Creating a Credible Likeable Superstar Role Model
Charlotte finds That Catherine Bennett Show as inspiring for a woman in her twenties as it is for tweens
Catherine Bennett is a palaeontologist and a pop star, invented by a nine-year-old dissatisfied with the female role models she found in popular music. With geek chic style, she subverts the status quo and sings about animals and equality.
That nine-year-old, Taylor, is now a ten-year-old and CB has grown into something of a celebrity. Under Taylor's management, she has gained over 1,500 followers on Twitter, featured on Sky News, had her music played on Radio 1 and gigged in schools across the UK. Now she's back in the theatre, with That Catherine Bennett Show.
At the start of its short tour, I battled through the half-term hordes on the Southbank to see the show and catch up with Bryony Kimmings, the awesome aunt and performing artist who plays CB and helped make all this possible.
Bryony and Taylor first introduced CB to adult audiences at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe last year, in the much-praised Credible Likeable Superstar Role Model, reviewed by The F-Word then. "[That Catherine Bennett Show] came from Southbank Centre seeing that show and seeing us," Bryony explains. The original show explored the principles behind the project: challenging the sexualisation of pop and childhood. Designed for six- to 12-year-olds, That Catherine Bennett Show is "more Taylor and I telling the story of what happened; right from where the idea was conceived, at Nana's kitchen table, all the way through to getting played on Radio 1."
"You're a girl so you can be this. You're a boy so you can be that." I mean, they don't need that
"It's meant to just be an empowering story," Bryony continues. "The real message is if you see something you don't like in the world, even if you're nine years old, you have the power to change it. And it's only really yourself, and not believing yourself, that will stop you from ever doing that." As she states simply but memorably in the show, the world is not concrete.
It's a tale and truth That Catherine Bennett Show imparts brilliantly, with bright visuals and colourful variety. The production bounces from a high-energy pop mash-up to a bubbling science kit and a huge dinosaur bone. Then there's a film of Bryony and Taylor on Radio 1 and the opportunity for one lucky mum to be dressed up as Catherine Bennett. Of course, there's also CB songs to get the kids dancing in (and out of) their seats, including the infectious 'Animal Kingdom', for which the audience learn the choreography.
It is huge fun, and Taylor's part in challenging and changing the world as it stands is clear, both on and off stage. Bryony admits: "Some of the stuff she's chosen, I really don't like. Like I don't like the fact she wears loads of makeup, and I think she shouldn't be blonde, and actually I think she should have been black. But... she's totally in charge."
Participatory elements of the show do a great job of replicating that power for its young audience. At one point, Aunty Bry asks them what most pop is about. "Love and money," children sagely shout back. Then she asks what they'd like it to be about. The response is predictably but wonderfully, imaginative: animals, vampires, ice cream and jelly, time and rain.
It's an assortment of ideas that supports Bryony's need to combat, as she puts it, "the very limited version of what your life could be like". "They're open" she exclaims, "They're bloody amazing. They're like sponges. And all we're doing is... limiting every possible thing that they can do." This isn't just true of the way women are presented in pop. "All of their TV programmes - nearly all of them - have very, very gendered roles." Toys too, and even education, teach: "'You're a girl so you can be this. You're a boy so you can be that.' I mean, they don't need that. They totally don't need that. They need the opposite of that."
I've always thought it's better to put positive things out than sit there and moan every day
Yet, buoyed by recent campaigns like Let Toys Be Toys, Bryony is optimistic about the future. "It's definitely shifting and changing. Like Lego have just brought out a new range of all-girl, science-based Lego figurines. They're not just idiots on horses! But I think there's still quite a long way to go." Yet, with CB, Bryony is playing a significant part in shortening that distance.
For That Catherine Bennett Show empowers children to do more than break the boundaries of contemporary pop. Among the general lesson that anything is possible is a gently political and progressively feminist current. At one stage, the pace slows and the lights dim for a bedtime story. It is about Emmeline Pankhurst. Later, CB sings Apathy (a song which has been playing in my head ever since). The lyrics ask: "What you wa-wa, what you waiting for?" Then there is the new addition to CB's repertoire, 'Hear Me', for which the audience are required to chant: "We're loud, we're proud, we're stronger as a crowd." "Human rights" is a phrase heard more than once.
