Ashley Griffin is the first person in history ever to be nominated for a major award for both playing and directing HAMLET. Think about that for a moment.
Known as the creator of the pop culture phenomenon FOREVER DEADWARD (New World Stages.) She has performed extensively both on and off Broadway as well as in T.V. and Film (this past year she shot on Hugh Jackman's THE GREATEST SHOWMAN and HOMELAND.) As a writer her work has been developed on Broadway at Manhattan Theater Club as well as at Playwrights Horizons. Her pilot BLANK PAIGE is under consideration by Amazon and her screenplay OPHELIA, DESCENDING is in post production with SeaStone films. Her work has been called "Brilliant," "Genius," and has been described as "not only should be seen, but needs to be seen."
With her newest play, SNOW, she explores the power and importance of storytelling by following three disparate storylines that all revolve around the fairy tale Snow White.
LocalTheatre had the opportunity to talk to Ms. Griffin to get some sense of her new project.
LocalTheatreNY.com ~ What's new and different about SNOW? Why do we want to see it?
SNOW is unusual, especially in the current theatrical landscape, in that it is an original play that seriously explores mythic themes of goodness, hope, and what it means to be a human being, utilizing heightened language and magical realism. We’ve been overwhelmed by the response both at our initial workshop and at Playwrights Horizons, where audiences would leave in tears telling us how deeply moved they were, and applauding the show for diving into deeper issues that we often aren’t asked to look at or think about. SNOW taps into that visceral feeling that gets activated in us when we first fall in love with a fairy tale, but brings it up in a way that allows it to resonate in the adult heart and mind. SNOW has been described in the press as “A show that not only should be seen, but needs to be seen…it gives us real truths, not easy morals.” In a world of entertainment that will, well…entertain you…SNOW will make you think and feel.
LocalTheatreNY.com ~ Why did you feel the need to write these stories? Was it the process and format, or something deeper than it being about the story telling process?
Miss Griffin: This show originally came about when I was commissioned to write a children’s adaptation of “Snow White.” I’ve always adored fairy tales ever since I was little…but “Snow White” in particular always really bothered me and intrigued me. “Snow White” is the only fairy tale to break several major fairy tale tropes – for example, it is one of the only fairy tales where the villain has a specific hatred of their victim for complex psychological reasons (as opposed to, say, “Sleeping Beauty” where the villain is using Briar Rose as a means to an end,) and it is the only fairy tale in which being kind to an old woman does not yield a reward, but instead gets you killed. The relationship between the Queen and Snow always fascinated me (if you really read the original there is a detailed timeline establishing that the Queen is the only mother Snow has ever known, and things don’t start to go wrong until she’s seven. What were those first seven years like? By the end, the Queen is willing to give up her beauty (which retaining was the whole point in the first place) in order to kill this girl. And, let’s face it, Snow White is the dumbest heroine in literature.
LocalTheatreNY.com ~ That's funny, I never thought of it that way.
Miss Griffin: I decided that in adapting the story I wanted to resolve my questions about it. The resulting show (which is nothing like the SNOW going up in October,) was somewhere between an adult show and a children’s show. The piece had a reading that is, for various reasons, the worst experience I’ve ever had as a writer. All that combined forced me to dig into my heart and soul as an artist and figure out what I really wanted to be exploring through this fairy tale. I completed my children’s play commission and set out to write the SNOW that exists now.
What I discovered really mattered to me, and was really drawing me to explore fairy tales, was a desire to explore why we tell stories, what their purpose is, and whether, in the deepest sense, they are true or not. Most people today think of fairy tales similarly to how the late Victorian’s did, that they are children’s fare - simple allegories to teach a lesson. But that’s not how they started. In fact, most of the fairy tales we know and love today were transcribed by the Grimm brothers as a means to preserve the German culture, which was being utterly decimated during the Napoleonic wars. In fact, the last vestiges of the pagan Germanic religion could only be found in the fairy tales – dwarfs, elves, fairies were not cute little things, but the ancient gods. Many of the stories have a potential historical basis, they were told orally amongst adults and were even darker than the published versions we have today. They were, in some ways, a guide book for dealing with the real, horrifying things in life while still maintaining hope in goodness, love and, in many of the originals, God.
