Fidgety Fairy Tales Use Song and Dance to Humanize Mental Disorders for Adults and Children

By Steiner, Andy | MinnPost.com, November 21, 2014 | Go to article overview

Fidgety Fairy Tales Use Song and Dance to Humanize Mental Disorders for Adults and Children


Steiner, Andy, MinnPost.com


Sometimes the best way to solve a problem is to set it to music.

Several years ago, staff at the Minnesota Association for Children's Mental Health (MACMH) were struggling to come up with a way to educate children about common mental health issues and break down stigma surrounding them. The association had received a grant for the project, but their early efforts weren't successful.

"We were going into classrooms and basically just lecturing," recalled MACMH Executive Director Deborah Saxhaug. "We didn't feel we were getting our message across. Then, we were in a brainstorming session and Matt came up with the idea, 'Why don't we do a musical performance?' It was a brilliant idea."

The "Matt" Saxhaug is referring to is Matt Jenson, MACMH's director of arts programming. At the time, he was working part time at the association as an administrative assistant. An actor and dancer, Jenson considered the MACMH gig to be a day job that helped support his larger artistic ambitions. His idea -- to develop a musical performance designed to help children understand the struggles and triumphs of kids with mental illness -- was enthusiastically supported by everyone at the association.

Jenson brought in his friend and collaborator Marya Hart, and together the two of them created what would eventually become Fidgety Fairy Tales, a series of musicals based on common folktales that explore and explain mental illness.

"Looking back, one of the best things we ever did was say to Matt, 'Run with this and see what you can do.'" Saxhaug said. "This has been one of the greatest things we've ever done, and it wouldn't be in existence if it wasn't for Matt and Marya."

Out of the first shows grew into a series of muscials that are performed by a troupe of professional child actors. Jenson and Hart, who became friends while working for the Minnesota Children's Theatre Company, wrote original words and lyrics for each play, which are in part comic and serious, addressing real-life mental health concerns in a language that appeals to both children and adults.

The Fidgety company is mobile, ("Everything in the show fits in the trunk of my car," Jenson said) and performances have been held in schools, community centers and churches. Because they are committed to making the shows accessible to as many audiences as possible, MACMH also offers performance rights to the show for a small fee. Productions have been staged around the United States and in Guam.

Earlier this month, I met Hart and Jenson for coffee, and they entertained me with stories about their creative process, and about the very serious mission behind their plays.

MinnPost: How did you get the idea for Fidgety Fairy Tales?

Matt Jenson: At the time, I was doing a lot of studying about fairy tales and how they change over time to tell different messages. I had the idea: We are trying to raise awareness about kids' mental health. Why don't we use these stories and these characters to do that?

At first, we thought it was going to be just this one little project where we'd have 10 performances around the Twin Cites. When the first play was over, we thought we were done and then people kept saying, "Oh this is so great. You need to come to our school." The project kept growing from there.

Marya Hart: Now we've written our sixth play.

MJ: And we're working on our seventh.

MP: Did you ever think about asking kids to help you write the plays?

MH: We worked on our first play with a group of junior high kids. We did it as a little after-school program. Our original thought was that we could do improvisation with the kids and help them create their own story. And then we realized after about five minutes that it wasn't going to work because so many of the things we say naturally are just too stigmatizing of mental health disorders.

For instance, the kids would be improvising a little scene and grandma says to the wolf, "You're crazy! …

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