Merida's fabulous hair.

Disney’s Brave New Hair

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Snapshot from a poster of Disney Pixar's 'Brave'

So, I saw Brave the other night. And, of course, I loved it. It was the kind of Disney I remember from my girlhood: moving, uplifting, and dreamily beautiful. After the movie, my friend and I whirled out of the cinema with eyes as big as hope. I felt like I wanted to say something profound about the incredible animation, or the sensitive portrayal of a mother-daughter relationship … But as we stepped into the foyer, all we talked about was hair. Merida’s hair. We leaned up against reflective surfaces and started scrunching our locks to make them more curly, wondering if we would look weird as redheads. “But then,” I sighed, “You could never get Merida’s exact colour in real life.” We both sank a little. And that was it. We were bumming out over hair.

It’s not a new observation that Disney gives girls unrealistic hair expectations. (I read it on an internet meme somewhere.) Those hair standards are simply impossible to live up to – I mean, Ariel’s fringe defies gravity at all times. Jasmine’s hair has more body than her body. And Pocahontas’s hair never tangles or gets caught in her lip gloss, even though she’s always standing on windy hilltops. Come on.

Disney has a propensity to create what I call ‘hairoines’. This means that the female protagonist’s personality is expressed mainly through her hairstyle. And while she may be a Disney-Pixar hybrid, it looks like Brave’s Scottish princess could join the Disney hairoine ranks. In Merida’s defence, she is definitely a step out of the old Disney princess mold – she has no wish to marry, she actively shapes her own fate, and she has a benevolent mother figure. (On a side note, ever noticed the lack of maternal role-models in Disney? Cinderella and Snow White had evil stepmothers; the mothers of Jasmine, Pocahontas, Ariel and Belle are ‘assumed dead’; and Rapunzel was held hostage by her fake mother … Not a great run for mothers.) Merida is a breath of fresh air.

Nevertheless, in the lead-up to Brave’s release, many of the articles about the Magic Kingdom’s newest daughter centred around … her hair. The tech blogs were abuzz about Merida’s hair. Pixar spent three years developing new technology in order to animate her hair. Apparently none of the existing technology was good enough. They needed ground-breaking hair! Tresses that would stop the presses! Locks that would really pop! (You get the point.)

I feel I should ask, why is hair so important? But I just know that it is. When Mulan disguised herself as a man, the most significant part of the transformation was when she cut her hair short. It was a symbolic act of defiance, and a demonstration of her commitment. By chopping off her hair, she changed her identity, even her gender. Such is the power of hair. Any woman who has cropped long hair, or shaved her head, or gotten a pixie cut (guilty), knows that hair is a big deal.

Often, when I think that something is a big deal, I think of Africa. Like many middle-class Westerners, that is how I get perspective. I think of Africa. But even the Third World knows that hair is important. I visited Ghana a few years ago, and as we trundled along a dirt road through some pretty rough-looking slums, I remember thinking, “Damn, these women all have perfect hair.” How did they do it? They were walking barefoot along muddy roads with stray dogs running around them, and they had Michelle Obama hair. So I asked somebody about it, and they told me: “They’re wigs.” These women had all buzzed off their own hair, and saved up their money to buy perfectly coiffed wigs. That way they always had perfect hair. This is in an area where they did not yet have indoor plumbing. Hair is a big deal.

I know, I know – I will never have hair like Merida. Or Ariel, or Sleeping Beauty, or Jasmine. (Maybe like Belle, if I had my own team of hairdressers always on standby.) Once I admit that, I feel a lot better about my own plain, brown hair. I can’t say I’m not annoyed at Disney for encouraging such high expectations in me. However, I am grateful to Brave for providing me with a Disney heroine to whom I can relate: a girl with depth of character, complexity of emotion; a rising spirit. A heroine who isn’t just a hairoine. Merida’s hair is spectacular, but next to the power of her personality, it is merely an ornament. And, really, isn’t that the way it should be?

Theatre People feature: “Watts Up With Alvin Sputnik”, Nov 2011

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A feature article I wrote for Theatre People, interviewing WA’s Tim Watts.

It’s the opening night of the Perth Theatre Company’s latest production at the State Theatre Centre. An eager crowd pours in, primed by two years of rave reviews from this show’s runs in New York, Seoul and Edinburgh. Reviewers have used no shortage of gushing adjectives for this show, even calling it the theatrical equivalent of a blockbuster Pixar film. But if this audience is expecting a big-budget production, they aren’t going to get it. They’ve come for the story of one little man made out of a buoy and a white glove. This is the fringe theatre darling known as The Adventures of Alvin Sputnik: Deep Sea Explorer.

