Utah Valley University has become a true example of quality theatre production with a mix of new takes on classic plays, unexpected adaptations, and brave stagings of more modern fare. The Grassroots Shakespeare Company has also been producing fun, fast, engaging treatments of Shakespeare using an Elizabethan style. The upcoming original production of The Little Mermaid combines the Grassroots signature style with UVU Theatrical Arts department chair Christopher Clark’s adaptation of the story. Clark is familiar name for theatregoers, having directed at UVU, BYU, Hale Centre Theatre (West Valley), Hale Center Theater (Orem), and the Utah Shakespeare Festival. Clark shares some insights on bringing a well loved tale to new life.
Your adaptation combines words from most of Shakespeare’s canon to tell Hans Christian Anderson’s beloved tale. What inspired this creative “mash-up”?
CLARK: I always felt like The Little Mermaid, in its earliest form, was a Shakespearean play. It has many of the same elements of Shakespeare‘s tragedies and “problem plays,” which are usually about a heroine on a journey. Sometimes the journey ends in a marriage, and sometimes it doesn’t. This one, the version many people don’t really know, doesn’t. It’s a sad story. But there are valuable lessons, and it just felt to me like there was a Shakespeare play in there.
What was it like finding the right lines from Shakespeare and transposing them into your adaptation?
CLARK: It was tricky. I feel like I know most of the plays pretty well because I’ve been teaching or studying Shakespeare for over twenty years. But finding the right words and phrases took some time. They needed to fit just right. Sometimes whole lines or scenes from other plays transplanted themselves easily into the action. Other times I really had to work to find the right phrase. Sometimes the right pieces came from the least likely plays. And I tried to stay away from passages that were too well known. I didn’t want it to be jarring for the audience. I want them to forget that these words and phrases already exist somewhere; this is a new piece.
Was there a specific Shakespeare play or plays that suited your adaptation over others? Was there a surprising discovery?
CLARK: If I had to pinpoint one play that I drew on more than others, I would say it was All’s Well That Ends Well. For one thing, it’s a play about a heroine on a journey to find love, and for another it’s a play that audiences don’t really know; so the language felt fresh. I also borrowed heavily from The Tempest and Pericles, because both of those plays deal frequently with the sea. All three of these plays are known as “romances” or “problem plays,” written towards the end of Shakespeare’s life. The Little Mermaid felt like a Shakespearean romance to me.
What draws you to Shakespeare as a theatre artist?
CLARK: I’m drawn to Shakespeare because I feel like his characters are so human and so real, and his plays have such universal themes. There’s something about these plays that seems to resonate with every culture. We connect to them. They are funny, wise, tragic, and poignant. Shakespeare was able to capture the essence of what life really is. And he did it with such beautiful language and style!
What is it like producing a play with Grassroots Shakespeare Company?
CLARK: This is my first real experience with Grassroots, though I’ve been associated with them for some time. Many of the actors and producers are my former students. I’ve helped advise in a few cases and even taught a jig once; but I’ve never been in a Grassroots show or done much with them beyond seeing their work. But I’m so excited that they have taken this project on! It’s perfect for their blend of innovation and tradition. I am so excited to see what they will do with it. It’s a great fit.
Have you adapted or written other pieces? Are they similar to The Little Mermaid?
CLARK: I wrote a piece like this before, about eight years ago. It was called A Marrying Man, and was about William Shakespeare getting married at age 18 to Anne Hathaway. It’s a fun script and it follows this same mash-up pattern, but I do think that Mermaid has even more depth and resonance than A Marrying Man did. I hope it does.
Are there other stories you would like to adapt? Why?
CLARK: We’ll see. There are certainly many elements of Hans Christian Anderson that appeal to me and many of the stories fit so perfectly within the world of Shakespeare. I think we’ll see how this one does and maybe I’ll look at doing another one. This is kind of the maiden voyage (pun intended). (Sorry.)
You’ve been both a director and a playwright. You also work with emerging artists. How do you think the role of a playwright or the process of getting a play produced has changed in the theatre?
CLARK: I’m not sure I know. I’m so new to playwrighting, honestly. I would defer a question like that to Melissa Leilani Larson, Mahonri Stewart, or Eric Samuelsen; three writers I respect and follow. They have had their new works performed time and time again and I think they would know better than me how that evolution is taking place. I will say this: we live in an expanding market. We have the ability to get our work out there in ways we couldn’t ten years ago. And that’s exciting. Fewer and fewer writers are sitting around hoping someone will pick their play up. They are making it happen online and in social media. It’s exciting!
What got you interested in playwriting? Are there interesting differences for you between the challenges of directing and writing?
CLARK: I certainly don’t think of myself as a playwright. If anything, I adapted The Little Mermaid more than I wrote it. What I have enjoyed, though, is turning my script over to a theatre company and letting them produce it without my intervention. In fact, I’ve been in Italy for the entire rehearsal period, and it’s possible I will be seeing the show for the first time when the audience does. And I love that. I want to see what they do with it. I want to see how the script works on stage. It will be a fantastic learning experience for me.
As a playwright, what would you like audiences to take away from The Little Mermaid?
CLARK: There’s an important and tragic message at the heart of The Little Mermaid that warrants a discussion. As a parent, the message of this play is very clear and necessary: we cannot alter who we are to make someone love us. They must simply love and accept us as we are, faults and all. It doesn’t mean we don’t strive to be better people, but altering our looks, our lifestyles, and throwing away our essence doesn’t ever really seem to work out for anybody. I don’t want my kids to do it. If they love someone and that person doesn’t love them back, move on. It will hurt for a bit, but it’s not worth the agony of self sacrifice. It’s an important lesson in growing up.