"The more and more I put it together", Bryony considers, "and the more and more we rehearse it, I think it's really nothing like any other theatre. And I think I was a bit afraid of that at the beginning. And now I'm really pleased that there's this bedtime story about Emmeline Pankhurst." As Bryony later reiterates, That Catherine Bennett Show is not "a lecture about feminism." "Kids' entertainment and kids' pop isn't about these things," she adds, "But it is the places where they absorb stuff."
Accordingly, Emmeline's story is kept simple and in sync with the main message. As Bryony summarises, "One person didn't like what they saw, gathered a group together, changed it." Yet, in the process, the show successfully introduces important words to their vocabulary and ideas like voting to their consciousness. For the closing song, she invites "feminist Dads" to join the girls and women already on stage and support them as the band. There they don some comedy shades and inflatable guitars and bop their heads to the beat. Just as Bryony describes, "it's done very light, very free." The feminism is all part of the fun.
In that final song, 'The Future', the children are allowed to fill the bridge with whatever they want to see change in the world. Those in Saturday's audience were at pains to stretch their arms skywards, and offer suggestions like "no homelessness" and "no rubbish in the sea". Their desire to be heard reminded me of one of Taylor's earlier lines: "Adults listened to me, probably for the first time ever."
For all her catchy tunes and energy, I think this is what makes CB so fantastic. Bryony's willingness to take children's future seriously, and engage with them about political and social issues, shines out of her embodiment of CB and is apparent when you talk to her. "If you don't teach kids what feminism is," she asks, "you don't teach them about the fact that they have to work towards equality, or that they can't give away their human rights, then who else is going to tell them?" It's not a large part of their curriculum and it's often not part of parenting. "We don't talk to children like that. I don't know why. Just moan at them, and put an iPad in their hand."
Taylor's rule for that is, if it's looking like it's not going to be feminist, and not being about human rights, then we leave
I excitedly learn that Taylor, as her manager, is in talks about bringing CB to CBBC with a show that embraces that philosophy. "They want that to be like proper feminist kids' TV", Bryony announces, "which is pretty cool!" Still in the early stages, their pitch centres on CB's magical museum, where she is joined each week by two children.
"They come with questions - big questions - about the world," Bryony explains. "The whole point is that young people have massive questions about, 'What is death? What is feminism? Why are people racist?', those kind of questions. And then they go off into the museum to pursue the answer to those questions." She describes a feminism episode, "where the suffragettes exhibition is growing, and tries to take over every room. It's getting bigger and bigger and bigger, and then curators can't stop it from growing!"
It might not happen, not least because Taylor wants to maintain CB's integrity. "Taylor's rule for that is, if it's looking like it's not going to be feminist, and not being about human rights, then we leave - we leave the table." But CB is so much fun, and so needed, that I really hope she does find a bigger stage and reach still wider audiences.
And I sense that Bryony, though content to not be on TV, does too. "Part of me feels we've achieved what we set out to achieve." But "now that I do gigs with her and stuff, and I do loads of school assemblies, I love her a lot more than I thought I would, and being her and seeing what's she's like with young people. So part of me wants to carry her on forever."
Later this year, Taylor starts secondary school, and Bryony will soon begin new projects, but CB has inescapable potential. "I've kind of got in my head that I'd really like it to be a musical", Bryony admits. "I hate musicals normally, but she's got nice songs, CB. And it would be really cool to do a sort of... feminist antipop musical." I'm certainly sold!
It was Bryony and Taylor's intention to create a new female role model through pop. "I've always thought it's better to put positive things out than sit there and moan every day", she tells me. In this show, and in the story of CB, three role models emerge. For young girls and boys, Taylor is undoubtedly one. And for all big kids aspiring to change the world, Bryony is another.
That Catherine Bennett Show is in Bath on 1 March and in Folkestone on 3 May, with more dates to be added for the school holidays.
Photos are used with permission.
Photo 1: Catherine Bennett, a young woman with blonde hair and glasses, carrying a backpack and boxing gloves against a blue background decorated with the skeleton of a dinosaur.
Photo 2: Catherine Bennett squats next to two young girls. She is holding a conch shell.
Photo 3: A woman speaks into a microphone, holding a jagged sign that reads "BOOM!". A young girl looks shocked and points at a sign in front of her, which is one of five signs planted in the ground showing books, hearts and skulls.
Photo 4: An action picture showing a young girl kickboxing another character. Several other people look on.