Writers & Readers

With a Little Help From My Alien Friends

What makes a great show for kids? By Jennifer Essex
  • Essex in Space Rebel Princess / Photo by C J Griffiths
  • Harry Man in Space Rebel Princess / Photo by C J Griffiths
  • Essex in Space Rebel Princess / Photo by C J Griffiths

The damsel in distress is a familiar trope of fairy tales. Her primary goal is to be rescued and married by a wealthy and powerful man, rather than to succeed through her own wisdom, strength and bravery. Cinderella is reunited with her slipper; Sleeping Beauty is kissed awake; Rapunzel marries a blind prince whose sight she restores by crying. Writing a show for children, I worked with my partner, the poet Harry Man (one half of our company, Fully Booked Theatre), to look at ways in which we could create a story where a strong lead female character could rescue the kingdom, and to re-evaluate the gendered stereotypes embedded in the idea of “happily ever after.” For instance, at the end of our story our princess does not end up getting married, she is anything but meek and there’s no sight of Prince Charming. The show, Space Rebel Princess, centres upon the story of a princess who is confident, clumsy and content with her own strangeness, while also being a visionary, a brilliant engineer, a space pioneer and a hero.

Choreographically, I wanted to get a clearer understanding of how dance for children can be immersive, relevant and fun. I came across the work of Dr. Beth Juncker, professor of cultural communication at the University of Copenhagen, who has written extensively about child culture. In particular, Juncker puts forward the idea that there is a dichotomy between theatre that treats children as “beings” (the child as artist and critic in their own right) and children as “becomings” (the child as the adult they will one day become). This struck a chord with me, as so much dance-theatre I had seen in the past was very top-down – looking at children as nascent adult audiences, presuming that children would be engaged with cultural memes and willing to sit through and keep track of longer didactic narrative sequences. As is perhaps obvious from our own childhood experiences, the ability to imagine and to pretend is far easier for children than for adults, and this opens up possibilities that would otherwise be less successful with adult audiences. In general, child audiences are much more comfortable than adult audiences with immersive theatre, and children are more adept at making connections between distinct and perhaps disorienting leaps in the narrative. This is what Juncker considers a place created by children – a covenant of the imagination between story and audience in which a play-filled, pretend world is invented. This “cultural reality,” as Juncker terms it, “is only present as a fourth dimension [created] while you are running, jumping, swinging, singing, playing, listening, reading, talking, laughing.” This fourth dimension, she argues, is made out of “rhymes, rhythms, movements, figures, words, narrative,” metrical and playing patterns.

To encourage the building of this fourth dimension, as well as progressing a story, it helps to work with repeated phrases of narration. In this case, we focused on the princess’s exercise regime and the rhythms and rhymes of a poem to help the children assemble a rocket in time for blast off. As the story progressed, I found I was able to be more experimental and adventurous and use patterning to give way to less structured play. In other words, the work (or play) became more child-led.

Wanting to get another perspective on some of the practical aspects of creating work for children, I spoke to Hélène Blanchard, general and artistic co-director at the Théâtre des Confettis. The company has been performing new work that they describe as “always plac[ing] children at the centre … valuing their talent for subversion, their dreamy, poetic, heartfelt and sometimes crazy reactions. … At each stage in the creative process, childhood [is] seen in a non-condescending, non-patronizing way [and] is a constant reference point and focus.” Blanchard told me, “We organize meetings, discussions and readings with some children to see their reactions and comments. For projects to kids under four, those meetings and test performances are, to us, essential.”

Prior to speaking to Blanchard, we developed Space Rebel Princess with a similar ethos in mind, bringing in child test audiences. By doing so, we were able to identify what were their favourite parts of the show and to see what elements were not translating so well or what was less exciting or involving and so could be cut. In an early version of the show, we spent more time showing the relationship between Space Rebel Princess’ character and that of her grandfather, which would then pave the way for the grandfather’s disappearance at the end of Act one. For our first test audience, however, this backstory was too distracting, and the show proved to be just as affecting if we cut it down to make way for more immersive aspects, such as the adventure into space or exploring the surface of an alien planet. In other words, the very fact that we had created a cultural reality for our child audience was emotional investment enough. We could then sacrifice more exhaustively explained plot points in favour of more surreal and playful images and ideas, very much in the mode of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland or The Wizard Oz. For Space Rebel Princess’s audiences, the “why” is infinitely less interesting than the “how.”

