It’s 2016! Happy New Year!
Now the Gendersaurus Rex project is shifting into a new phase where I’m focusing on more practical approaches to exploring gender, queerness and sexuality within performance and art for children and young people. But it’s no easy task! I’ve been asked by a few people when they can come to see the “Gendersaurus Rex Show” and so far I’ve focused on more open-research rather than trying to make a show. Even though I see myself as a maker and know that I usually work through ideas by generating performance material, I’ve been finding the idea of making the work quite daunting.
Although it’s unnecessary, I think I’ve been imagining that I need to make one single perfect piece or one workshop or one blog post that will solve all the problems I’ve been researching! Of course it’s more about the dialogue that can be created around the work. And it’s not about just one piece, but all the work I and other artists can make in the future. How can our practices (not only individual pieces) challenge gender stereotypes, for example, in both their explicit content and the underlying messages that come across in the performance? And at the very least, how can we ensure that any work we do make doesn’t add to negative messages about gender or sexuality?
There’s also questions for me about the form of the work and how it can engage with these ideas. For example, Action Transport Theatre’s Happily Ever After based on Linda De Haan’s book, King And King has been shown in schools and theatres and comes with a wraparound package of workshop activities in conjunction with LGBT Youth NW. But although that could be a very creative and useful way to open up conversations between teachers and students, I’m not sure that that’s the kind of work I personally want to make – or not the only work, anyway. Similarly, since we’ve just had Panto season, there are theatre performances that turn gender roles on their head, but keep a strong narrative, fairy-tale structure, such as Bristol Old Vic’s Sleeping Beauty – here’s a piece about it from the Guardian.
But at the moment I’m trying to work with my experience of creating Live Art and experimental performance which are forms that I particularly use in my work for adults which sometimes touches on my own autobiography. Often this work doesn’t take place in a theatre setting and it often sees me performing as myself; even if I’m putting on a variety of personae, it is still me. Sometimes this kind of work is seen as a bit weird and confusing even for adults and because it is very explicit about the performing body (which might be naked) it’s not often pushed as a form for young audiences.
WHAT IS LIVE ART? Here’s Joshua Sofaer to tell us:
Recently there’s definitely a movement of live art work for and with children with a range of festivals and performances looking at how it can happen. Sibylle Peters of Theatre of Research, Hamburg talks about how Live Art practices easily align with the experiences and experiments of children:
Kids are explorers of the everyday. For them to light a match can be something extraordinary, that needs focus and time and creates an experience. The same is true for everyone who practices Live Art. Therefore Live Art can provide something that is essential to kids and their well being: the acknowledgement of their action and their thinking, the reassurance that everything counts, that everything can make a difference, the frame of beauty and reflection and the experience that we can set it up anytime and anywhere we want.
- Some artists have a lot of fears about engaging with children at all
- I don’t think/or I’ve been told my work is not suitable
- I’ve been told that because of the work I make I shouldn’t even be around children
- I don’t know how to talk to children
- I don’t know how to talk to their parents/guardians
- The parents are scared of me
- There are elements of my practice that I think/adults think/teachers think/society thinks should not be shown to children
- Further, there are elements of my practice that some people think shouldn’t even be shown to adults
- Fear that maybe I could actually damage children with my work, my politics, my sexuality, or even my very existence.
- Some artists have been told their work would be great for children due to a playfulness or an absurdity or use of costume or a seemingly accessible artform such as dance or visual art
- Issues of compromising the practice – either due to stipulations of a programmer, or need to engage in a certain way, or due to the artist feeling they need to adapt the work to fit the imagined audience
- A clear need for artists to feel empowered to articulate the necessary conditions for sharing their work
- A general need to confront and overturn any approaches by programmers or organizations that might undermine both the artist and children by not taking work for children seriously
- An understanding for each individual artist of what they are willing or unwilling to adapt in their work
- Some of the artists are already making work for children, but see that as quite separate from their work for adults. There’s almost a fear of “If the children’s sector knew what we got up to late at night, we’d be in trouble!”
- The creative impetus might feel the same in terms of creating work, but the outcomes probably need to be different in some situations
- Some things are just off limits
- Questions of taste and propriety come into the conversations – Can hardcore radical live art be playful or funny? Can children’s performance be questioning, complicated, abstract? Can children look at nudity? If our work usually involved nudity could we/should we make something without taking our clothes off?
- Children as an audience
- We wouldn’t expect all adults to love our work, so why would we expect all children to like it?
- But in the children’s sector, the audience is unique because you might get a whole school class being brought, or a family coming – so a microcosm of ‘everyone’ might see the work
- The main thing with that audience is that the people the work is aimed at probably haven’t decided to come, they’ve been brought – a literally captive audience.
- This means you have the potential to reach a much wider spread of society
- It also means you might have an ideological issue with working in this way – do you want people to feel like they’re being forced to engage with your work?
