Interview: Landis and Jennifer Smith Discuss ‘The Beast in the Bayou’ to play at Wolf Trap July 6-7th and Penn’s Landing July 11th

Landis and Jennifer Smith. Photo by Jason Sanders.

The great thing about fairy tales is their malleability. Fairy tales have been around for millennia and are often transported from country to country, morphing with each region and time that they inhabit.

Enchantment Theatre Company carries on the proud tradition of adopting fairy tales with it’s latest piece of children’s theater, The Beast in the Bayou.

The Beast in the Bayou began as part of Enchantment Theatre Company’s “Enchantment Everywhere” program, which creates new works of theater with portable productions which they take to schools that have recently lost field trip funding, and other locations throughout Philadelphia. To date, Enchantment Everywhere has served about 15,000 Philadelphia children each year for the past four years.

This month, Enchantment Theatre Company will bring The Beast in the Bayou to Wolf Trap in Virginia (July 6-7) and Penns Landing in Philadelphia (July 11). I spoke to Jennifer and Landis Smith, Co-Artistic Directors of Enchantment Theatre Company, about the production.

Nicole: Landis and Jennifer, thanks for talking to me! What can patrons expect from The Beast in the Bayou?

Jennifer: Well, it’s a version of Beauty and the Beast but recast as a regional folktale. It’s got a lot of classic themes from Beauty and the Beast but with some fun twists. For example, we wanted to set it somewhere in the United States so we thought a lot about folktales from different regions of the country and came up with this idea of a beast living in a bayou and protecting it. We have also added an environmental theme. The beast protects the animals who live on the bayou. There are masks, magic and puppets. It’s a lot of fun!

Did you write the story yourselves?

Jennifer: We did. Our artistic team likes to take traditional stories and put an original twist on them. Landis and I worked together on this piece with our director Leslie Riedel and music director Charlie Gilbert.

How does music fit into the story?

Jennifer: The story is told through spoken narration and music is in the background to support the story. The actors don’t speak, but instead act out what the narrator describes. It’s very physical theater.

Landis: As we looked at creating this story, the thing that bothered our composer was that at the end, when beauty falls in love with beast, he turns back into a handsome prince. We felt that belied the message that she should love him for who he is. So that transformation doesn’t occur in our version. It’s all about their love for each other, and their devotion to the environment. Then we thought, well in that case, why does Beauty have to be so beautiful and perfect? So in our version, she walks with a limp that she got from falling out of a tree as a young child.

We were driven to really examine what the story is and add some interesting twists in turning the tale upside down.

A performance of The Beast in the Bayou. Performers (l to r): Aaron Lathrop, Aaron Roberge, Peter Smith, Leah Holleran, and Erin Carney. Photo by Jason Sanders.

Oh, I like the idea that they are perfect in their imperfect state without having to become physically “beautiful.” One complaint that contemporary audiences have about Beauty and the Beast is that the Beast basically captures this woman and then she falls in love with him while his prisoner. Is that something you address?

Jennifer: We do use the concept of the father getting lost in the bayou and encountering the Beast. The Beast is rough with him because he doesn’t want anybody in the bayou, so he scares him off and tells him to send his daughter. But she agrees to go and stay because she sees he’s protecting the bayou. She becomes his ally. We debated a lot about that aspect of it because we were trying to push against the norms of the story. We go a little bit in the direction of the story but verge away from it in interesting ways.

Tell me about the Enchantment Everywhere Program through which The Beast in the Bayou was developed?

Jennifer: The Enchantment Everywhere program was developed so that the productions would be portable in order to serve schools that can’t come to the theaters. We’ve created very portable staging and lighting so it’s easy to travel to places like Wolf Trap and Penn’s Landing.

Landis: The Enchantment Everywhere program was created after our local Philadelphia school district cut funding for school trips to the theater. We went from a time when busloads of kids would be coming to our shows by the thousands to the current situation in which kids are not being offered this experience. We realized it was important for us to switch our model and take our shows to the kids. So we created four very portable shows depicting classic stories and took them to the kids. Our shows have been seen by over 13,000 children in the Philadelphia area in the last few years, mostly for free.

What made you two choose to focus your careers on children’s theater?

Jennifer: We have both always loved the more fantastical elements of storytelling so when we started thinking about the kind of pieces we would love to do, we always veered toward something that had a little more magic or fantasy and realized that our interests were really appropriate for young audiences.

Kids theater tends to get a bad rap and be thought of as purely entertainment, not something that stretches kids imaginations. We’ve always been very insistent in working to engage an audience and get them involved in what’s happening. To entertain, but also to involve the audience a lot more. Kids are often pandered to in a lot of ways, but I believe that kids are super smart and that they get more than we give them credit for.

Landis: Our theater is very theatrical. Ancient theater used masks, elevator shoes, and all kinds of devices to play upon the imagination. It’s only more recently that realism has dominated theater. We draw from that ancient tradition to stimulate imagination. Kids are naturally spontaneous and creative so we like the idea of exposing them to shows that might make them realize they can continue to fertilize their imaginations at home.

Who should come see this show?

Jennifer: Children, families, grandparents, everyone! Kids find it very accessible because of the visuals, the music, the acting and storytelling. I think parents and children will be delighted that it is something they can share with their children.

Landis: If it’s not good enough for the adults, it’s not good enough for the kids!

Running Time: 34 minutes plus a Q & A session after the show. No intermission.

The Beast in the Bayou plays on July 6 and 7, 2017 at 10:30am at Wolf Trap Theatre-in-the-Woods – 1551 Trap Road, in Vienna, VA., and on July 11 at 11am at Penn’s Landing – 101 South Christopher Columbus Road, in Philadelphia, PA. For tickets to the Wolf Trap show, purchase them online. The Penn’s Landing show is free to the public as part of the city’s Arts in Action program.

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Nicole Hertvik
Nicole Hertvik is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief at DC Theater Arts. She is a contributing writer to several publications in the DC region and beyond. Nicole studied international affairs at Columbia University and journalism at Georgetown. She was a 2019 National Critics Institute fellow at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre Center and a 2022 Entrepreneurial Journalism fellow at CUNY. Her reporting for DC Theater Arts was a 2022 finalist in the Society of Professional Journalists Best of DC Dateline Awards. Nicole lives in Maryland with her three daughters, two rabbits, and one very patient husband.


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