I experienced some very dark things growing up. Stories, especially the original fairy tales helped me survive them. As one of the characters in SNOW says: “Putting yourself alongside a character in a story is training for what you have to do in real life. For believing in goodness, and hope and love even when they seem a lie.” Or as Neil Gaiman said, “Fairy tales are more than true not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.” Fairy tales told me that terrifying things were very, very real. But they could be overcome.
Nowadays many people tend to chalk fairy tales up to “lies about true love’s kiss making your life perfect forever.” That’s never what I got from them, and that’s never what they were intended to be. So I wanted to write a play that asked the question – “Are the heart of our most beloved stories really true? Or nothing but ‘lies breathed through silver?’”
Once I knew that, the form followed the function. I wanted to structure the show through the lens of three separate stories that all revolved around “Snow White,” with the same actors playing parallel archetypes in each. The three storylines are set in the three historical eras when our feelings towards fairy tales most divergently changed (oral tradition, simplifying them for children, and Disney,) allowing each storyline to represent a different point of view on the central thematic question.
The first is the historically accurate story of how the Grimm brothers came to collect the tales in the first place, and how, even during their lifetime; they watched them start to become sanitized. The second is a Victorian theatrical family whose saccharine versions of the stories help destroy the life of a young girl who has never been prepared for the horrors of the real world. The third is the story of Astrid - a modern day American young woman living with her abusive mother. Stories have been Astrid’s saving grace and it is she who must synthesize and give meaning to everything that has come before her, and ultimately answer the question of the show (not nearly as straight forward as it might seem.) Through having parallel stories I was able to look at all aspects and points of view of the theme almost through a refractive lens. They comment on, and question each other, and ultimately allow the audience to make up their own mind.
I think storytelling has been largely denigrated by our society at large. It’s, sadly, not something that’s valued in our current culture. Look at the disintegration of the arts in schools. And yet, there are numinous aspects to life and being human that can only be expressed and explored through storytelling. Why have stories about superheroes and witches survived for so many centuries? I think it is because both metaphorically represent an aspect of being human that nothing else does – the idea that we have an almost magical power inside of us that is wonderful, and scary and makes us far more important than we could ever dream of – and that we must use for good. Is that not metaphorically true of every human being? And yet, in what other way could we express or explain that idea so viscerally? The same is true with all the stories that have survived, and continue to matter. When you really break it down, Snow White was an abused, homeless teen. Take out the magical literalism and it’s a story we could hear on the news tonight. We need stories that address those issues in a way that can minister to our souls. And that need is what I deeply wanted to explore, especially since I feel like it’s been all but forgotten in our culture, to our determent.
LocalTheatreNY.com ~ In your opinion, what's your favorite thing about SNOW?
One of my favorite elements of SNOW is the character of Shadow – the ancient god of death. He is the only one who has seen the whole story and has an outside perspective, and he is the greatest advocate for the survival of stories – realizing that when stories are forgotten, the things that make us human start to be forgotten too.
LocalTheatreNY.com ~ So, not for kids? Hard to believe a story about Snow White without kids.
SNOW explores the original (and I mean the ORIGINAL original – the version that was so dark even the Grimm brothers wouldn’t publish it,) version of “Snow White,” in a form that does not shy away from the darkness. A father lusting after, and marrying his daughter is theoretically palatable when looked at from a distance, and through the lens of fantasy and symbolism. It’s quite another thing when put in a real life context. One of the questions SNOW explores is whether children should be told such dark stories – whether they prepare children for real life, or permanently scar them. But we want the show to explore that question, not test it out. SNOW deals with sexual abuse (including rape,) death (including the death of a child,) drug and alcohol abuse, war, and filiacide. It’s definitely not a show for children.
Snow will premiere (for grownups) at The Sonnet Theater (358 West 44th St between 8th and 9th in The Producers Club) for ten performances October 17th through October 26th. Link here: http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/3078309