“On the Other Side of the Fence” Takes Down Fences

by Lori Samlin Miller

08/17/12 13:53

On the Other Side of the Fence, composer and playwright Andrea Green’s signature musical for children, was recently performed to glowing reviews at the Danville Light Opera Company (DLO) in Danville, Illinois. Comprised of limited narration and many metaphorical songs, performers and audiences of On the Other Side of the Fence are treated to show-stopping full chorus numbers, dancing, and instrumental sections; every kind of style – Broadway, pop, country, rock, blues, folk, and even classical music – has a place in the show.


On the Other Side of the Fence relates a tale in which two famers who live side by side perpetuate their long-standing feud.  They erect a fence as a way to discourage contact between themselves and the animals on both sides of the fence. Although they forget the reason for the quarrel over time, the standoff continues. In spite of the strict rules imposed by their farmers, however, two animals forge a forbidden friendship. While the adorable songs in this delightful musical for children are alone worth the price of admission, the performance really drives home the consequences of interactions built upon misunderstanding and intolerance and provides a way to repair them.


In discovering On the Other Side of the Fence on the Samuel French website, DLO director Charlie Hester recognized an opportunity to perform a show “full of songs that are just adorable and fun, and themes that are so inspiring and meaningful.” With songs like “We’ve Got to Work Together” and “Good Friends,” the show revolves around ideas like the importance of respecting diversity and increasing tolerance for others. These themes convinced the DLO veteran children’s director that Green’s musical was the right choice for her group of forty performers ranging in age from kindergarten through high school, many of them newcomers to the stage.


Hester also found another aspect of On the Other Side of the Fence extremely appealing: the show is an ensemble piece. Shows available typically offer large parts to only a handful of stars; in such cases, the remaining cast members comprise the chorus – performers that usually don’t deliver any lines of their own. “On the Other Side of the Fence is different from most shows,” explains playwright Andrea Green.  “There aren’t any main characters who are more important than any others, and all the performers remain on stage throughout most of the show.  Each character gets to speak at least one line.”  While these added bonuses are quite a rarity, they are what enabled all of Hester’s performers to feel important, something the author envisioned when she originally composed the show in 1982. 


Hester’s opera and theater group in Danville joins a growing list of schools (both public and private) and children’s theater groups around the country that have performed On the Other Side of the Fence since it was published by Samuel French three years ago. The performance venues themselves represent plenty of diversity, ranging from rural areas like Yankton, South Dakota to Main Line Suburban Pennsylvania, and have also included inner-city economically and socially depressed areas like Newark, New Jersey.


Green’s musicals – On the Other Side of the Fence, The Return of Halley’s Comet, and HOMEROOM, the Musical, all available from Samuel French – have built bridges and increased respect and tolerance between diverse groups of children, helping them understand, communicate with, and appreciate one another. This was certainly the case in the spring of 2009, when the Wolf Performing Arts Center embarked on their collaboration with the children and staff of the William B. Mann School, a public elementary school located in the Wynnefield section of Philadelphia. This collaboration united two groups of schoolchildren from completely different ends of the socioeconomic spectrum.


“This valuable collaboration provided children from Wolf Performing Arts Center and the Mann School in grades K-5 with a unique chance to perform and a chance to learn about each other and themselves in the process,” Wolf PAC founder and executive director Bobbi Wolf explained. “Children and staff members from both institutions benefited from the creative and collaborative process, and the young performers emerged from each rehearsal feeling good about themselves and what they’d accomplished,” stated Wolf, adding, “What better way to instill confidence, character, and creativity in children than by producing one of Andrea’s shows, with such valuable messages that can be understood by children.”


