Opinion: We mustn’t “opt-out” of tolerance
Theatre-maker and actor Melanie Jordan on the making of lesbian love story At A Stretch and why it’s so important
Jordan & Skinner in At A Stretch
Images: Jassy Earl
I’m Melanie, a theatre-maker and actor based in Glasgow and one-half of visual theatre company Jordan & Skinner.
We have made a new show called At A Stretch - a lesbian love story for kids which tells the story of two women who meet, unexpectedly fall in love, and have to figure out how to share their lives with someone.
The show is wordless and uses highly physical movement, acrobatics, dance and clowning to tell this story. When the two characters meet, magical elastic forms between them. Each time they meet more elastic appears until the whole set is covered in a neon web of bouncy elastic. The elastic is a visual metaphor for the bonds that connect us to those who are important in our lives.
In At A Stretch it was important for us to showcase the ups and downs of relationships, the joyous parts alongside the more challenging parts. We wanted to tell the story of a real relationship, not one that ends with a happily ever after.
I think having conversions with young people about the complexities of relationships is really important to give them an idea of what it is or will be like when they form important bonds with others.
As we were developing the show, we worked with a primary school in Edinburgh and asked the kids there what their idea of relationships were. They told us all about their close relationships and why they were special to them. Loyalty, communication and a shared sense of humour were all hot topics of discussion - the same qualities that strengthen romantic relationships as well as non-romantic ones. The kids were certainly astute in their understanding of what makes a strong connection between people and we learned loads about what to put in the show!
However, they were less able to talk about same-sex romantic relationships, in particular lesbian relationships. They had some (limited) understanding of male gay relationships and could name a few gay male celebrities to prove this point, but their understanding of lesbian relationships was practically nothing. They just hadn’t seen them! They had no frame of reference for two women in love. I think this is due to a lack of lesbians and bi women on mainstream media, a lack of queer stories on kids TV, in kids theatre and books etc., and a lack of discussion about alternative relationships at school. My hope is that At A Stretch will open up this conversation to young people and provide parents and teachers with a start point for this discussion.
When we visited schools a letter was sent round to all the parents beforehand to let them know that we would be discussing LGBT themes in our work – the parents could then “opt-out” of their child attending the workshop if they wished. Whilst I understand that this could be a sensitive issue for some parents, I don’t believe as people we should be allowed to “opt-out” of tolerance.
By exposing kids to stories outside of the heteronormative we allow them to grow their understanding of different people and therefore grow their ability for empathy and inclusivity. It also allows the young queer kids or kids with queer families to see themselves and their situations represented. Representation is so important! If you see yourself represented on stage or on screen it validates your unique experience and reinforces your place in the world.
Growing up in the early 90s I couldn’t see women like myself anywhere and so I hid the feelings I was having and tried to be like everyone else. I know for sure that had I had a better (or any) reference for queerness as a young person I would have come out much earlier than I did – and probably saved a great deal of heartache along the way!
Children ultimately want to conform, they want to be like their friends, their idols or the people they look up to in the media. If the world children see in front of them is more diverse, conforming becomes diverse!
We also worked with a teenage group at LGBT Youth Scotland when making the show. We asked them what they would have liked to see on stage as a young queer person. Their answer was firmly that the queer characters should not be ridiculed or punished for their sexual or gender identity, they shouldn’t be presented as mentally unwell, they shouldn’t die and they definitely shouldn’t turn straight at the end!
This was really eye-opening because these were the kind of queer stories those teenagers were used to. So, At A Stretch, while presenting the highs and lows of relationships, is a story of hope and a story where the queer characters are strong, proud of who they are, and their sexual identity is never questioned.
At A Stretch is a lesbian love story, but the fact that the characters are two women is simultaneously irrelevant and the most important thing about the show. They are two people who fall in love, make idiots of themselves and have to figure out what it is to offer commitment, support and love to another person - gender doesn’t even come into it.
At the same time, it is a story that isn’t told enough to kids (and grown-ups!) and the fact that they are two women is essential to this. It is an alternative to the heteronormative romance stories we are used to, and my hope is that soon it will not be alternative at all.
At A Stretch opens at The Tron in Glasgow on Saturday 23 September at noon and 2.30pm, and continues onto Eden Court, Inverness, on the Saturday 28 October at 7pm.
23 September, noon & 2.30pm @ Tron Theatre, Glasgow
tron.co.uk/event/at-a-stretch/ (£8.50, £21 Family of 3, £28 Family of 4)
28 October, 7pm @ Eden Court, Inverness
eden-court.co.uk (£11 Adult, £7 Family, £6.50 Student/Under 26)
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