"Cinderella" is one of those timeless tales. A girl finds herself trapped in an economic class that she desperately wants to rise out of, yet no one, including herself, believes she can. Most kids know the Disney animated film version, and a live-action film came to theaters a few weeks ago.
Zach Theatre’s family theater program, which has made a name for itself by taking classic stories and putting a fresh spin on them — think "The Three Little Pigs" on stage now and "The Little Mermaid" of 2013 — is taking on "Cinderella" and giving us a modern, bilingual version. "Cenicienta" will be onstage Saturdays and some Sundays April 18 through May 23, with an autism-friendly performance on May 17.
This is the third year Zach has done a bilingual family show and the second time it has teamed up with Teatro Vivo. Their previous collaboration, "Mariachi Girl," premiered in 2012.
"Creating new work is really important to me, especially bilingual work," says Zach’s education director Nat Miller.
Zach’s family shows are seen by schoolchildren during the week, many from low-income schools with significant Hispanic populations. For many, Spanish is their first language.
Working with Rupert Reyes of Teatro Vivo is important to telling the story right and being culturally sensitive, Miller says.
Yet it will appeal to any audience regardless of culture or primary language. "Every culture has their Cinderella story," Reyes says.
"Cenicienta" will be performed about 40 percent Spanish, 60 percent English, but, through the action on stage, speakers of either language should understand what is happening. Good bilingual theater is not about parroting in Spanish and English or throwing in Spanish words just to make it bilingual, Reyes says. It’s about letting the action lead and using both languages to advance the story.
Instead of writing the script and then going into rehearsals, Reyes, Miller and Glass Half Full Theatre’s producing artistic director Caroline Reck collaborated by trying out different scenarios with actress Gricelda Silva, who plays the main character of Belinda, and then writing down the final script. It’s a different way of doing things for Miller and Reyes but something Reck is very comfortable doing.
Belinda is a girl whose father is from Mexico, and her primary language is Spanish. Her mother has died, and her father is now remarried to a woman with two daughters (sound familiar?). The father is now gone. While the stepsisters and stepmother are Latino, their primary language is English.
Belinda is very creative and intelligent, but she is also very shy and lacks self-confidence. She’s written a poem that has been submitted to a contest.
The women are preparing for a big party, and Belinda gets sent to the basement to get ready for the party. There, she re-creates the classic story of "Cinderella" using objects in the basement. Nesting funnels become the stepmother and stepsisters. A magnifying glass on a stand is the prince. Cinderella is a napkin folded to look like a girl. The fairy godmother is a teapot.
Reck said she selected objects based on shape, having a human quality and how they can be transformed and manipulated throughout the story. She wanted there to be moments when the audience would remember what the objects are and be able to identify with Belinda as a girl who is using her imagination to tell stories with regular objects they might find in their house, too.
"She has all these different characters inside of her," Reck says. "She’s a remarkable storyteller. She just hasn’t found her audience."
The women upstairs represent more of the traditional roles given to women and to "Cinderella." Beauty is important, as is finding the right man to take you away from your life. Belinda downstairs represents a more modern idea, that you can rise from wherever you are by using your intelligence.
In the end, when Belinda’s poem wins the contest, the organizers are trying to figure out who wrote the poem. Of course, like the glass slipper, the stepsisters try to play it off as theirs. Yet, because the poem contains Spanish, and that’s not the sisters’ native language, it becomes clear that it’s not their poem. It has to be Belinda’s. Our heroine gets recognized for her creativity and intelligence.
"The message to children is that they have a hidden talent that they need to nurture," Reyes says.
It’s also about embracing who you are, no matter what language you speak.