These days, many people find themselves acting like Chicken Little, running in circles, terrified that the sky is going to fall on their heads. For Matt Organisak Jenson, that strange truth felt particularly fitting when he and his musical collaborator, Marya Hart, sat down to adjust their latest production, a musical adaptation of the classic fairy tale “Chicken Little,” to fit COVID-challenged times.
It didn’t take long for Jenson and Hart, the creative masterminds behind Fidgety Fairy Tales, a traveling children’s acting troupe sponsored by the Minnesota Association for Children’s Mental Health (MACMH) that performs well-loved stories with a mental health twist, to realize that the little chicken’s story was perfectly suited for today’s reality. They realized that classic tale, which features a central character struggling to come to grips with her rampant anxiety and dangerously catching catastrophizing, would be a perfect way to help young audiences cope with their own and others’ mental health challenges.
The only problem was that statewide stay-at-home orders meant that the Fidgety players, a group of young actors ages 10-18, would have to put their in-person rehearsals and performances on hold. In the face of such major obstacles, many directors would cancel the show — or at least shelve it until the pandemic passed. Jenson and Hart felt that wasn’t an option.
“We knew we needed to figure out how to stage this show because the story felt like really important information to get out to our audiences right now,” said Jenson, MACMH’s director of arts and youth engagement. “We didn’t want to wait. We just had to figure out a way to get the production out there so people could see it.”
The Fidgety actors and directors were already halfway through the rehearsal process when the state went into shutdown mode. After some intense brainstorming, Jenson and Hart decided to create a video puppet show voiced by troupe members. They figured this was a zero-contact way to safely stage the show.
Switching from a live musical to a more static video took some adjustment, Jenson admitted. “We’d already staged a lot of the story as we were working on it, so it was hard at first to let go of what we thought it looked like on stage, to let the video be its own thing.”
The creative challenge of restaging a performance to meet the needs of the times turned out to be a good way for Jenson to channel his own anxieties.
“It’s felt like a good thing for me because it’s meant that we had to learn a lot of new things,” he said. “Somebody once said, ‘You feel better when you’re learning,’ and I agree. It is a way of coping with anxiety just to feel like you are learning and growing. Reimagining this show forced me to do that.”
The show must go on
The first thing that needed to happen to make the new production of “Chicken Little” a reality was that the Fidgety crew had to get together and rehearse. Face-to-face wasn’t an option, so Jenson scheduled a series of Zoom rehearsals and brainstorming sessions. He and Hart then sent follow-up emails to individual actors with critiques and direction.
“Fortunately we had already done a lot of the music rehearsal before everything happened,” Jenson said. “We were about 80 percent of the way there already.”
Because COVID restrictions meant that the cast couldn’t gather in one place to film a live version of the show or even record their performances, Jenson asked actors to record themselves reading their individual lines and then email the files to him.
“They all went into their closets so they had good acoustics for recording their lines,” he said. Jenson then uploaded the individual recordings and compiled them with puppetry that he filmed himself.
The whole process felt like going out on a tightrope. Jenson and Hart both have years of experience working with live actors at the Children’s Theatre Company, and they’d been working the same way with Fidgety Fairy Tales for over a decade. It would’ve been easy to simply cancel the show, but Jenson knew he owed it to the actors and the audience to keep it going.
“At first it felt like it was a scary switch,” he said. “Then it became, ‘Let’s make this the best thing it can be with the time that we have and the limitations we have. What can we learn?’” He taught himself how to use the video editing software Adobe Premiere Pro and blended all of the pieces into one seamless 15-minute show.
The day before the video was launched on YouTube, the cast got together on Zoom to watch the final product. It wasn’t exactly a traditional opening-night celebration, Jenson said, but the young actors’ enthusiasm was catching and inspiring.
“Being on the Zoom call with all of them was just wonderful,” he said. “Their energy is so great. When they get to be together, even if it is just on a screen, they’re so excited to see each other. It’s a wonderful energy to be around.”
Ruby Karason, 15, plays the role of Chicken Little. The Minnetonka High School sophomore said that she was disappointed to hear that Fidgety’s live shows would have to be canceled, but when Jenson told her about the plans to shift the play into a puppet show, she was all in.
“Our only two options were to either make a video with puppets or to not do it at all,” Karason said. “We all wanted to do the play, so we all pitched in and we made a puppet show video. It ended up being really good.”
Zada Basford-Hammond is in sixth grade at Anthony Middle School in Minneapolis. In her role as Therapist Wherapist, she is the one live actor in the video. She recorded her part at home with the help of her parents.
When Basford-Hammond saw the video in its final edited form, she was thrilled. She said that she had worried a bit that it might not all come together, but in the end the other actors, with the guidance of Hart and Jenson, created a great show despite the limitations.
“It’s puppetry and acting and singing and lovable characters,” Basford-Hammond said. “I think it will be a lot like the face-to-face performance.”
Fidgety season continues
There are still two more shows scheduled for this season of Fidgety Fairy Tales. Next up is “The Tortoise and the Hare,” which focuses on depression and how to boost your mood with nature. The third show, “Old Mother Hubbard,” looks at lasting trauma from food insecurity.
“It is interesting that we had scheduled these three stories before everything changed,” Jenson said. “They all feel pretty relevant to the times right now.”
Jenson said that he and Hart want each show to have a unique look and feel. He assumes that for safety reasons all shows will have to be on video for the time being, so he’s committed to making sure that they stand out from each other.
“The Tortoise and the Hare,” for instance, will be done in an “animated storybook” style, much like the PBS show “Reading Rainbow.” The parts will be read and prerecorded by the actors and edited to accompany a series of illustrations created by Fidgety graduate Gracie Borell, a St. Paul high school senior who is starting a fine arts program in the fall. The production is scheduled to premiere June 22.
