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(DG) Dialogues are conversations with theatre directors about their process, vision, and experience working on specific productions in the Philadelphia theatre community. This year, in honor the Philadelphia FringeArts Festival, we are hosting short-form (DG) Digital Dialogues with members of (DG) who have work in the Fringe.

This week, Ben Smallen, director of Once Upon a Time on the Broad Street Line, part of the the Digital Fringe:


Directors Gathering: What drew you to this project? Have you been involved since its inception?
BS: The initial idea was one I had in the spring, and it was really as simple as “what if Little Red Riding Hood was a kid on a septa bus, instead of a kid in the woods?” Which led me to consider how the original, classic fairy tales – many of which are awfully violent and gruesome – might fit into a contemporary aesthetic. I read a lot of pieces by and about Charles Perrault and the Brothers Grimm to get a better understanding of why and how they wrote what they did and tried to work that into my consideration. The dramaturgical possibilities of projects like this are always a draw. It was also an opportunity to work with two performers with whom I wanted to collaborate, and work in a medium that is largely unexplored territory for me.

DG: What is urgent about presenting this piece right now?
BS: I’m not sure I’d use the word urgent, but recently I have been interested in examining the intent and quality of the message – or lack thereof – in programming for young audiences. It seems culturally that we have worked very hard to homogenize entertainment and storytelling for these audiences – even teenagers. But this standardization of both content and style leads to disengaged and disinterested audiences. So the goal then is either to find new ways to present familiar material or create something that presents something new thematically to the audience keep their engagement level high. This makes experiencing stories an active process (emotionally, intellectually) instead of a passive one. If you’re lucky you get to do both. With this project I’m trying to find new ways to present the thematic intent of the original material, which can be outside of our cultural comfort zone.

DG: What makes this project right for Philly Fringe?
BS: I’m not sure what makes anything right for Philly Fringe, but in some ways I think that is the spirit in which Fringe is meant to be taken: there is no right or wrong. Fringe is a time to revel in the process and the exploration and not feel constrained by expectation. That’s not always a considerate perspective to take for your audiences, but that’s the risk for artist and audience when working on the fringe.

DG: Has this process been unique in any way (time constraints, budget, collaborative spirit)?
BS: The project involved a total of four people, over the course of four weeks, with no budget to speak of. It was very collaborative by nature, there was a lot of room for improvisation both in content and logistics within the filming structure of the piece.

What other shows are you most excited for in the Fringe this year?
BS: I’ve already seen After the Rehearsal/Persona and Swamp is On, both of which I was pretty excited about. I’ve also heard great things about The Light Princess and Exit the King. And I really wanted to see The Extra People but it sold out.