Features Published 1 April 2019

Queer-positive messaging in family theatre

As debates erupt over LGBT+ education in schools, Poppy Burton-Morgan writes on the power of family theatre to create new role models.
Poppy Burton-Morgan

On the day of the royal wedding my children were told to come to school dressed as a prince or a princess. One of them chose to wear a tutu and a crown. Some of the girls told him he looked silly. The teachers told him he looked awesome. He did look awesome (obviously I would say that, I’m his mother). He remains (relatively) unfazed by the comments and both he and his brother frequently wear their unicorn t-shirts and floral leggings on non school uniform days. We are lucky that our perfectly average London primary school celebrates diversity, tolerance and kindness and the teachers accept each child however they choose to present themselves. My little sister was not so lucky. When she came out at the age of 14 she was bullied so badly that she had to change schools. School remains a fraught environment in which to be ‘other.’

What’s all this got to do with theatre? Everything and nothing. When I started my own theatre company Metta Theatre 14 years we set out to make work that provided a ‘platform for unheard voices and stories’ – often that meant stories of tragedy and challenge-outsider narratives where the protagonist achieved success despite their ‘otherness’. But as we matured as artists so too did our politics of representation. Reading about primary schools in Birmingham and beyond suspending their LGBTQ education broke my heart. But it also galvanized my resolve to tell stories that normalize and celebrate the queer experience. Shows like the West End musical Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, which depicts a teenage drag queen’s journey to being accepted, are great. But someone’s queerness doesn’t have to become an issue, a theme or a plot point – it can just be a stated fact. We can create our own realities on stage where a character’s otherness is just not the issue. It can be acknowledged, and even celebrated, without being problematised. So that’s what we set out to do with our latest show, a new hip hop musical based on Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind In The Willows. In The Willows transposes the animal characters we all know and love from the original – silver tongued Toad, confident Rattie, shy Mole, cheeky Otter and their stern but kindly teacher Mr Badger – to an urban comprehensive school called ‘The Willows’. It’s not about queer representation or politics, but the messaging remains consistently queer positive with several openly queer characters in the mix, most notably Duck (played by the effeverscent X Factor Finalist and Pride Favourite Seann Miley Moore) whose big number ‘Make It Right’ is a empowerment ballad of fairytale proportions.

Seann Miley Moore plays Duck in In The Willows

As Seann says: ‘Within The Willows Duck’s queerness is never really questioned. It’s just normal. But his fabulous queerness is also highlighted and celebrated through the medium of dance.’ When the characters leave the confines of ‘The Willows’ classroom they head to ‘The Riverbank’ – a nightclub where they use dance and dance battles to express themselves. Seann says that ‘Duck dances in a Vogue Femme style – which I was coached in especially for the role, by the brilliant Vogue teacher Rinu Ogundeji – that fierce and flamboyant dance form is how he chooses to express his queer identity. Throughout the whole piece, and for all the characters, the dance floor is a place where you can feel your fantasy – it’s a safe space to express your identity.’

With schools making backtracks on LGBTQ+ education, it’s heartening to see a generation of artists and theatre companies taking their responsibility to hold up a mirror to society seriously – especially in the realm of family theatre. The stories that we tell our children are the stories they take on into their lives about how the world works, and that’s especially important when the likes of Disney are dragging their heels when it comes to queer inclusion. There has been a brilliant grassroots and fringe queer scene catering to an LGBTQ+ family audience for a long time, and lots of our best cabaret and drag artistes make family friendly work (Tickertape Parade’s Fantabulosa, Mariah and Friendz’ Splat, Alexander Luttley and Charlotte Worthing’s Princess Charming). But as is true for many other marginalised groups, that work is often confined to short runs fringe and studio spaces. John Sizzle and Jonny Woo (The Glory) take over the National Theatre’s Riverside Stage for a weekend every summer. But that’s only a weekend.

Queer-inclusive kids’ theatre shouldn’t be something that’s kept on the margins, because all kids need these stories. This is partly why I’m working so hard to get In the Willows in the West End. But even if that doesn’t happen, by the end of this first tour, it will have been seen by over 30,000 people across the UK – and for a huge number of them it will have been their first experience of theatre. It’s also great to see some major regional theatres celebrating queerness in their main house/long-running family programming. At Lancaster’s Dukes Theatre, Sarah Punshon has included a gender fluid Tinkerbell in Peter Pan, and lesbian romance in Three Musketeers. In Bath, the Egg’s Little Mermaid reimagined a classic tale, inspired by the historic queer symbolism of mermaids.

The issues are so live that over the short course of writing this article MPs have just voted in favour of LGBT inclusive relationship and sex education for schools in England by a resounding majority. But just because it’s enshrined in law, doesn’t mean that it’s the end of the battle. Protests are likely to continue, which is why cultural representation is even more important. Of course we must still create space on our stages for queer stories that explore the challenges faced by the queer community. Not everything should be a utopian alternate universe where homophobia doesn’t exist. But it’s also promising to see a growing number of theatre companies and artists presenting a generation of young audiences with worlds populated by diverse, three-dimensional queer characters, and normalizing their lives and lived experiences. And as well as young audiences, we’ve also got the opportunity to reach older generations who didn’t grow up in world where tolerance and acceptance is increasingly protected by law. I cry at anything these days (parenthood does that to you) but what gets me going in seconds is when audience members come up to me to say ‘Thank you for showing me myself on stage.’ Representation matters, now more than ever.

In The Willows is on tour until June 8th 2019 – go to www.inthewillows.co.uk for more info. 

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Poppy Burton-Morgan is a contributor to Exeunt Magazine