“Each show is going to have a little bit of its own flavor,” Jenson said. “We are going to keep playing around with the format. We want to experiment with the form and discover other fun ways to tell a story besides a live show.”
It’s still not clear when the Fidgety actors will be able to come together again to practice and perform. Jenson said that though he understands that living day-to-day may be the healthiest option for everyone, that’s a tall order for a performance-based group that usually bases its existence on scheduling practices and live shows.
“Right now it feels like there is so much unknown so it is really hard to plan,” he said. As stay-at-home orders continue to relax in the state, he and Hart have considered the possibility that someday in the future the small group of actors will begin performing shows for small live audiences.
“I think one of the things that our show has going for it is that we are a small group,” he said. “There are times when we perform for hundreds of people but also times when we perform to groups of 20 or 30. Our shows are is really scalable. And there is something wonderful about doing smaller performances: The discussions that follow are often really important.”
‘A really nice, relieving experience’
Members of the Fidgety troupe said that being part of creating the video performance felt like a welcome break from their quarantine routines. While Karason said she felt sad about not being able to see her fellow actors or perform for a live audience, she welcomed the challenge of creating a new kind of show.
“I did like doing it,” she said. “It was fun to experience something different.” While she’s used to performing for live audiences and traveling the state to raise awareness of mental health challenges, she was happy that Jenson and Hart came up with a way for to continue to the group’s mission: “It still felt like we were helping our audiences. I think this is another way to raise awareness for people who can’t make it to our shows.”
Before “Chicken Little,” Basford-Hammond, who has been diagnosed with attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and anxiety, explained that she appeared in three other Fidgety Fairy Tales performances: “‘Puss in Boots,’ which was about autism; ‘The Ant and the Grasshopper,’ which was about ADHD; and ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb,’ which was about anxiety.” Those shows were performed in schools, churches and community centers.
She said she likes being part of Fidgety because of its mission — and because many of the other actors in the group also live with mental health concerns. She thinks that shows like theirs can help both kids and adults feel more comfortable being open about their mental health, and that feels important.
“It’s been very, very nice to know that a lot of the other people in these plays also struggle with mental health disorders,” Basford-Hammond said. “It’s been nice to be in a community where it is accepted. There is no weirdness about it. It’s given me the ability to talk about it a lot more.”
With their musical scores, humor and dancing, the Fidgety plays also do a good job of making mental illness feel less intimidating.
“With our plays, we are trying to help children understand that it is not bad to have a mental health disorder and there is nothing wrong with that,” Basford-Hammond said. “They want to have a more child-friendly understanding of it and turn it into something fun.”
Karason said that recording her lines solo felt strange at first: “You don’t know what the other people are saying before your line. That makes it harder to react. You just have to go by the script and how it tells you to do it. It was a fun challenge.”
The Zoom rehearsals and opening-night gathering also added a bit of normalcy to the actors’ temporarily upended worlds. They miss the routine of getting together with their fellow actors, and these opportunities helped remind them that they are still out there, just waiting until the day they can meet in person again.
“It’s been really fun to join on the Zoom calls and to record things,” Basford-Hammond said. “I’ve been feeling a little like, ‘Where did everybody go?’ So it’s been a really nice, relieving experience.”
New options for youth expression
Beyond the reworked Fidgety Fairy Tales performances, MACMH has also created two new ways for young people to address mental illness with art. Coming out of the nonprofit’s partnership with the Minnesota Department of Human Services (MDH), Youth Move MN is a chapter of Youth Move National, an organization devoted to uplifting the voices of young people who have lived experience in various social systems, including mental health, juvenile justice, education and child welfare. The new projects, a podcast focused on mental health created by Minnesota youth and a monthly online arts magazine called “Youth Voices of Experience,” were launched earlier this month.
“We have youth all over Minnesota sending in artwork and podcast segments talking about their experience with mental health,” Jenson said. “People are being very honest and vulnerable about their experiences.”
The young artists featured in the launch issue of “Youth Voices of Experience,” are between the ages of 12-22. After their art was selected for publication, they were paired with an adult mentor artist who helped them craft their artist’s statement.
Jarrett VanderPoel, 18, is a senior at Cloquet Area Alternative Education Program. Diagnosed with borderline personality disorder (BPD), mild schizophrenia, ADHD and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), he’s explained that he’s “grown up in foster care,” and since 2017 he’s lived in an adult group foster home in Cloquet.
A visual artist, VanderPoel submitted some of his work to “Youth Voices of Experience” after a teacher told him about the opportunity. Four of his pieces, all manifestations of different symptoms of BPD, appear in the June issue.
“With BPD there are chronic feelings pf emptiness and boredom and an unstable sense of identity,” VanderPoel explained. “One drawing addresses how when you have BPD you feel like you are on a roller coaster. Sometimes you are upset. Sometimes you feel normal. Every 20 seconds it is a new emotion. It makes a lot of relationships hard. I don’t have people in my life that can understand that I’m not doing it to be difficult. I’m doing it because of my mental illness. I want other people with BPD to not feel alone.”
Providing promising young artists like VanderPoel with an opportunity to get their work out into the world is another way to spread understanding of mental illness and how it impacts the lives of so many Minnesotans, Jenson said.
“The artists we worked with on this first issue are all really amazing and willing to be vulnerable in their work and how they talk about it. I think it’s going to be really helpful for adults to see a youth’s perspective on their experiences.”
That’s exactly what VanderPoel hopes will happen.
“The arts are very therapeutic,” he said. “I hope when I make art people can see themselves in it and maybe they can understand the struggles of somebody with my kind of issues. Sometimes you can’t say what you’re feeling but with art you can show what you’re feeling.”