In 2017, Sarah Punshon, founder and director of theatre company One Tenth Human, received a worried phone call from her sister. Sarah’s five-year-old niece had returned home from school and told her mother that her, “thighs were too fat”. Both Sarah and her sister were appalled that a small child could be wrestling with body images issues, but when Sarah began researching the issue she discovered that this is a widespread problem and children as young as three are preoccupied with their appearance. Sarah felt compelled to create a production around this issue that was fun for children but would serve as a reminder that it’s what’s on the inside that really counts. Sarah explains that Cinderella was chosen as the starting point for a body image based production as it’s a fairytale which focuses heavily on appearance; the “ugly sisters” and Cinderella’s transformative make-over at the hands of the fairy godmother. The story makes clear, Sarah points out, there is a “right way and a wrong way to look”. Co-creator of the production Toni Dee Paul points out that Cinderella is, “rife with loads of really odd stereotypes about what girls can and can’t do or what their aspirations should be”.
One Tenth Human produce science-inspired performances for children. The research process involves speaking to academics as well as kids to create a story which will educate and entertain. When Sarah, Toni and their team visited primary schools in the North of England in 2017 they discovered that the film version of Cinderella, the 1950 cartoon as well as the 2015 live action re-make, wields a great deal of influence over children. In response to questions about the characters the children described Cinderella as having a “blue dress and blonde hair”, her personality traits were being, “nice and pretty” and the Prince was tall, strong and charming with teeth that “go ding”. There were some forms of rodents and, oddly, a donkey, perhaps confusion with the cartoon Shrek! Toni Dee explains, their answers made clear that it was, “a boring story, which for a long time is what stories featuring princesses were, essentially very bland woman marries a Prince”.
Cinderella: the AWESOME truth emphasises what the characters do and what their objectives are rather than what they look like. Toni Dee points out that, “theatre shouldn’t be perpetuating the same stereotypes that the media does. It’s important to have nonbinary people in a cast because non-binary people exist in the world, it’s important to have black people on stage with diverse bodies, because that’s the way the world looks”. This production features two Cinderellas, step-sisters Cindy and Ella who are polar opposites. Cindy is into material things, dreams of being a princess and is addicted to her phone meanwhile Ella loves kickboxing and being outdoors. Physically the girls are opposites too, Cindy is more petite while Toni Dee notes that a key criteria for casting Ella’s character was that she was a bigger girl. The point of this difference in physicality being, “Ella is a bigger girl who is capable and awesome and it doesn’t matter that she’s a different size to Cindy”.
Covid-19 and subsequent lockdown caused delays to the production, but it’s premier this November couldn’t be more timely especially in the wake of the Facebook leaks. The cache of internal documents leaked by Francis Haughan and published by the Wall Street Journal, included damning statistics on what the social media platform Instagram does to young women and girls. Facebook researchers found that, “66 per cent of teen girls on instagram experience negative social comparison, 52 per cent said that it was caused by images related to beauty and 32 per cent said that when they felt bad about their bodies, Instagram made them feel worse”. Moreover Facebook are keen to reach the younger children the “Tween” age group was identified in one 2020 document as a “valuable but untapped audience”. Children as young as six are now surfing the internet and Facebook is keen to capture them, although now on hold “Instagram for Kids” was in the works.
The production makes a comment on social media through a trio of fairy-godmother puppets. In the song “Glow Up” they come and pick apart everything wrong with Cindy’s appearance, explaining the lengths she’ll have to go to be in with the chance of winning the Prince’s affection (“If you wanna hear I do, do what I do, hide the parts that aren’t right. Glow UP!, they trill). Toni Dee explains that the fairy-godmothers are an amalgamation of the worst of social media, they appear in the production when a character is feeling bad about themselves and affirm the only remedy is drastic changes to their appearance. It’s not just Cindy who falls victim to their persuasion, the Prince struggles with image expectations too. Sarah explains that, “there are boys grappling with all of this stuff increasingly, and men aren’t Princes with teeth that go ding. So, the show explores the idea of a prince that’s under this unbearable pressure to be a perfect ridiculous ideal, and who in the end needs saving”.
Thankfully, the godmothers’ antithesis is on hand in the form of Squee the squirrel. This puppet character reminds Ella and Cindy that they’re incredible as they are, one affirming catchy number “Get Your Squirrel On” promises to have audiences dancing in their seats.
Cinderella: the AWESOME truth will be the first production to be performed on Polka’s Main Stage since re-opening in September. Speaking about their hopes for audiences Sarah explains, “I love Christmas shows, because for lots of families it’s their big theatre trip of the year, maybe their only theatre trip of the year. Schools who might not otherwise come to the theatre come at Christmas too. So, it’s your chance to tell a really big, bold, entertaining story that might just have an impact on some peoples’ lives.” Toni Dee adds, “I hope first and foremost, that audiences have a really good time singing along to all the songs and falling in love with the characters and enjoying themselves. But I also hope that this show can affirm for children that they are great the way that they are and that they don’t have to change things about their bodies to achieve anything. That being kind to each other, being able to go outside and play and laughing together are most important things you can do as a child”.