Hans Christian Andersen: Tales Real & Imagined
The Danish author comes to life in a new Off-Broadway play opening May 5th
The Emperor’s New Clothes. The Little Mermaid. Thumbelina. The Tinderbox.
With more than 200 beautifully written fairy tales and stories to his name, the list of literary contributions made by world famous Danish author Hans Christian Andersen goes on and on, all the while defying linguistic barriers, transcending cultural differences, and resonating with readers and audiences across the globe.
It goes without saying that Andersen and his stories occupy an outsized role in Danish life, culture and history. But the Danish bard is also a popular figure in the Big Apple. Just off Central Parks’ Conservatory Lake, a nearly 10-foot tall bronze statue — erected in 1956 to mark the author’s 150th birthday — celebrates his life and work and, perhaps, his most famous work of all: The Ugly Duckling.
Today, that statue is joined by another New York-based Andersen tribute as Hans Christian Andersen — Tales Real & Imagined readies its off-Broadway premiere at The Duke on 42nd Street.
Denmark In New York sat down with playwright Eve Wolf and director Donald T. Sanders of Ensemble for the Romantic Century to talk about what makes Hans Christian Andersen so remarkable and how they plan to recount his extraordinary life and fairy tales to New York audiences.
Denmark In New York: Before we talk about the play itself, we would like to know a little more about Ensemble for the Romantic Century, how it was founded and why you settled on such an intriguing interdisciplinary format for your productions?
Eve Wolf: I founded the ensemble [Ensemble for the Romantic Century] in 2001. My main impetus for it was to create a new context for listening to classical music. I am a concert pianist and I have a great interest in history and music history. When I play music I always imagine narrations, tales and stories. And that is the reason why I wanted to create a space that reaches out to audiences with a new approach. I wanted to let people experience classical music in a completely different context whereas people can almost relive the era by being transported in time by the music and its story.
Donald T. Sanders: I became involved in the ensemble in 2004 after Eve had founded it. I was intrigued by it after seeing a production. I was fascinated by the combination of classical music and the accuracy of the historic material used to create the production. I’ve always been interested in new theatrical works although I’m an great admirer of the classics and very trained in the classics myself. In 2004, I started doing productions about American artists through the power of both music and documentary materials and primary sources such as essays, letters, and diaries written by the artists themselves. For me, this created a very unique art experience within the field of theatre.
Most people have encountered Hans Christian Andersen in their childhood and youth through animations, cartoons, and children’s books. Can you explain the approach that ERC adopts in their telling of Andersen’s works and life?
Eve Wolf: We used largely primary source documentation. Hans Christian Andersen himself left behind lots of letters and diaries so there was a vast amount of material for this piece. For this production in particular, we also looked into a number of biographies to get to know Hans Christian Andersen. And despite the huge amount of material it has been amazing to work with, because of who he was. I’ve always loved Hans Christian Andersen. We all do here. When I started this project and started to dwell onto the life of Hans Christian Andersen it was really a whole new look on who he was and what the fairy tales actually meant. During my research for this play I found that [the fairy tales] can be interpreted as representation of his inner self.
How does ERC’s unique format help audiences understand who HC Andersen was and the subtexts of his works?
Eve Wolf: What we’ve done particularly is to interweave his real life into the script with the fairy tales so the audience can see how the fairy tales came to live through the author’s own life.
There are so many aspects of his own life presented in his fairy tales that are so important in order to understand who he was: his relationship with his patrons’ son; his relationship with his benefactors, the Collins, who were an upper class family from Copenhagen; his relationship with his mom, father and stepfather just to mention a few. All these relationships are woven into some enactments of the fairy tales when they relate to the actual life experience.
Donald T. Sanders: This play is about Hans Christian Andersen, don’t get me wrong, but it has so many universal aspects that it in fact could be about anybody. By taking a look at the dynamic psychological aspect of the story — such as him being a sensitive child, him trying hard to find himself a job and him struggling to find his identity too — shows that this is a real story that the audience can follow along. While directing the play I tried my best to reveal the dynamic of what is primal of the story that everybody could relate to.
Why did you decide to do this production on Hans Christian Andersen, his tales and his life? And what do you think Hans Christian Andersen and his fairy tales brings to the table in America?
