for the queen, who patrons can identify as whoever’s wearing the token queen’s cape.
“We want to keep the audience plugged in,” Cannon says. “The biggest challenge is clarity to the audience … that’s a technical exercise.”
FROM PAGE TO STAGE
British playwright and director Greg Banks was first commissioned in 2015 by the Children’s Theatre Company of Minneapolis to adapt “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.”
He’d been writing for the company since 2003 and had great success adapting other classics for small casts, such as a three-actor version of “Huck Finn” and a five-actor version of “Jungle Book,” so the theater thought he would be perfect for the job.
Banks, however, didn’t think it was possible to do “Snow White” with just two actors. He said he’d only do it if they agreed to make it a cast of three, and the theater obliged. But when he sat down to write, he quickly realized limiting himself to just two actors would allow the Snow White character to be more dynamic.
“It’s really lovely to see her going from lovely Snow White to stepmother who is violent and aggressive,” Banks says. “It’s fun for the actors and good for the audience because they see that we’re telling a story. Snow White isn’t actually that girl, she’s an actress capable of all emotions.”
This can teach children a larger lesson about how humans are multidimensional creatures, he adds, and that we’re all capable of both good and evil.
One of his biggest challenges had nothing to do with cast size. Banks says most fairy tales aren’t actually that long, sometimes only a few pages in a children’s book, so most versions don’t provide the kind of detail needed for a full-fledged stage production.
Most iterations of this story don’t give much insight into what the huntsman says to Snow White when he takes her into the forest with the intent to kill her (and eventually decides against it), for example, but plot holes like this also provide a gold mine of creative opportunity for Banks.
“There is a lot of complexity in there that I can draw out as the adapter,” he says. “I can make the story about whatever I want to … so you see him (the huntsman) having a dilemma because if he lets her go he’ll lose his job and his kids will starve.”
MUSIC TO THEIR EARS
Most people wouldn’t immediately classify “Snow White” as a musical, but music plays an important role in this FST production.
Banks says he tries to incorporate live music into every play he writes, and when Cannon received the scripts for his adaptation of “Snow White,” he noticed it came with lyrics to a few songs. There was no sheet music — the final product was up to the personal interpretation of FST — but that made it even more rewarding.
“We discovered Tanner’s good at the guitar and they’re both good singers, so we came up with three songs that are in the play now,” Cannon says. “The guitar became part of the set design.”
Asked if the songs are tools to push the plot forward or more for the sheer fun of having a musical component (kids love something to bop their little heads to, after all), Cannon says his motivation was definitely the former.
One is a lullaby that Snow White’s mother used to sing to her, and another is an emotional exploration of what it feels like to be abandoned. Whenever they’re sung, the songs provide audiences the opportunity to tune into what’s really happening beyond the basic plotlines and gain insight into the characters’ emotions through a different artistic medium — one that both Banks and Cannon believe is accessible for audiences of all ages.
TALE AS OLD AS TIME
“I always believe that when you’re adapting these stories for young ones, the adults have to be completely engaged as well,” Banks says. “We don’t want to patronize kids and therefore adults. Kids want to know about the world, so I talk about the world when I can.”
Banks does this in subtle ways, citing the scene in which the dwarfs are debating whether they should invite Snow White, a stranger, into their house. Without being truly dogmatic, he likens this to the debate going on in several countries right now about refugees and immigrants.
Is she a thief? Can we trust her? The dwarfs ask many of the questions people ask of those seeking asylum and/or a new beginning in a new country.
Cannon says one of several reasons he was drawn to Banks’ adaptation is the modern twist he puts on a beloved story.
“At the end of the play he gave Snow White a lot of agency — he really empowered the female character,” Cannon says. “She ends up taking control of her own life, and there’s an incredible lesson in that.”
That lesson has something to do with how we treat the people around us and ourselves, and how it’s our responsibility to stand up for ourselves when we aren’t being treated fairly.
Cannon points out that many classic fairy tales are now seen as problematic, or at least having problematic elements, but Banks made sure to avoid that in his adaptation. Instead of having people treat Snow White as an object in need of protection, she’s a person with agency who can teach audiences of all ages that all people have value.
“It’s important to us to not buy into old tropes and out-of-date ways of thinking about humanity,” Cannon says. “We build our theater traditions upon the Greeks, who believed theater was a reflection of society at that moment. We want to empower young audiences, show them their point of view on the world is legitimate.”