The Vision: Interview with stage director Kelly Kitchens
Seattle Opera: Kelly, you’re the stage director ofCinderella en España. What is the role of a stage director?
Kelly Kitchens: First and foremost, a stage director must have a strong passion for storytelling and connection to the story being told. The stage director is responsible for the creative interpretation of that story and overseeing the practical implementation of that vision. The stage director works closely with the creative team, production team, organization’s staff, and producers in all stages of this process. In bringing a story to life, directors communicate, collaborate, and coordinate across a wide range of disciplines. It is a lot of work—but it is work that is incredibly rewarding, inspiriting, and energizing.
SO: What's the most crucial element of any production?
KK: Collaboration around a great script or libretto and score. Whether making theater or attending theater, there is nothing like an ensemble passionately, skillfully, creatively telling a story together that they believe needs to be told. In that moment, magic happens. That kind of storytelling opens minds and hearts; worlds expand.
SO: Most of us are familiar with the Cinderella story, especially the Disney version. What is different about this retelling?
KK: I think people are most familiar with the Disney version of this ancient tale; but that is a very late addition to this ancient story. As Mary Northup says, “Cinderella, despite her popularity, has developed a reputation as a simpering, whimpering girl who is helpless until the right magic comes along. But this is the Cinderella of the later twentieth century. The earlier Cinderella, in many of her original forms, was not a wishing-only kind of person. She was self-reliant, devoted to family and ancestors, and willing to make her own future.”
SO: So how many versions of Cinderella are out there?
KK: Almost every culture seems have its own version of the Cinderella tale. The origins appear to date back to a Chinese story from the ninth century, “Yeh-Shen.” Countless later versions have been found and continue to be created. In the Algonquin version, she is the “Rough-Faced Girl” whose face and hands had been burned by tending the fire; China’s Yeh-Shen receives gifts from the bones of a fish; a male Cinderella appears in the 1905 Irish version; the prince, in an English version, falls in love with Tattercoats whilst she is still in her rags; and in an African version inspired by a Zimbabwe folktale, Nayasha befriends a little snake Nyoka who, in a surprise ending, turns out to be the Great King in disguise.
SO: Sounds like those are pretty different from the Disney Cinderella story we’re most familiar with!
KK: What all of these versions share is a young heroine who acts with compassion in often terrible circumstances; one who understands that status may shift but character and inner worth remain a constant. This is not a story about getting a pretty dress and marrying a prince. This is a story about the beauty of kindness and the ugliness in mistreatment of others. It is a story full of jealousy, wisdom, greed, and love. It reminds us that though it is not wrong to appreciate beautiful things, it is a mistake to think things or outward appearance makes you beautiful.
SO: What would you like to audience to take away or learn from this opera?
KK: The media and popular culture perpetuate and bombard women and girls with a beauty myth that is not only impossible to achieve, but also damaging to developing self-esteem and positive body image. These messages start young with girls and are very different than messages to boys. The recent covers of Girls’ Life and Boys’ Life magazines clearly show how the messaging towards boys and girls differs. The cover of the September 2016 Girls’ Life featured a thin, blonde model in full make-up surrounded by the text “Your Dream Hair,” “Wake up pretty!”, and “Fall Fashion You’ll Love”. The cover of the same month’s Boys’ Life magazine didn’t feature a model; instead, the center of the cover read “Explore Your Future” in black bold print, underneath read, “Astronaut? Artist? Firefighter? Chef? Here’s how to be what you want to be,” surrounded by pictures of a microscope, a computer, chemistry beakers, and a satellite. In telling this story of Cinderella, I want to focus not on the “beauty first message” that, as Tracy Mumford says, “follows every modern girl everywhere she goes, from the movie theater to the grocery store” but on the story of inner beauty; on the strength and resilience of a young hard-working girl who faces ugliness with kindness and perseverance. I want to inspire the audience to question their perception of beauty as a physical, fashionable attribute and redefine it as a character trait that expresses itself in acts of generosity, patience, and gratitude.
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