These are my first thoughts to introduce the project. The project will consist of these blog posts, but also videos in response to the research, interviews and possibly performances too. I’ve chosen Gendersaurus Rex (invented by Jo Hellier) as a playful title for this area of research that feels quite serious to me. I’m hoping to find fun and non-threatening ways to talk about sometimes challenging ideas with children and their adults.
A research project into gender, feminism, sexuality, queerness and difference and how these areas intersect with the field of live performance for children. It will be informed by academic theory; books and thinkers; practice-based experiments; lived experiences; surveys of current performance practice; and discussions with artists, children, policy makers, educators, audiences and parents in Scotland and beyond.
What’s it about?
It’s about visibility and representation – who are we seeing on the stage and, more importantly, who are we showing on the children’s stage?
It’s about making work that can speak directly to the gender-variant child, the queer child, the homosexual child, the cis-gendered child who might feel constrained by the expectations inherent in being a girl or a boy. It’s about using the power of art as a place to question, subvert, hide from, muddy, invert and take refuge from the oppression of every day life.
Why are you doing it?
I sense that these are difficult times to be a child and that as adults we’re doing children a disservice by presenting the world to them as scary and a place where the scariest thing is to be different from the norm – and the norm is patriarchal, sexist, white and body-conformist. We need some diversity.
Personally, I grew up knowing I felt different, for lots of reasons to do with gender, feminism, class, sexuality. I looked out for people a bit like me and found a small number in cultural representations. When we see someone like us on stage or screen or in books it offers solace, camaraderie and a better understanding of our own identity. Often it also tells you how society sees you as a minority and as a misfit.
When I was in primary school I remember calling myself a feminist and I remember schemes such as “I can do anything” days where a host of builders, architects, journalists, scientists and lawyers (who all happened to be women) came to tell us we could be whatever we wanted to be and there were no such things as girls’ jobs and boys’ jobs.
I don’t know if those things still happen in schools. I know that in some spheres there is a sense that feminism is no longer useful because we’ve already sorted that out. But I know that, for example, the current commercialization of childhood along gender binaries is shocking and cannot help but affect children. The chance to split the market and sell more products by colouring them pink and blue may well make sound business sense, but it brazenly contributes to the socialisation of inequality.
I also want to go further and explore not just gender stereotyping but where and how we can see queer lives on stage. The law says that any form of homophobia is illegal and we now see gay people getting married, but how often do we see reflections of gay lives, or even just non-hetero-normative lives in our children’s theatre.
I know that this is rocky ground and I have sensed unease at even the idea of sexuality and children being looked at in the same breath. But there is more to people than who they like to have sex with and we know that any silencing and taboo around children and their bodies always leads to trouble, so let’s talk about it.
For the next generation I believe we owe them more moments with positive representations of difference. We need to look at the stories and images we are creating and see how they can help make difference and doubt feel manageable and positive. I believe we need to create work that fits in with the big changes that have been made in our society that support difference and human rights for all.
What’s all this got to do with performance?
I can say that I am disturbed and upset when I see work for children (or adults) that not only represents but helps to enforce heteronormative, sexist, body-normative or racist ideologies. I can say that sometimes these ideologies are wrapped up in seemingly benign and often very well-made shows that beguile children and their adults and even win awards and accolades so that they seem to be beyond reproach. And I can say that I fully understand the difficulties inherent with creating new work that has to appeal to a broad audience, please as many people as possible (including producers, funders, critics, children, teachers, parents, grandparents, carers), stick to an often tight budget and deliver within a very short timescale. So I can also understand that you get the ideas out in any way you can.
However, it worries me when children’s theatre settles into repeating stories based around well-worn clichés and stereotypes without problematising the old-fashioned ideas that they spout and without questioning their relevance or appropriateness for a twenty-first century audience.
What I love about making work for children is that there is a curiosity in childhood that is open and demanding. Who are you? What are you? Are you a boy or a girl? Why are you doing that? Why are you different? What is normal here?
We need to be able to give answers to these questions that can be straightforward while also opening up the world beyond binaries. Very few individuals actually fit neatly into the categories we like to use to pigeonhole people. We can have a conversation with a three-year-old about that without getting bogged down in the details unless that’s appropriate.
And we can show that in our work and the way we present both the world as it is and the world as it could be.