One of the most surprising aspects of my job as executive director of Children’s Fairyland has been learning how passionate people are about our puppet shows. Parents are definitely not shy about expressing their feelings when they think we’re off base in the content, characters or language we present. Since we’re the longest-running puppet theater in America—322 shows in 46-plus years—the dialogue is ongoing, and reflective of the changing times.

Last week, we received a few complaints about our current production, “Tashi, A Boy from Tibet.” I’m very proud of the way my staff came together to discuss issues of cultural differences ­­and the distinction between “scary” stories and those we call “Barneyized,” meaning that there are no conflicts, just happiness all around.

Our “Tashi” is the story of a boy who refuses to hunt animals for food, which causes him to be banished from his home by his angry father. On his journey he meets a magical monk, saves a village from a wicked demon by putting out a fire and makes friends along the way.

Our first complaint came from a grandparent who said her child was scared by the show, particularly the demon that kidnaps a child and referenced the demon’s desire to eat the child.

A number of us went out to observe the audience’s reactions to the show. We noticed that it was the adults who were upset, not the kids. Nonetheless, we chose to alter the two controversial bits.

Our team also talked about the other complaints—that the demon’s mask and a fire (ultimately put out by our hero) were too scary—but decided not to delete those.

At Fairyland, we know that a good story begins with “Once upon a time,” and ends with “happily ever after.” Fairytales teach kids how to deal with fear in a safe environment (in our case, while sitting next to their adults), and provide teachable moments that prepare them to deal with fear in the real world. The concepts of good and evil, meanness and kindness and the overcoming of huge (and scary) obstacles have always been part of these stories, and always will be.

Fairyland’s education specialist, Shana Barchas, holds advanced degrees in teaching and counseling psychology. Randal Metz, our master puppeteer, has been producing or helping produce shows at our puppet theater for 45 years. But all of the members of Team Fairyland jump in when we have discussions about content, and we benefit from their perspectives.

Shana believes that “seeing a story that has an element of fear that’s resolved prepares a child for being afraid of things in real life without an element of real danger involved.” Her strongest childhood memory of Fairyland is of our Crooked Man. “I was very afraid of him,” she says, “but I liked him.”

Randal pointed out that we are used to violence and fear in stories that are familiar to our Eurocentric culture: Hansel and Gretel being thrown into an oven and eaten, the Wicked Witch trying to kill Dorothy and setting her friend on fire, Captain Hook stealing boys and drowning them. After all, many of us have grown up with these stories. We’re less familiar with a Tibetan demon who wears a mask and kidnaps kids, and therefore perhaps less comfortable with the content. Even the violent Punch and Judy puppets—so popular in Britain—are considered culturally unacceptable in our (paradoxically more violent) country.

During the decades he’s worked at Fairyland, Randal said the most controversial show was a production of “King Thrushbeard,” a tale quite similar to Shakespeare’s “Taming of the Shrew.” In it, a proud and arrogant girl learns humility by serving a man, only to find satisfaction in becoming a kinder and less selfish person. (Spoiler: she eventually wins the prince.) It probably wasn’t the best choice in the 1970s, when feminism was catching fire. Randal still thinks that the changes we made in that production hurt the story by shortening the journey the heroine made to self-realization.

Over the years, our discussions have resulted in “color-blind casting.” Who says that fairy princesses or sorcerers have to be Caucasian?

So that we could better understand some of the issues raised by our guests, Shana ordered copies of “Touch Magic: Fantasy, Faerie and Folklore in the Literature of Childhood,” by Jane Yolen. “A fine story—whether for children or adults—should reflect both dark and light, both shadow and glare,” Yolen writes, noting that the Disney versions of classic tales simplify good and evil. “But the power of the tales is that they are not that simple after all. They are as evocative, as sensual, as many-faceted, as disturbing, as slippery as dreams. They offer a moral, they speak to the human condition, but it is not always the condition or the moral one immediately sees.”

We are now in the process of creating a handout for parents and caregivers that shares some of what we’ve learned about the intrinsic value of fairytales, in all of their complexity.

Here’s how we ultimately altered “Tashi”: we removed the reference to eating children, kept the kidnapped child offstage and reduced the time it took our hero to extinguish the fire. We now we refer to it as “Tashi 2.0,” and think any remaining fears or questions kids might have can be resolved by “teachable moments” shared by parents.

Before we made any of these small changes, Shana went out to view the kids’ reactions to the original show. After its conclusion, she asked a 3-year-old girl who had been dancing to the show’s Tibetan music what she thought the show was about. “People and animals,” the girl replied.

On my office door I’ve posted a quote from Albert Einstein: “If you want your children to be bright, read them fairytales. If you want them to be brilliant, read them even more fairytales.”

We will continue to follow Einstein’s wise advice, but we’ll also always be open to dialogue with the beautifully diverse community we serve.

Editor’s Note: This piece reflects an individual opinion and is not a reported story from Oakland Local. Oakland Local invites community residents to share their views about events and issues in Oakland. See our guidelines.

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