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In the run up to Big Imaginations Festival we caught up with Nina Hajiyianni the Artistic Director for Happily Ever After, touring the North West this Autumn.

From decriminalisation of homosexuality in the UK in 1967, through queer-bashing in the 1970s, the enactment of Section 28 in the 1980s, to the sanction of same-sex marriage in 2014, the portrayal of LGBTQ people has had a turbulent history. Paul Couch spoke to Action Transport Theatre’s Artistic Director, Nina Hajiyianni, about her new show for primary school-age children in which two Princes fall in love and marry.

You’ve been taking Happily Ever After into primary schools since last October, haven’t you?

We only had a pilot tour last October so it’s not really had the exposure it would from a national tour. What we did in October is develop the piece with quite limited resources than we would of had if we were taking a show out on tour. Right now we’re developing the piece bit by bit. What happened in October was we got a school project based on this stimulus piece of work, which is the basis for the show that will be. It went out as a pilot, almost like a work in progress in a way.

When we start rehearsals next week, we’ll be revisiting what we’ve already made. We created a 35-minute show, which was in no way entirely finished in my mind, although it felt finished and audiences responded to it and it felt like it was a proper piece of theatre. So what we’ll do initially is revisit it and look at where there’s scope to expand some of the scenes and where material can be developed. We’ll revisit all of that and then make some new stuff up based on where we think we can go a little bit further, a little bit deeper, on some of the dramatic action.

You say the unfinished piece was 35 minutes. You’re aiming this at quite young children – do you have any concerns about attention spans?

Between 45 – 50 minutes is what we’re aiming for. So we’ll not be creating too much more material, we’ll develop a bit more and we’ll obviously refine what we’ve already got. What I find is, for children, we need to make the work as visual as possible and obviously, with this show, there’s no text whatsoever – it’s highly visual storytelling. We use quite a dynamic soundtrack and I just make sure that the action is there really – we’re hooking the audience in by showing different styles and different rhythms.

Happily Ever After is based on a controversial children’s book, King and King, by Linda De Haan and Stern Nijland. Why did you feel the need to adapt it for the stage?

I suppose I was just interested in the story and, being a theatre-maker, I saw had a huge potential as a piece of theatre. I was made aware of a play, Prince and Prince, that was actually written by an Argentinian playwright called Perla Szuchmacher [1946–2010] and she had a production in Mexico that a friend and colleague of mine was directing. I asked to be sent a copy of the translation. My first route was to look at the possibility of creating an English version of the play, which is another adaptation of the book, but when I read the play I realised I was much more interested in telling the story visually and so I went back to the book and started to look at the inspiration for the story from the pictures, the words that are within the book.

So what’s the reaction been from the young people who have seen the scratch version?

It’s been interesting taking the work into schools to some kind of reticence, I suppose, and understandably teachers have been aware that there’s a potential for this because, for some, this is a controversial story. But it’s very simply a kind of growing up story. It’s about a reluctant Prince and all children can understand a parental figure who’s wagging their finger and trying to get them to do one thing when actually they want to do another. And on that basis the storytelling is really delightfully funny and just very, very accessible. I suppose in the romantic element, where the Prince sees the other Prince, there is a moment where the two fall in love and it’s so light touch and so open to interpretation, although you recognise it as a love story.

It also speaks about friendship about finding someone that you like, about playfulness, about openness, about identity, in a very intuitive way. I think that’s one of the reasons why I wanted not to use language, just to take it back to the real essence of just human interaction – one human person connecting to another. That happens on many different levels in many different ways, and this happens to be quite honest in a kind of love way but it’s really light touch and very accessible.

How would you respond to people who claim that this sort of initiative leads to the over-sexualisation of children?

The play is not in any way about sex or anything sexual. It’s about humans connecting with each other and it’s about a Prince who, while the Queen is parading all these Princesses in front of him, he doesn’t like any of them – he likes another Prince, it’s that simple. There’s nothing there’s nothing inappropriate for children of any age to be honest. The other thing to say is that some children pick up very negative ideas about being gay and about same-sex relationships. I think there is an issue with invisibility of gay characters in children’s literature and children’s culture and the kind of things that children come across in books, film, television and art. I think in some small way this seeks to redress that imbalance and just provide a bit of visibility for something that is largely invisible.

You’ve said in the past that there is an absence of gay entities in theatre. Do you mean in numbers, intelligent portrayals of the LGBTQ community, or in context? What do we need to do to be more inclusive?

All of it. I think that the theatre that we make and see needs to reflect the diversity of the world we live in. I think, particularly in work with children and young people, you don’t get the gender roles or the issues around gay identity is not really prominent. That means that young people like them who identify as gay or as different don’t have those kinds of role models to validate their feelings, their thoughts and experiences. I think we just need to be mindful of creating a landscape that is as rich as the kind of world we live in. Some young people do grow up feeling worried about their own identities or even nervous about having family members and being open about that.

It was interesting that in some schools we took the work into there were children who would suddenly blurt out: “My uncle’s gay” or “My sister’s gay” and it was kind of a “coming out” moment for them. You could really feel that there was something happening; that there was a conversation happening that hadn’t taken place before. I think that kind of validation is very important to children so they can feel accepted and that it’s okay to be as individual as we all are.

Do you think there are any other issues that would benefit from being presented to young people in the form of play? For example, the Palestinian occupation and those sorts of issues?

I’ve just been on social media and those horrible, harrowing images of the children, the poor boy washed up on the shore. You know, I can’t look at that image without feeling heartbroken – it’s so awful and I think, at the moment, one of the biggest issues facing us is the idea of cultural difference and migration and the whole issue around refugees and accepting that we have globally a responsibility to support others that are in need. Obviously, adults have created these issues. Children can’t be burdened by having to face these kinds of very complicated situations. I do think anything that promotes a sense of understanding and tolerance toward others, particularly the plight of others who are having to flee from conflict. That’s very important.

Do you think theatre is an effective channel to get these messages across to young people?

I really do, because it’s the one place that we can develop empathy and understanding – through the media, through the news, through all the channels of communication. People are becoming dehumanised and we’re starting to not really feel for people as individuals. We’re thinking of them as statistics or as being these weird people from the other side of the world that don’t mean anything to us. I think theatre humanises by telling stories and it creates human identities of those very real, awful situations.

Is Happily Ever After the most controversial piece by Action Transport Theatre to date?

That’s a good question! I suppose at face value, because some will find it controversial, then perhaps the answer is yes, because the assumption is that work that has an LGBT focus is going to be about teenage years or about older young people. I think we’re used to issue-based work, that kind of thing happening in schools. I think the fact that this is for young children and for families has probably been quite noteworthy. As I say, that’s been deliberate in a way; we want schools to receive the work but we also want families to come in have a lovely time at this very life-affirming, wonderful piece of visual theatre.

All the work Action Transport does aims to challenge. We do that deliberately. We think that theatre should be challenging. That doesn’t mean it has to be heavy and boring and all the rest of it. We’ve got to challenge and especially when it comes to the way we see children and young people, so we’ll always aim to be slightly controversial because we think we need to tell stories that need to be told. Those important stories that aren’t being told in the way they should be.

Happily Ever After will be at seven venues across the North West this Autumn:

The Edge, Manchester

Lancaster Arts

The Atkinson, Southport

Touchstones, Rochdale

Waterside Arts Centre, Sale

Burnley Youth Theatre

Whitby Hall, Ellesmere Port

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October 18th, 2017

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