5 Minutes with Ruthie Boycott-Garnett | Suffrajitsu

We spoke to Suffrajitsu writer Ruthie Boycott-Garnett about martial arts, her inspiration for the show and why the story of the suffragettes is more relevant to today than we might think.

The story of the suffragettes is well known, but has mostly been told in films, books and plays for adults. How have you made the topic accessible to children?

The suffragette story is often known for women chaining themselves to railings, but there was a lot more to it than that. Some suffragettes flew over London in an airship! Some suffragettes posted themselves to the houses of parliament! Some suffragettes dressed up in fancy costumes and paraded along the streets! We thought their use of imaginative, clever and funny acts was perfect for a younger audience. One way that we made the show accessible to a younger audience was to tell the story from one person’s perspective in a microcosm of the suffragette world, rather than trying to cram the whole complex suffragette history in to one show. This is a very playful representation of the suffragettes with lots of colour, slap-stick and a handful of ‘bops’ and ‘kapows’ for good measure.

The Jiu Jitsu aspect of the suffrage movement is less widely known. How did you research this for the show?

Our original research for this show started with a graphic novel. The graphic novelist, Tony Wolf, is incredibly knowledgeable about the Suffrajitsu story and very kindly shared so much with us. Although it seems obvious now that women should have a vote, there were lots of people who didn’t think women should be allowed to vote and were very mean to the suffragettes. Because of this, the suffragettes needed to learn to defend themselves and Jiu Jitsu was the perfect martial art. The clever thing about Jiu Jitsu is that you can use the strength of your opponent against them so it was perfect for the suffragettes who were often smaller than the policemen who were bullying them. There are some great film clips of Edith Garrud, the original Jiu Jitsu trainer, showing very ‘well to do ladies’ how to flip large men to the floor. There are also some fantastic books about the suffragettes – there is a book filled with photographs that inspired a lot of our scenery. We also had a trip to the national archive to see some of the original letters, transcripts and photographs of the suffragettes. One thing that we learnt about the suffragettes is that there is much more to them than the well-known stories and that they often used clever and witty ways of getting their message across.

Why do you think puppetry works well to tell this story?

We were drawn to the idea of using martial arts with puppets. We thought puppetry would be an excellent way of representing the ‘superhero-ness’ of some of these suffragettes with high flying kicks and slow motion moves. One of our regular puppeteers is also an expert in Jiu Jitsu so we spent a great day with Alex showing us some specific Jiu Jitsu moves and carefully working with the puppets beside him to replicate exactly what he was doing. We had to think very carefully about where the joints would need to be on the puppets and what types of joints would work. With puppetry you can also play around with scale, height and quick changes so we could create lots of different scenes and characters with just two performers.

Why is the story of the suffragettes a good one to tell now?

When the suffragettes were demanding a vote it was a highly politicised time, much like today. One thing that seems very relevant to now is that the members of parliament who agreed with the suffragettes were from different political parties. The government was split on what to do and those who usually disagreed with each other were agreed, but those that usually agreed on things couldn’t agree on this. It feels very similar to our current political situation, and we feel that an important way to move on from the present is to look at the past and learn from what has happened before us. We also discovered during making the show that a lot of children don’t learn about how their government works in school, and this is why we think the story of the suffragettes is a very important one for the children of today.

There is a lot of great championing of strong girls at the moment and we think it is important to have great stories about strong girls. It’s not only girls that need to see themselves at the centre of the adventures, boys also deserve some great female heroes, and we think this play brings about some great role models for girls and boys alike.

If you wanted children who watched the show to take one thing away from it, what would it be?

That you can make changes. However small you feel, if you think someone is being unfairly treated you are allowed to speak up and you can make a difference. It’s also about starting small. Sometimes big political ideas are not that different from how things work in your classroom. If you can share, help and play together with your classmates then it goes towards making the world a better place for everyone.

Suffrajitsu is on at Little Angel Theatre from 23 May – 13 July. To find out more and book tickets, click here.