Imaginate Festival: Ideas for young, open minds

BOYS will be boys and girls will be girls, won’t they? Not necessarily, if the Imaginate Festival is anything to go by, finds Andrew Eaton-Lewis

Eilidh MacAskill will launch Gendersaurus Rex, an Imaginate-funded research project exploring 'gender, feminism, sexuality, queerness and difference' in childrens theatre. Picture: Contributed

You may have heard about Bounce, a new children’s show to be premiered at the Imaginate Festival next week. Described as an “anarchic journey through the body’s physical capabilities”, it’s performed on a bouncy castle, custom-built so there’s room for the audience too.

The novelty of this idea has generated much media attention, but the show has another novel idea at its heart. Bounce, created by Lou Brodie, is performed by two acrobats, one male, one female, but their characters are identical frog-like creatures that are neither girls nor boys.

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If this seems barely worth a mention, try to think of another children’s story where the sex of the main character is irrelevant. Or head to your nearest high street and try to find children’s clothes, toys or even books which aren’t specifically aimed at either boys or girls – and which, in doing so, make all kinds of assumptions about what kinds of things girls and boys like.

Lou Brodie's Bounce. Picture: Contributed

Imaginate has a reputation for challenging the conventions of children’s theatre, and now it is turning its attention to gender. The day before Bounce’s premiere, theatre-maker Eilidh MacAskill will launch Gendersaurus Rex, an Imaginate-funded research project exploring “gender, feminism, sexuality, queerness and difference” in children’s theatre. In a sense the project – also featuring a reptilian character who is neither girl nor boy - feels like a companion piece to Bounce. Both MacAskill and Brodie took part in a debate about gender in performance at last year’s festival, an event that Imaginate’s creative development director Fiona Ferguson likens to “a lightbulb going on”. Gendersaurus Rex, she says, “has really got everybody thinking, which is precisely why we wanted to do it.”

The project is very personal for MacAskill. “When I was little I wanted to be a boy,” she says. “My parents were up for it so that was alright, and having the flexibility and space to explore that is great. But I’m not sure how much that gets explored in theatre. There is a tendency for it to be a very traditional space, with repetition of stereotypes and a lack of questioning of that.”

As MacAskill got older, she swapped being a tomboy for being a feminist, after “seeing the unfairness of what boys were able to do”. Now she thinks gender identity is fluid. As a theatre performer she has been frustrated by “the traditional idea of acting” where actors play characters with a specific set of personality traits determined by a playwright. “The work I make is never going to be a play with different characters, that doesn’t make sense to me. Everyone is lots of people – the work I’m involved in making is a transformative thing, lots of different voices within one voice.” In her introduction to Gendersaurus Rex, MacAskill explains her interest in children’s theatre: “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?”

Even as an adult, she says, “I don’t always feel like I’m a woman. I don’t feel like I’m in the wrong body but I think biology is murky and complex. Within a transgender point of view I know some people who are not going from one gender to another but are somewhere in between. As an adult that’s quite appealing.”

This, MacAskill knows, is potentially provocative material for a children’s theatre festival. “There is a fear factor in Scotland of work that feels like it pushes anything to do with sex or sexuality,” she acknowledges. “I wouldn’t want to suddenly see hundreds of shows about gender. But everyone has an experience in their life of feeling like they don’t fit in, or feeling different, or feeling that you’re not in the right group or the right club. It’s more about that being OK.”

“You can talk about anything with young audiences, it’s just about the way you frame it,” says Paul Fitzpatrick, who recently left the acclaimed children’s theatre company Catherine Wheels to become Imaginate’s new executive director. “Take a show like Lifeboat,” he says, referring to one of Catherine Wheels’ recent hits, currently on a US tour. “If you said, ‘we’re doing a show where 93 children die’ it’s very different to saying ‘an extreme thing happened but out of that a lifelong friendship was made’. It’s still the same subject you’re talking about. I think Imaginate is a place where you should be able to explore all aspects of what it means to be human.”

This year’s programme bears out that ambition. The festival includes Mess, which is about anorexia, and Waves, a show from Australia which includes a bizarre, harrowing scene in which a young girl obsessed with copying the way fish swim cuts herself in the belief that she can give herself gills. Both shows have already captivated young audiences, but material like this makes some adults nervous – especially when it seems to be about sex.

“When you see work from other countries you see how much our attitudes towards children are reflected in the work we make,” says Fiona Ferguson. “In the UK we often want to protect children but they don’t often have a loud voice. There’s a contradiction there – a lot of decisions are made by adults about what children can handle.”

In separate interviews, both MacAskill and Ferguson cite the same example of a Belgian show that hasn’t been shown to children here because of British paranoia about exposing children to sexual material. The (Im)Possible Friendship, by Kopergietery, is a “musical duet” about a friendship between a seven-year-old boy and a 35-year-old 
man. “It’s a really beautiful piece,” says MacAskill, “but there’s a bit where they’re in their pants, and there’s this fear, which has something to do with the form of it and something to do with the perceived content.”

“It’s not sexualised,” says Ferguson, “If they were on the beach in swimming trunks nobody would notice, but there’s something about live performance that provokes people.” Ferguson relates to the show partly because, as an aunt, she has strong friendships with children who are not her own, and partly because of her frustration that British prudishness – and our hysteria about paedophiles – makes it difficult to talk to children about their bodies. “I think it’s a huge topic, bodies, and it causes so many problems for young people.”

Gendersaurus Rex is not really about sex or nudity, or even bodies for the most part, but about diversity, representation, and challenging the expectations adults impose on children. For MacAskill, theatre is about “curiosity and a space where the rules are different”.

As a children’s theatre performer, she has frequently worked in schools, and describes how teachers will sometimes warn her about particular children on the grounds that they are likely to be disruptive. And then the opposite happens. “Just because it’s a different set of expectations they suddenly find their space, and they’re totally engaged and ask questions. As I’m doing this I realise this is what I’m excited about.”

• The Imaginate Festival is at various venues throughout Edinburgh, from 11-17 May.

Eilidh MacAskill will discuss Gendersaurus Rex at the festival on 13 May, and you can follow her progress at