For International Women’s Day, Dawn Emrey talked to We’re Going on a Bear Hunt Director, Sally Cookson about gender-flipping characters, the women who inspire her and what it means to be a woman in the creative industries today. 2019 marks the 30th anniversary of We’re Going on a Bear Hunt; the much-loved picture book by Michael Rosen and Helen Oxenbury.
You’ve been known to flip gender roles around in some of your productions – by having a female playing a traditional male role and vice versa. What inspired that?
I absolutely I have done that yes, when I thought it was the right things to do, I have done it very successfully.
Well, for Peter Pan, it came from JM Barrie. I read somewhere that his intention was to have Captain Hook played by a woman and I was absolutely flabbergasted that this had never been done. It made total sense to me that Peter Pan’s arch nemesis is the mother figure. So of course, the governing of Mrs Darling and Captain Hook works perfectly.
In my version of Sleeping Beauty, I had Prince Percy, as the protagonist and it was a fun to play around with gender and the idea that boys can be vulnerable. Percy had to be rescued by a girl, and it was surprising to see the reaction – there was a quite a lot of outrage. But audiences loved it and of course it’s very important to see men and women explore different aspects of their personality and not be constrained by how society says we should behave.
Do you think it’s important to teach children at a young age that the female roles don’t have to always be the princess, and that male roles can also have feminine sides?
I think it’s vital for our young people that they’re not fed this fairytale, this fairytale is nonsense. If you look at some of the old, old tales, they have a very different story to tell. In one of the very first written down fairytales, Red Riding Hood, the Grandmother is not a passive victim who gets rescued by a woodcutter, she makes her own escape from the wolf. And Red Riding Hood is a very proactive, clever, cunning young woman who gets herself out of a dangerous situation through her quick thinking. Some of the adaptations of the fairytales get really sanitized and the gender roles become unhelpful.
When children see a male Sleeping Beauty or a female Captain Hook in your version of Peter Pan (for the National Theatre), do you think it is easier for them to accept as they have less pre-conceived notions about what heroes and heroines should be?
Yes, it’s never the children who get upset, it’s always the adults who feel we should be teaching our children certain things. I did a lot of work for early years, so three to six year-olds in the early part of my career and they are accepting of a lot sophisticated material. What’s wonderful about that age group is that they’re very honest with how they respond – if they like something they’ll tell you and if they don’t, they’ll also tell you.
Have you noticed changes since you started in the industry? Is it getting any easier for women?
I think there is a most glorious shift happening. We are all aware of this seismic change, we can feel it, can’t we? My daughter came home the other day, it was after the Oscars when Frances McDormand had made her speech. She said to me, “Mum, I feel so excited to be a woman now”. And I was just incredibly moved by that because, I think young women are now feeling that they’re starting to be heard and I feel as though we’re witnessing something wonderful. It’s taken 100 years, from the suffragettes doing all that incredible work, fighting for our rights, and now we are being listened to in a different way. I mean there is a lot of work to be done of course, but the tide is turning.
Which women in theatre do you admire?
Oh hundreds! And not all of them are famous. I have a massive respect for the women who run the engagement department at Bristol Old Vic. The young people and all the youth theatre work and the outreach and all the community work that is done, which is the beating heart of the theatre. They do an extraordinary job and inspire thousands of people, young people, old people, people who work in the community and engage in that, and it changes people’s lives. They are my unsung heroes because they don’t get recognized. People like them, they are very important and very inspirational to me.
Your production of We’re Going on a Bear Hunt has been touring with Kenny Wax Family Entertainment for 10 years! Did you predict it would be such a success?
No, I had absolutely no idea! It was a very, very small-scale show that I thought would play for four weeks and that’s it. So, it’s been a surprise and a delight that it’s had this longevity. It’s also to do with the popularity of the book. I read it to my children when they were tiny and it’s still one of the best early years books. Michael Rosen wrote a beautiful poem combined with the illustrations. I think it taps into the child’s sense of playing, and that’s what we try to capture in the production, with the aesthetic and the design, and the element and the environments that come into the story. We interpret it in a very playful and imaginative way so that anyone who comes to see the show can go home and pull out amongst other things the buckets, and the cardboard boxes from you know, any old cupboard and start playing in the same way that we made the show. There is a simplicity that children can identify with and that’s part of its success.