The Adventures of Alvin Sputnik: Deep Sea Explorer is set in a bleak future where the seas have risen and wiped out most of humanity. Someone must volunteer to journey down into the watery depths to find a new place for the survivors to live. Alvin Sputnik takes on this dangerous mission, hoping to follow the soul of his beloved wife, to be with her once more. Alvin Sputnik is told through a fusion of live performance, animation, mime, puppetry, projections, music, live drawing and even a ukelele. Alvin himself is portrayed by a mix of performance, stick-figure animation, and clever puppetry.

Two weeks before the show’s opening night, I’m sitting in a North Perth café with Alvin Sputnik’s creator, Tim Watts. He has come a long way since the first performance of Alvin Sputnik at The Blue Room in 2009. The show was quickly picked up by the Perth Theatre Company and went on to tour the United Kingdom, the United States, South Korea, India, New Zealand and, of course, Australia. Watts and Alvin picked up a swag of awards along the way. Now, in 2011, Alvin has come back to Perth a hero, starting a season at the newly minted State Theatre Centre.

After all the positive press over Alvin Sputnik, is Watts feeling the pressure to deliver? “I’m just worried that it’s going to be over-hyped,” he admits. “Towards the end of the UK season, I think people came in with really high expectations. I think no matter what happens when you go into a show and your expectations are through the roof, it can never really measure up.

“At the beginning of the show, where I’m just doing the live drawing, I try to bring things down to a basic level, so that people aren’t necessarily going to expect a big song and dance. Then I can surprise them from there.”

Despite the show’s accolades and years of touring, Watts has been careful to preserve what he calls its “nice little handmade quality.” Since Alvin Sputnik’s first incarnation at The Blue Room in 2009, Watts has added more animation and more puppetry, but says it is still essentially the same show. “You don’t want to polish it up to where it doesn’t have any heart left.”

Watts developed Alvin Sputnik in collaboration with fellow Perth theatre peep Arielle Gray. Their development process focused on audience response; they would work on the show together, then present showings to their friends and ask for feedback. Watts was prompted to try this kind of process by watching stand-up comedians.

“I got really jealous of stand-up comedians who’d have an idea for a joke, and could get up that night and try it out. They got real feedback as to whether the delivery was right, whether the joke was any good. They could work on their set through actual response from the audience, as opposed to a lot of theatre shows where you have an idea, you write out a script, and you spend six months putting it on. Then you perform it for two weeks, and no one is really honest with you as to how it goes. If anything negative is said about it, you just go and sit in a hole. You think, ‘Well, there’s nothing I can do about it now’.”

The character Alvin was created in a puppetry workshop with ‘Spare Parts Puppet Theatre’ in Fremantle, out of a buoy and a white glove. Under Watts’ expert hand, these abstract objects take on a very human life. He attributes Alvin’s anthropomorphism to the audience’s imaginative engagement. “To be able to pretend that this is a little guy … it’s as though you’re delighted at your own imagination. Then, when he does something human, it looks even more human,” he says. “When you’re really imaginatively engaged with something, you’re more likely to be emotionally engaged as well.”

Whenever he mentions Alvin, Watts absently arranges his hands into the shape of the little puppet, so for a moment it’s as if the deep sea explorer is at the table with us. It’s clear that Watts has formed a strong bond with the little round-headed man. So, how long do they plan to stay together? “Next year I’m kind of winding it down a bit. I don’t have a finite date where I’m like, ‘2015: no more Alvin’. I’m happy to keep doing Alvin, but I’m hoping to introduce more shows into my repertoire.”

But for now, it looks like Alvin will be sticking around. It’s the opening night of Alvin Sputnik’s Perth season for 2011, and I’m sitting in the State Theatre Centre’s Studio Underground, holding my breath in anticipation. Watts needn’t have worried about the hype. It’s not often you see a show that wins over the audience’s heart so quickly, or so completely. But Alvin Sputnik does it. During the performance, theatre-goers of all ages are sitting forward in their seats, faces shining, completely enamoured of Alvin. There are soft gasps of delight the first time puppet-Alvin emerges, and bursts of joyous applause throughout the 45-minute show.

Alvin’s underwater adventures arc towards a poignant finale. This is the second time I’ve seen The Adventures of Alvin Sputnik (having seen it during its inaugural season in 2009), so I reckon I’ll be able to steel myself against the emotional gutpunch and maintain a cool demeanour. Err, not so much. I straight-up weep. But I am relieved to see plenty of other patrons dabbing at their eyes as we leave the Studio. Something about this simple story of love and self-sacrifice has certainly captured people’s imagination. Perth audiences are usually dour and bestow admiration grudgingly, but Alvin Sputnik receives an ovation that seems to go on forever, and cheers such as are usually reserved for rock stars. But that’s how it is now. Alvin is a rock star. And it’s only a matter of time before Tim Watts achieves the same status.

The Adventures of Alvin Sputnik: Deep Sea Explorer is showing at the State Theatre Centre of WA (Perth) from Tuesday 22 November to Saturday 3 December.

Tim Watts performs with one of the Alvin puppets