Many readers might be familiar with Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale, The Ugly Duckling— but you may not know of Willow Reichard-Flynn’s retelling. Recently performed at the Allentown Public Theatre, Reichard-Flynn’s modern The Ugly Duckling portrays the classic story of a social outcast being bullied for being different, but with a significant twist. In the updated version, the “ugly duckling” character dares to bend gender norms, eventually learning how to accept themself the way they are. I recently had the opportunity to speak with Anna Russell, who, in their own words, “wore many hats” to ensure a successful production of the show–including directing stage managing, acting in several roles, and running workshops.
Sarah Heidebrink-Bruno (SH): Please tell us about your role(s) for the performance? What were these experiences like for you?
Anna Russell (AR): Like playwright Willow Reichard-Flynn, I wore many hats for this production. I functioned as director, stage manager, set designer, sound designer, workshop teacher, and actor, playing the roles of Bill, one of the Mirror Witch’s Minions, the voice of the Guard, and one of the Pink Pintails. It’s pretty typical for me to fill multiple roles like this for a show. But I would say that the experience of putting it all together was a pretty special one for me. Most of the people in the cast identified as trans and/or genderqueer, and I realized that it was my first time creating a theater piece in a queer space like that. We had a really sweet group of people, and I think we created a rehearsal culture where the priority was not only to come up with artistic ideas together, but also to look out for one another’s health and emotional well-being. The project was very close to home for a lot of us, and I think that helped us come together in a really strong way. I am tremendously proud of the cast for what they accomplished by the end of the process.
SH: On Allentown Public Theatre’s website, the play was described as a revised version of the classic tale The Ugly Duckling. How does the play pay homage to the fairy tale and expand on its themes?
AR: Our version of The Ugly Duckling is very loosely based on the Hans Christian Andersen story. We do start with a little duckling (named Cisne) who is bullied by the other ducklings for being different. And we do address the central theme of acceptance of others. However, that may be where the similarities stop. Our “ugly duckling” is bullied not for having different feathers, but rather, for daring to wear purple in a world where all the other ducklings must wear either pink or blue. Color becomes a metaphor for gender identity and expression, and our play grapples with what it means to defy gender rules. Unlike in Hans Christian Andersen’s story, our “ugly duckling” does not grow up to become a beautiful swan and prove all the other ducklings wrong. We didn’t like the idea that they needed to change or be beautiful in order to be accepted. Rather, our focus is on the transformation of Eggsavier, a blue duck who learns to accept and appreciate the full spectrum of colors– both in himself as well as in others.
I think Willow’s Playwright’s Note from our playbill does a great job of explaining further: “This play takes its name from a classic short story. However, it is not Hans Christian Andersen but Mr. Rogers who influenced this adaptation. As Mr. Rogers taught us, children should love themselves and be loved for who they are– just exactly as they are.
Working with the youth at the Bradbury-Sullivan LGBT Community Center, we decided that we didn’t want to write a story where a duckling has to transform into a swan to gain acceptance. Why does the duckling have to shed all the things others think are “ugly” and become all the things others think are “beautiful?” We wanted to tell a story in which the ugly duckling isn’t the one who changes– it is the world itself that transitions.
Every single child and every single person is special. And every single person should know that being yourself is ok. The play we created is fun and silly, but most of all, I hope it is encouraging. Our differences are what make us wonderful. We don’t need to change from ugly ducklings into beautiful swans to deserve acceptance. The only thing that needs to change is how much we love one another and love ourselves.
As Mr. Rogers reminds us: ‘You are a very special person. There is only one like you in the whole world. There’s never been anyone exactly like you before, and there will never be again. Only you. And people can like you exactly as you are.’”
SH: You mentioned that you worked in collaboration with the youth from the Bradbury- Sullivan Center. Can you tell me more about this process? What did you learn from working with them?
AR: This past spring, Willow and I led about 8 brainstorming and writing sessions at Bradbury-Sullivan LGBT Community Center with a group of Project SILK Lehigh Valley youth. We played games, responded to writing prompts, created collages and talked about ideas we hoped might make it into the play. We brainstormed the duckling world, thought about costuming, came up with characters, and invented possible plot ideas. Willow then went off and wrote a first draft of the script based off of all this work, and we read through it and collected feedback during one of our workshops. So while Willow was definitely the playwright, many of the story ideas were conceptualized by the students. What was really cool was that 2 youth from Project SILK (Zander Douglas and Shyan Ortiz) ended up going on to perform in the final production, playing characters that they had helped create.
SH: Why do you think this play is important for our current socio-political moment?
AR: I consider this play to be one of my most personally important projects. As a genderqueer, bisexual individual who often teaches children, I have felt pressure (whether real or perceived) to hide my identity on multiple occasions, as though it were not “kid-appropriate.” And yet I feel that this could not be further from the truth. In creating The Ugly Duckling, I wanted to challenge this fear of exposing children to LGBTQIA+ issues head on. I wanted to create a project that could broach the subject of gender identity and trans issues with children in a completely safe, easily-palatable way– and in so doing, open the door to allowing my whole self in the room as a teacher.
SH: Finally, how would you encourage more people to become involved in local theater?
AR: Don’t be afraid to seek out new experiences! Theater is about learning about ourselves and each other, so open yourself up and grow. Communities are held together by public events where we share a common experience, and the arts provide that opportunity. If you know someone involved in a project, go see them! You won’t regret it.