"Raising the Curtain for German" with Fairy Tale Theater
Enlarge image Before the pied piper, a "very famous cat" sought to drive the "little mice" from Hamelin, according to Harford Christian School's winning entry: "Der Rattenfänger von Hameln" (© Don Nickson / Harford Christian School) From Rapunzel to Hänsel und Gretel to Aschenputtel (Cinderella), the fairy tales collected by the brothers Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm and first published in December 1812 in their Kinder- und Hausmärchen (Children’s and Household Tales) are known and loved throughout the world.
During 2012-13, the 200th anniversary of this renowned compendium of stories is being celebrated with a large variety of cultural events, including open-air festivals, exhibitions, and theater performances, all along the German Fairy Tale Road (Deutsche Märchenstraße)--from Hanau, the brothers’ birthplace, in the south, to Bremen, home of the Bremer Stadtmusikanten (Bremen Town Musicians), in the north.
The tales have remained popular through the centuries due to their universal themes and memorable characters, as well as their ability to instill values in the young. But the Grimm fairy tales—the 86 included in the 1812 volume, plus the dozens more added in subsequent publications—are also ideally suited as texts for learning the challenging, yet endlessly intriguing, German language.
With the Grimm anniversary year in mind, the US representative of the German Agency for Schools Abroad, Gert Wilhelm, supported by funding from the German government through the “Netzwerk Deutsch USA” (Network for German language promotion in the US), organized a nationwide theater competition, utilizing the popular YouTube platform.
Starting in March 2011, German instructors at schools and universities across the US were encouraged to submit proposals for theater productions of German fairy tales, performed by young German-learners, in German. Twenty of the proposals were selected, and instructors were asked to submit simple, unedited DVDs of their students' performances by the end of the year.
Enlarge image A rat or a "little mouse"? Cast member from Harford Christian School's winning entry. (© Don Nickson / Harford Christian School) The wide variety of schools participating in the competition reflected the diversity of German education in the US, said Mr. Wilhelm. Geographically, their locations ranged from Alaska to Florida, from Michigan to California. The settings included high schools, universities, so-called “Saturday schools” and German-immersion schools, and special education programs.
With logistical support from the Goethe-Institut in Chicago, a special “Märchenhaft” (literally: “fairy tale-like”) channel was created on YouTube, allowing the students and teachers—and the wider world—to compare productions of Schneewittchen (Snow White), Die Sterntaler (The Star Money), Die goldene Gans (The Golden Goose), and many others.
Once all videos had been submitted, a jury of five German education experts met to select the best productions. The winners were selected for the high standards, both theatrical and linguistic, of their submissions. They are:
- 1st Prize ($ 500) Harford Christian School, Maryland: Der Rattenfänger von Hameln
- 2nd Prize ($ 400) Shining Mountain Waldorf School, Colorado: Der Rattenfänger
- 3rd Prize ($ 300) Deer Park High School, Texas: Schneewittchen
- Audience Prize ($ 400) International School, Michigan: Die goldene Gans
For all of the participating schools, the experience was described in terms ranging “from positive to euphoric,” said Mr. Wilhelm. “Even as teachers emphasized the huge amount of time the project demanded both of them and their students, they also said again and again how the project truly boosted the position of German language learning at their institutions.”
Enlarge image (© Don Nickson / Harford Christian School) For the Harford Christian School of Darlington, Maryland, which took first place with their interpretation of The Pied Piper of Hamelin, staging the play came naturally. The school organizes a “Kaffeehaus” one evening each spring, showcasing German poetry, music and plays. Upon first hearing of the competition, one of the students said, “Of course we'll do it. That's our thing!” according to German teacher Peggy Nickson.
“Harford Christian offers four years of German, and the 4th-year seniors, a group of 8, were in charge of the production of Rattenfänger,” Nickson told Germany.info. “They filled all of the main roles, some of which they created for themselves, and they allowed the 3rd-year junior class to portray the townspeople. Although a few of the class members are shy, most of them love the stage, and there is nothing like greasepaint and costumes to add to the adrenaline,” she said.
Upon hearing they had won the competition, there were “a lot of shrieks, hugs and laughter,” Nickson said.
The creativity and hard work that went into this production, and all of the “Märchenhaft” productions, would surely have pleased the Brothers Grimm. But not only that: as founding fathers of German philology and authors of Das Deutsche Wörterbuch (The German Dictionary)—the German equivalent of the Oxford English Dictionary—one imagines they would also have been delighted to see the enthusiasm exhibited for the German language so far away from home.