Eve Wolf: I think this is an “everyman’s story,” because it adds deep feelings. It’s about looking at people from every background and realising the great potential that each person has. It’s very moving, I am about to choke up just thinking about it. The fact that Hans Christian Andersen’s patrons recognized and cultivated him by taking him in almost as an adopted child is something very beautiful. I find that it would be true in every culture to learn about that form of kindness.
The production of HC Andersen: Tales Real & Imagined will be accompanied by live music by Benjamin Britten and Henry Purcell — two English composers along with the American composer Samuel Barber and the Estonian composer Arvo Pärt. How did you settle on a British, American and Estonian musical accompaniment to a theatrical work about a Danish author?
Eve Wolf: I didn’t decide to line it up just because he was Danish. Instead I looked for something I call “the sound scape of the inner world of Hans Christian Andersen”. As I was reading Hans Christian Andersen’s work these sounds came to me. The composer Benjamin Britten also struggled with his sexual identity and there was a lot of inner conflict and also a love of children of innocence and that resonates with the inner self of Hans Christian Andersen. This music I chose expressed the author’s inner state of being for me. The same thing goes for the choice of Samuel Barber because he, in his life, also experienced inner pain — a pain that you can feel in his music. In this particular production we chose to have a counter tenor because Hans Christian Andersen had a very high voice and was made fun of. Henry Purcell was also a counter tenor. So I had many reasons to choose these specific composers.
With that said, I really do enjoy Danish music, Scandinavian music in general actually, but sometimes things don’t pair absolutely. That’s why I chose to look for composers that had similar experiences in their own life who through their art created that language of pain, just as H. C. Andersen did.
Donald T. Sanders: When I think of Danish culture I think of the Danish ballet master August Bournonville who created these wonderful ballets where he took different ideas from different cultures. I also think about the fact that Danish culture was so receptive for Hans Christian Andersen. The combination of him moving his private experiences into an international experience is very important — especially in the arts. As much as everything we do comes from our national identity it also moves up and always has to join what’s happening in the rest of the world of arts.
HC Andersen is very much an old world storyteller but remains extremely popular today amid the excesses of the digital world. What does Andersen’s cultural transcendence and timelessness say about the importance of fairy tales in our lives?
Eve Wolf: There’s this universality in fairy tales that connects us all to each other. We have the story about the Princess and the Pea that is about being so sensitive that you are noble. The Little Mermaid is about love that is not reciprocated. All of these tales have resonance and they will never not have resonance, because they are all about the human condition. They will always be timeless, I believe, because they address the basic human questions like ‘Why are we here? What are we doing here? What is our purpose?’ and questions about love, loss, death, relationship — all in all while doing it in the most beautiful and poetic language.
Donald T. Sanders: Going back to Greek and Roman mythology, the stories of Apollo, Zeus and other mythological characters gave us human beings a way to understand the concept of things. Let’s take the concept of spring as an example. In ancient Greece, the arrival of spring meant that a beautiful young lady, who had been imprisoned under the Earth, finally had been allowed to come up on the Earth and be with her loved ones again and that’s the flowers blooming. These are, aside from whatever is true biologically, very much stories that reach an inner psyche, an inner spirit and this is ultimately what we want to do too with this performance about H. C. Andersen. We want to have engaged and touched people and I truly believe we will, because great stories and fairy tales tend to do that, and that is very powerful.
What kind of reactions do you hope this play will generate?
Eve Wolf: I hope it will be beloved by everyone. But what I hope it does really is give people a glimpse into Hans Christian Andersen’s real life — what he went through both as a child and later on as a grown up. We want people to see that art is a transformative experience. In other words, you can have suffered — in his case being bullied, being different and being poor — and still make your way in life. You can transform all these experience into art the way he did and use the art as some kind of a salvation in itself.
Donald T. Sanders: The goal of the production is to really create an entertainment that in itself is fascinating and engaging to the audience. This production is not just enactments of the stories they interweave with the emotional life of this great author and that makes this play a fairy-tale on its own. A fairy tale in which, I as the director of the play, want the audience to enjoy watching.
Ema Seferovic is the Press and Communications Intern at DenmarkInNY.