For over 50 years now, UNCG’s The North Carolina Theatre for Young People has been instrumental in facilitating theatrical productions and educational programming for the youth community statewide. As it is in many cases, such experiences often serve as an introduction to the theatre for local children with limited artistic exposure. Therefore, the productions are always highly entertaining, and handled with creative thoughtfulness. Currently, The Ugly Duckling is no exception to the program’s long lineage of performance achievements.

Deviating slightly from the beloved Hans Christian Anderson tale, this Katie Campbell adapted/directed production reinforces the universal themes of social ostracism, perseverance, and self-esteem – regardless of the species. It follows a young girl whose vibrant imagination and connection with animals (particularly those that are winged and feathered) has isolated her from her peers and presented numerous difficulties in life. It is only after she is able to embrace the very characteristics that make her unique that she is able to exalt herself and transition into the swan she was always meant to be.

Aside from the story, which in its new form revitalizes the classic version into something significantly more relatable for young audiences, the true standout of the production is that it is done exclusively with silhouette puppetry, or “shadow play.” This device serves as one of the most incipient forms of storytelling, existing in hundreds of cultures around the world, ancient to modern.

The modest cast of three, consisting of Rebecca Joan Woodrum as the young girl, and the two puppeteers, Sophie Larin and Liam Yates, all used the human body along with one-dimensional translucent cutouts projected onto a screen to propel the story without the use of any dialogue, only instrumental underscoring. The meticulous execution of the images aligning and interacting convincingly with one another, as well as with the silhouetted actress, is a testament to Campbell’s innovative eye for theatrical direction, and the diligence of her three cast members.

However, what was quite possibly most fascinating was the effect this production had on its child audience. Not only were they naturally immersed in the magic of the theatre, they were also not easily disenchanted by the proverbial “man (and women) behind the curtain.” The science comprising the illusion of tiny bits of paper, enlarged 10 times their actual size and put to movement, was just as awe inspiring as the miraculous world of dancing ducks and elegant swan metamorphoses. This was evident with audible excited inhales and giggles. Once the show concluded, the cast stepped from the concealment of the screen to engage the children with questions and explanations. Nothing was without intrigue to them, and all was met with delight.

UNCG’s production of The Ugly Duckling is exactly the approach needed to stimulate local children’s curiosity, imagination, and enthusiasm for theatre arts, and all while teaching a valuable lesson of compassion for one’s self and others.

The Ugly Duckling continues through Sunday, March 23. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.