Poet and songstress Lucy Ayrton is on a mission with her new show Lullabies to Make Your Children Cry. That mission is to move away from the soppy, sleepy and domesticated women of fairy tales – currently doing the rounds in a shop near you – and get back to the grace and power exuded by the heroines celebrated in tales of yore. I spoke to Lucy to find out how she plans to use this year’s Fringe as a platform for her mission.
Lullabies to Make Your Children Cry has been placed in the brand new spoken word category. What do you think this category offers to performers/audiences that we haven’t had in previous years, and was it important to you to be placed in this category?
Yes, I was really delighted at the new category. I just think that spoken word is such a distinct thing – a bit like stand up, a bit like theatre, a bit like cabaret, but really, very much its own genre. It’s brilliant that this has been recognised and now audiences can get at the kind of shows they want to see more easily!
I’m also involved in running the Flea Circus Open Slam which is a platform for anyone to rock up and do five minutes of spoken word. We’re really hoping the show will be a great chance for everyone who’s interested in spoken word at the Fringe to meet and show each other what they’re up to.
You sound as if you’re using this platform to communicate a strong feminist message. Is the main aim of the show to change people’s perceptions of stereotypical fairy tale damsels? Do you think this might even help to change (mis)perceptions of women in general?
The show definitely has a strong feminist message, and it’s totally true that it doesn’t help women that the stock character of a heroine is so pathetic. But what I think is even more important is the way that works the other way round – what effect on your behaviour it has if your whole childhood has been spent being told that you’re meant to act like Cinderella. This emphasis on “niceness” and “prettiness” and being super-sugar-sweet to people all the time is fine for a 6 year old, but as soon as you get any older than that, you need to put a lot more stock in your own opinions, the way you think things should be, and the way you’re going to live your life. And the way you learn that is by having a heroine who stands up and says “nope, I’m not standing for that. I’m going to sort this all out.”
This niceness, prettiness and sugar-sweetness links back to how so many fairy tales have been ‘Disneyfied’. Does your show seek to get back to the original forms of these tales, with all the brilliance (and grimness!) that involves?
It definitely does! I think that, originally, fairy tales weren’t just nice fluff to get kids to sleep – they were told as warnings. Don’t wander off on your own! Don’t make deals with witches! Don’t let your guard down! Disney has robbed us of that, by nice-ifying the whole thing.
The reason we teach kids things is to help them towards being adults. But your average Disney princess never has to grow up. There’s no development – they just go from doing whatever their stepmother says to doing what their husband says. And that’s not just annoying, it’s dangerous. If we want our little girls to kick ass in the future, we’ve got to give them some dragons to fight now.
In the process of giving our heroines dragons to fight, what role do you think poems and songs have in telling (or retelling) these sort of tales? The whole oral tradition vibe seems the perfect thing for the new spoken word category.
As much as I love books and films – even Disney! – there’s something about sitting down with someone and telling them stuff, person to person, that’s special. Part of my argument is that, if you’re using fairy tales as a teaching tool, it works best when it’s your actual mum who’s sitting you down and telling you stuff she thinks you need to know. Like, if you’re a reckless child, she’ll probably want to remind you not to run off into forests, but if you’re a bit shyer, she might tell you a story about how important it is to be brave. The oral tradition is so key to fairy tales. And I think poems and songs are very useful, because stuff sticks better with repetition, and poems and songs aren’t just throwaway things, they’re for telling and sharing again and again.
This idea of repetition links nicely to the way you tell some new fairy tales of your own in the show, because there’s a great tradition of this (Angela Carter springs to mind). Do you think it’s important for women to keep telling and retelling their own tales to make sure they don’t ever have to go back to napping and sweeping?
ABSOLUTELY. I think we need to start telling the kind of stories that we think our girls need today. What Angela Carter did with the idea of wolves was just perfect – don’t just be scared of a raw, dangerous power, think what it means, think how you can use it. I think we have to keep questioning what we’re saying about our lives when we tell stories, because that is what we do, every time we tell a story. In a time when men actually legally owned women, we needed different messages than we do today. There are some things that we’ll always need to warn our girls about (it’s never going to be a good idea to mess with witches), but as society evolves and we get more and more equality between the genders, we need to change our messages to suit and to build on the work we’ve already done.
Lucy Ayrton: Lullabies to Make Your Children Cry, The Banshee Labyrinth, 4-14 August, 18.20