In most fairytales, the beautiful, helpless princess is rescued by the handsome, brave prince.
The Paper Bag Princess
Directed and adapted by Alissa Watson
● Prairie Theatre Exchange
● Dec. 19 to Jan. 5
● Tickets $13.25, family four-packs $48 at pte.mb.ca, 204-942-5483
Note: there are no shows on Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, New Year’s Eve or New Year’s Day
● An ASL performance will be offered on Saturday, Jan. 4 at 3 p.m.
● A relaxed performance will be offered Thursday, Jan. 2 at 3 p.m.
The Paper Bag Princess is not most fairytales.
Robert Munsch’s groundbreaking, career-launching children’s classic, published in 1980, flips the script on the princess stereotype and what "happily ever after" looks like. The story follows Princess Elizabeth as she sets off to rescue Prince Ronald in nothing but a paper bag after a dragon smashes her castle, burns all her clothes and snatches her fiancé.
Prince Ronald turns out to be a superficial, ungrateful jerk, and Princess Elizabeth dances off into the sunset with the famous last line: "and they didn’t get married after all."
The Paper Bag Princess turns 40 next May and, to celebrate, Prairie Theatre Exchange will present a new live adaptation of the story from Dec. 19 through Jan. 5.
Winnipeg playwright Alissa Watson, 34, was tasked with turning a 32-page picture book, just 12 pages of which are text, into a full-length show.
"Because (the book) is so iconic, I remember it very vividly," says Watson, who is also directing the show. Munsch was a big part of her childhood; in a bit of kismet, she recently found a Christmas photo of her, circa 1990, in which she’s holding up a copy of The Paper Bag Princess.
"But when I sat down to read it after accepting the contract to write the adaptation, I was a bit shocked at how quick it all sort of happens, and the fact I was tasked with making a 50-minute version of this very short book. The exciting part was anything could happen in between the pages of this story — but the challenge was also anything could happen."
Watson relished being able to scribble in the margins, as it were, adding new characters — including Princess Elizabeth’s sisters, a fairy godmother, and a knight named Sir Puffy the Pompous — and expanding our hero’s adventures. "I got to really have fun with this little kingdom," she says.
Although this is her first time directing and adapting Munsch for PTE, Watson has a long history in the Munsch world, having made her professional debut as an actor in Magical Mystery Munsch in 2012. For the past 13 years, playwright Debbie Patterson and director Arne MacPherson have created the annual Munsch shows, which have become a family holiday tradition at PTE.
"I remember thinking, ‘Wow, Debbie Patterson has a really cool job and maybe someday I could write an adaptation like that,’ " Watson says. "So, when I was asked, I was honoured to do it." As she’s doing both the adapting and directing, Watson says she has massive shoes to fill. "Deb and Arne have been mentors of mine for a long time. I really respect the work they’ve done here over the past decade."
“I remember thinking, ‘Wow, Debbie Patterson has a really cool job and maybe someday I could write an adaptation like that.’ So, when I was asked, I was honoured to do it.” – Playwright Alissa Watson
Actor Johanna Burdon, 27, is excited to inhabit the kingdom Watson has created along with set and costume designer Linda Beech, lighting designer Larry Isacoff, sound designer and musician Christine Fellows and stage manager Katie Robinson Hoppa.
Burdon will play the role of The Dragon, as well as the Fairy Godmother, Elizabeth’s sister Marge and Sir Puffy. The small cast is rounded out by actors Dutchess Cayetano and Chris Sousa.
"The challenge is keeping it all straight, as we’re discovering in the rehearsal process," Burdon says with a laugh. "Where do I exit? Where do I come in? Who am I? Where’s my costume?"
The Paper Bag Princess will be Burdon’s professional acting debut. "I feel so lucky to work with a company that fosters such creativity on stage. It’s a real team effort, and I feel so lucky to be part of that team."
Both Watson and Burdon say Munsch’s story is still relevant 40 years later, in part because it was ahead of its time when it was published.
"It’s incredible, right?" Burdon says. "It’s subverting those expectations about what princesses are supposed to be and now, with Alissa’s adaptation, what a fairy godmother is and what they represent and what they look like."
"People are still facing discrimination in various spaces that keep them from doing the things they’re good at or want to do," Watson says. "Reading this again, the feminist themes of, ‘I don’t need someone to make me happy, I can make myself happy,’ is still a story we’re trying to educate young people about.
"I’m hoping even though the protagonist is a princess, that whether they’re little Ronalds or little Dragons in the crowd, that they’ll still get that message that they can write their own story."
Jen Zoratti is a Winnipeg Free Press columnist and co-host of the paper's local culture podcast, Bury the Lede.
Updated on Tuesday, December 17, 2019 at 8:16 PM CST: Fixes error in deck