Saturday, August 27, 2022

Changing Roles in Fairytales

Fairytales have always been magical. The most familiar “once upon a time” versions involve forces of light and dark, enchanted dreamy endings, heroic characters who reflect universal values (i.e., honesty, courage, etc.). Set in imaginative places where inanimate objects can come to life, these elements are the hallmarks of this folklore genre and can be adapted to suit specific cultural expectations.

For example, expressions of  true love reveal social beliefs about who can love whom, how, when, and why. Traditionally, strong males (prince, pauper, etc.) are clever enough to rescue their beloved females (princess, damsel in distress, etc.).
But this landscape is changing – same sex unions and fluid  sexual orientation are less about physiology and more about widening the boundaries of male/female roles. In revised fairytales, rules of expected behaviors and traits can rearrange our understandings of gender.

The same holds true for what we think about human/non-human and animate/inanimate interactions. Today's deeper understandings about what is and is not 'alive' (think quantum/subatomic physics) makes for thinner veils between us and other 'life' forms.
The possibilities inspire visual poet Sarah-Jane Crowson who explores such spaces in fairytales and folk tales. An educator at Hereford College of Arts (UK), and a postgraduate researcher at Birmingham City University (UK), she shares here how her own folklore-based art work transforms standard narratives into more nuanced, complete expressions of individual identity.

Q: You recently created 'Once' (pantoum) an poetic anime to reflect the shifting gender landscape of fairy tales and folk tales. What did this process reveal?
 A:  My work has always dealt with ideas of transformation. Collage as a medium lends itself to this because it involves working with sources and source material; literally cutting up images and re-imagining their meanings by using them in a different context. Such a non-binary nature allows multiple options to flourish, and fairytales, because they can blur lines between the non-human and human world, are equally full of possibility.
Q: Why paper theatre?

A.   Aesthetically, I love the look and design of Victorian paper theatres - they’re delicate and beautiful, yet also enable play; a bit like collage, they invite people to make up their own stories and characters. Starting with a specific ‘set’, ‘characters’ and perhaps a script, the very creation of the theatre offers a powerful way for the theatre-maker to create new narratives within that broad framework.
I  love how they transfer nicely between analogue and digital forms. There’s something deeply appealing about creating a digital paper theatre, using shadow, and perhaps moving image. But there’s equally something deeply satisfying in hand-colouring a digital creation and making a tangible book or card.  More about Paper Theatre/Theater 
Q:  Has your art, poetry, and research reshaped your own expectations about gender?

A: Yes, absolutely! When I started out on my research journey I thought in much more binary ways generally. I have always identified as female, so although as an educator I’ve always tried to be sensitive and ethical in my approach to gender, I don’t have strong lived experience of what it is to feel dissonant about my gender.
However, perhaps like many other people, I’ve certainly felt constrained by expectations of gender behaviours, and I’ve certainly complied with these against my personal wishes at times, or because I needed to do so to ‘fit in’.  So, I have learned that gender is a conversation that is by nature complex. Making artwork that considers issues of gender through mediums I feel drawn to (fairytale and theatre) has activated within me a sense of personal awareness and empowerment, of how these mediums can be open – not just propping up existing structures of power. I still have everything to learn, though, and a great deal of listening to do. And making! I am someone who can only really learn things through making/creating, so there are more digital and paper stages for me to create and explore.

 Q: Do you have a favorite modern fairytale? Has it been adapted to better reflect the evolution of gender roles?

A.   Renee Vivien’s Prince Charming is one of my favourites, because it subverts the Prince Charming myth cleverly, whilst showing how to outwit/out-perform social expectations (while highlighting gender possibilities within the stereotypes). More about her favorite fairytales 
Q: What other projects are you currently working?

A.   I’m experimenting with small pop-up paper theatres and artists books for a publication (Summer 2023) with US publisher The Ethelzine. I’m also looking forward to a second collaboration with Rare Swan Press  and am collaborating with US poet and author, John RileyI’m proud to be part of the upcoming staff showcase exhibit of physical drafts of artist books and animation this fall at Hereford College of Arts And I need to finish writing up my PhD thesis!
More about Sarah-Jane Crowson 
More about Once 
More about Fairtytales 
More about Paper Theatre/Theater 

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