At a time when hate-based crime is on the rise, it is necessary to correct the underlying attitudes that fuel this behavior at a young age. Music teachers and theater directors across the country are increasingly turning to Green’s musicals for children when seeking vehicles to teach youngsters tolerance and respect. Green – who seamlessly travels from the roles of music therapist and music teacher to those of composer, musician, and playwright, for which she is best known – is thrilled that so many children around the country will both learn from the experience of performing her shows and share the shows’ messages with others. Green believes that “All kids can benefit from being more understanding, respectful, and tolerant of others. Whether they live out in the country or in the city, the issues are the same. Affluent suburban kids and economically challenged kids can be the ones getting bullied in school or on the playground, or they can be the actual bullies. Kids are exposed to social, racial, and gender bias in their daily lives. I create musicals for children to help give them ways to understand themselves better and accept others more willingly. It is crucial that we teach children to understand and be able to process all of this.”


Green originally composed this show three decades ago as a vehicle to bring two diverse populations of children together in a collaborative musical performance. On the Other Side of the Fence was intended by Green to enable non-disabled elementary students and children with cerebral palsy who came from two different private schools in Philadelphia, PA to relate to and communicate with one another. Sensitive to the limitations imposed by the physical disabilities, some of which were quite severe, of the children with cerebral palsy and to the way these disabilities were like a fence that obstructed their ability to communicate and form relationships with their same-aged non-disabled peers, Green wrote her musical to offer the opportunity for all children to learn to view people “on the other side of the fence” with mutual understanding, respect, and tolerance. Green notes, “At the outset, the students both with and without disabilities regarded one another as so completely different in appearance that they didn’t realize they could ever find things they had in common or a way to communicate with each other. That is just as true in the play I published with Samuel French as it is with the adapted version for children with special needs. I wrote On the Other Side of a Fence as a metaphorical musical, allowing the preconceived attitudes and initial discomfort they felt about their perceived differences to melt away, replaced by relationships based on acceptance and understanding.”


For the past thirty years, Green has watched relationships bloom between diverse groups of children as they rehearse and perform her adapted version of On the Other Side of the Fence.  Each year, hundreds more children watch from their seats and witness firsthand the rewards of building friendships based on mutual understanding and respect for one another – just as the animal characters the children perform onstage journey towards tolerance and acceptance. “These elementary students can really understand what it takes to keep up a barrier or to take down the fence that had previously existed between them,” Green observed.


This thirty-year collaborative musical project in Philadelphia and its demonstrated ability to transform attitudes and behavior in children is the subject of a documentary currently being developed by international award winning producer Henry Nevison for MiND TV in Philadelphia. The trailer to the documentary shows how several thousands of children and audiences around the country have already participated and benefited from what Green calls her ‘metaphorical musical.’ The documentary portrays the far-reaching implications of Green’s musicals for children and should spur educators and policy makers to utilize theater to enable all students to internalize the importance of acceptance, tolerance, and understanding. As the media bombards us with each new act of bullying and violence, Green becomes more determined and passionate about bringing her tolerance-building musical metaphors to the world. 


Wanting to help her students articulate what they had gleaned about the importance of tolerance and respect, Hester encouraged her performers in Danville, IL to discuss what the script meant to them.  Students had many ideas about the sort of barriers – or fences – people erect. Kalen McGowan, who played Farmer Fred, shared, “I put up this fence with my own two hands. That’s a fact I used to be proud of. Now, I am nothing but ashamed. This fence has not solved any problems, but [it] has caused many. It has made me realize that there are two sad truths in this world: one is that there is not enough love; the other is that there is too much hate. Well, I have done nothing to solve that problem. In fact, I have been a part of it.”


Green recently travelled from her home in New Jersey to attend the performances in Danville, IL. Hester and her performers were thrilled to have the composer and playwright with them. “I was overwhelmed with emotion,” Green shared wistfully.  “The kids did an incredible job. Charlie [Hester] added several elements that really enhanced the performance. I was so proud of them and thrilled to be there to watch such a talented musical group do such a terrific job of getting this important message across.”


It might never be possible to calculate whether the cast or the audience actually enjoys and benefits more from the appealing music and vital message in On the Other Side of the Fence. Yet it is certain that everyone involved, whether onstage or in the seats watching them, will leave the theater both highly entertained and with an important take-home message; for a single musical, this is quite a lot to be grateful for. 


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