Families looking for a different sort of children’s show this autumn need look no further than Princess Charming, a kids-oriented cabaret centred on gender identity. The show, meant for children aged 7-11, explores questions of gender stereotyping through toys, skits, dressing-up and more. In this guest blog, Spun Glass Theatre Artistic Director Jessica Cheetham shares how Princess Charming blends cabaret and children’s theatre to get people talking about these key issues.
Princess Charming stages the glitz and glamour of a cabaret club as a children’s show. And why not? An art form that has been created to poke fun at the adult world seems like the perfect starting point for a show that puts children at the front and centre. Like Roald Dahl with his villains, we take the starting point that adults can get things wrong and children can make their own opportunities to say – this is who I am.
More than anything, cabaret is fun. By merging cabaret and theatre to create Princess Charming, we can set up these discussions in a really fun and raucous way. Cabaret presents short acts to the audience usually built on thrill, subversion and surprise. Our performers Charlie and Alex get the audience really involved from the start and encourage heckling from the children, so throughout the show there is dialogue. The quick-change nature of the cabaret club also means children are always engaged in what is going on.
As the title suggests, Princess Charming is about being a boy and being a girl. Cabaret is fundamentally about gender identity. Using cabaret also allows us to quickly move from one idea to the next, presenting characters who are silly, thoughtful, mean, innocent, outrageous and reserved as well as providing us with contained moments to deal with different stereotypes – expectations of motherhood and caring on girls, hiding your emotions as a boy, being neat and tidy as a girl. We didn’t just have to pick one thing and commit to that story. We could keep changing the story.
Through these different skits, we have also been able to speak to children with different experiences of gender identity. There is nothing wrong with loving pink and princesses or being football mad. But when we restrict these interests to biological sexes, we create damage to those children who just love them regardless of who they are “for”. There is also a strong anti-bullying mission behind Princess Charming – by opening up children who are naturally inclined to act stereotypically to the possibilities of non-binary, different behaviour being acceptable, we hopefully reduce some of the “gender policing” you see happening from the age of three or four amongst children themselves. This policing can turn to bullying when children feel their own identities being challenged.
Princess Charming was created with a clear mission. Much of the sexism and gender inequality we see in the adult world is perpetuated by stereotyping. Women are more in touch with their emotions. Men are stronger. Girls love dolls. Boys don’t cry.
Our mission with the show is to get children and adults talking about these issues – mums and sons, teachers and pupils, granddads and granddaughters. We want children and adults to have the opportunity to ask each other the questions that allow children to break free of stereotypes, so they can live life to the full and be confident in their role in our modern society.
We created the show with children’s help. In October 2017, we performed sections to children in rural schools as we were creating the show – they were a very honest audience! They picked apart what we were trying to do and gave us insight into how they experienced the show that we would never be able to get from our adult perspective. This means Princess Charming really speaks to what children believe about gender stereotypes.
At the end of the show, we tip out two massive toy boxes and invite the children to join us onstage to play with everything and talk to the performers. Parents often chat to our performers as well – expressing shock and surprise over the things they might have said or bought for their children, seeing for the first time the impact that these stereotypes might have in later life.
So if you come along to Princess Charming, expect to see a cabaret club that wouldn’t look out of place in Las Vegas with all the subversion and carnival you’d expect, but that speaks to the worries, desires and loves of children. All packed into an hour. With free sweets.
Princess Charming is currently touring the UK through 31 October.