- They’re not usually able to leave if they don’t like something and you can’t be sure that there will be anyone to discuss the work with them or answer any questions they might have
- Any work for children will be seen in the context of being “good for them” or not. A case has to be made for art for art’s sake.
- Is work for children in danger of being stuff done ‘at’ them instead of for or with them because they may have no choice in the matter?
- One participant identified what they called The Loop – that sense of feeling good in your own skin as a young child, then noticing your difference and losing confidence in yourself, then later into early adulthood realizing that there are other people like you and spaces for you to exist in . Then you can feel good about yourself again.
- This seemed to resonate with a lot of experiences. It also chimed with experiences of finding how to make your art – feeling free and creative as a young child, then having your creativity funneled into restrictive mainstream artforms, then discovering more experimental ways of working
- There was a feeling that although most people felt good about themselves as adults it would be beneficial if there were ways to make that loop shorter or irrelevant altogether.
- If there were more varied representation of different kinds of lives – ‘you need to see it to be it’
- If there were a greater celebration of all sorts of difference then being different wouldn’t feel so bad
Do we need to make some weird kind of TIE / educational show to tell children about sex? Is that really our job? Do we think art should do a job? Can it still be art if it’s educational? In terms of shifting how children develop their sexuality and identity, there are obviously many things that need to change. As artists we can’t feel responsible for all of them, but what are the ways we can be involved in the discussion and help support change?
We imagined a multi-pronged approach that looks at where and how we artists might get involved.
IN-SCHOOL SEX ED
- Could be supported by artists.
- Need to know what is being taught, how to approach it – have consensus and support from families and teachers
- Using the already established model of schools touring.
- Could create and tour more experimental performances/experiences to directly look at issues such as homophobia, transphobia, sexism in a way that can support learning without it being just being the responsibility of teachers.
- Teachers are meant to engage with these issues by law, but sometimes feel disempowered to.
IN-SCHOOL PROJECTS WITH DIVERSE REPRESENTATION
- Performances may not address the ideas directly but engage with them through the people that deliver them.
- Any discussion around the work and the choices made can have a general intention of promoting equality
- Affirms the identities of LGBT children whether the work is explicit about it or not
CREATE LESS BLAND WORK FOR CHILDREN
- Creating artwork for children that is more experimental and live arty in both content and form – opening up the possibilities of what work for children can be
- Questioning or queering the classic narrative structure of ‘Once Upon A Time”, romantic love between a prince and a princess, ‘Happily Ever After’
- No heteronormative, moralistic, tacitly or overtly sexist, romantic stories for children
MORE WORK FOR ALL AGES
- Presenting work that is accessible to all
- Showing work in gallery settings during the days so children can come
- Thinking and experimenting with the contexts the work is presented in
- Work that can open up conversations between children and their adults in real time
MORE SPACES FOR ARTISTS AND QUEER ADULTS TO SPEAK DIRECTLY TO CHILDREN ABOUT THEIR OWN EXPERIENCES
- Avoiding allegory and being straightforward and honest
- Being someone who can answer questions without being awkward or squeamish or inauthentic
- Can still be part of an artistic project
- Need to step up and be heard because it’s still very rare for children to witness positive versions of LGBTQ lives
ARTISTS INFILTRATING THE MAINSTREAM
- As live artists we’re doing something different. We’re experimenting with form and content, we’re blurring boundaries between artforms and mixing all sorts of approaches and ideas together. We have to celebrate this point of difference to carve out a little space for ourselves.
- As any kind of artist we’re doing something different. Maybe we’re responding to the world in a different way to how capitalism would like us to. We’re not in it for the money. We need to celebrate this point of difference and advocate for the importance of artists who may or may not be different from other people.
- As individuals, however we identify – we’re different. Sometimes we’re told emphatically just how different we are from the norm. We’ve had to do a lot of work to try to find the places where all the other different people hang out. We have to celebrate this difference both ideologically and practically as a matter of survival.
- But when we celebrate our difference that keeps us out of the mainstream. That’s usually a good thing and another thing to celebrate, but the mainstream is where children are enshrined. Even the children that will ‘become’ different are held right at the centre of the mainstream.
- If we’re always on the margins, it is difficult to access children at all.
- We have internalized the prejudices that the mainstream holds against our difference so that we keep ourselves away from where the children are at the same time that the mainstream wants to keep us out.
- We need to embrace/infiltrate the mainstream or we risk missing out on engaging with children all together
So there’s a lot to think about! And I think that a lot of the issues raised here are important for most artists creating any kind of work for children or working with them and their adults. And I find it inspiring because I feel like the main thing I came away with was that we just need more work, more diversity, more discussion, more openness, more experimentation and more bravery and then we have something to respond to. The worst thing is when artists are censored or censor themselves because they feel like who they are or the work they make could be harmful to children.