As Blanchard articulates, there is no real difference between creating work for adults and making work for children: “In both cases,” she says, “we are looking to touch, inspire and seduce our audience while rising reflexion [sic]. For each member of the team (author, director, set designer, musician, actors), they artistically work the same way for both kinds of audience. I would say, however, that actors performing in front of children can’t just be good; they need to be excellent.”

While I was working with child audiences for Space Rebel Princess, it became clear that the barrier to spontaneity that exists in us as adults – fear of embarrassment or the judgement of our peers – has yet to develop in quite the same way. Typically, children are less inhibited, leaving them free to imagine themselves as the best rocket engineers in history in one scene and aliens who do not understand a word of English in the next. The games we made for Space Rebel Princess included solving a word puzzle in order to construct a rocket ship and decoding letters in order to communicate with an alien species. The feedback for these parts of the show was the strongest from children and adults alike.

One of the great joys we both experience when performing this work is to see how the fear of embarrassment is dissolved within parents through the simple fact of wanting to help facilitate play for their own children. The comedy of wearing glowing alien headband bobbles and leaping across imagined ravines or dancing to avoid the glare of the techno spiders are sufficiently small enough cues to first excuse and then induce enjoyable and immersive play. Viola Spolin, author of Improvisation for the Theater, argued that although children might be shy, their young age means they have a more limited history of social embarrassment. This, in turn, makes the process of willingly suspending their disbelief much faster than it would be for adults. For grown-ups with extensive memories of social embarrassment, it is not as easy to climb onstage, put a silver box on their heads and pretend they’re blasting into space. Watching their children have a go at dancing onstage, losing themselves in their imaginations or simply just having fun, gives adults more than enough of an excuse to let loose themselves and to feel involved in play, in circumstances that would likely be harder to produce more organically at home.

Because Space Rebel Princess is so reliant on children to participate in the show to help us tell the story, the best performances are nearly always ones in which something unexpected emerges – where a child will zoom through the audience and rejoin the rocket; or when they try to guess the story or offer advice to their alien leader (played by Harry) about what letters to use to spell out a greeting, or what greeting they should spell; or how they will dance to shake off the “robot-ising” rain and encourage others to copy them. This is where the children are both playing onstage, spontaneously and immersively as well as contributing to the story. Working in the studio, we were keen to use repetition of movements and ideas that would create small loops to encourage these kinds of interventions and improvisations. The hope was that in using a creative process that incorporates feedback from children we would create a language that would connect with them on their own terms.

In our story, Space Rebel Princess finds her happy ending by collaborating with an alien species to rescue her grandfather from where he has become stranded, like Robinson Crusoe, on a mysterious planet. We tried to give her the agency that many traditional fairy tales traditionally lack and to involve the audience as much as possible in helping to tell the story of Space Rebel Princess’s mission.

In the show, Space Rebel Princess’s ultimate aim is to save grandfather and reunite her kingdom that is in chaos at home. In helping her, the audience gets to share in her heroism. In many respects, the “happily ever after” of our story is the world to which children return to make of it what they will. Have we been successful in our grand plans of creating a feminist children’s show that treats everyone as beings and not as future adults? Who knows. So far, our audience feedback has been extremely positive and we’ll have to find out more on our next missions to the stars and beyond, each time with the assistance of a new cast of engineers, astronauts and aliens.



Giguere, M, 2017. ‘Dancing Thoughts: An Examination of Children’s Cognition and Creative Process in Dance.’ Research in Dance Education, Volume 12, Issue 1, (pp. 5 – 28).

Juncker, B, 2007. ‘Using Aesthetics as an Approach to Defining a New Children’s Cultural Foundation within the Library and Information Science Curriculum.’ Journal of Education for Library and Information Science, Vol. 48, Iss. 2, (pp. 154 – 165).

Spolin, V. (1983). Improvisation for the Theater (2nd ed.). Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press. 

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