Can boys be princesses? Could Batman wear a tutu? It’s questions like these that led actors Mal Malme and Becca Lewis, along with colleague Renee Farster-Degenhardt, to create the Pineapple Project, an original play about gender, creativity, and each child's freedom to be who they are. The theater piece, which they perform at libraries, schools, and conferences throughout greater Boston and New England, is broadening the gender conversation and helping children know it’s OK to just be themselves. We caught up with Mal and Becca to see how it all started.
What’s your background in theater arts?
Becca discovered theater in high school and went to the University of Memphis where she received her BFA. She has been working as a professional actor in Boston since 2002. Mal has been a theater artist in Boston for over 20 years, and is co-founder of Queer Soup Theater. Mal also serves on the Board of StageSource, New England’s theatre resource and advocacy organization, and is also a professional healthcare clown with the Laughter League at Boston Children’s and Hasbro Children’s Hospitals.
Tell us about the Pineapple Project? What’s the gist of the show?
It is an interactive show for kids that celebrates gender diversity. Its message is one of empowerment, to give every child the confidence to be who they are and express themselves how they want.
What was the catalyst for creating this show?
"Boys can't be princesses!" The impetus for The Pineapple Project came out of this moment during play between Mal and Mal's niece. As a nonbinary person and theatre artist, Mal knew that this moment could not go by without recognizing how early in a child’s development, ideas and influences can form around gender. And with years of experience working with LGBTQ youth who struggle with their gender, we felt it was time to create a theater piece that could help broaden the conversation as well as advocate for and validate each child's individual freedom to be who they are.
The Pineapple Project is geared to ages 3-8. Is there a reason you targeted this age group?
Children between the ages of 3-8 have this window where they’re trying to make sense of the world by putting things into boxes. Some boxes are important for safety such as stove = fire = bad = dangerous. Unfortunately, gender often gets wrapped into this stage of development and some kids get the message that girls = dresses = dolls = not for boys ever. Our show works to open up those gender boxes so that all the options can be for all the kids. If you’re into something, be into it! If something makes you happy, do it!
What do you hope children take away from the show? What about adults?
With theater, representation is so important. We hope kids will see themselves on stage and walk away feeling empowered to be who they are. Adults too! We’ve had caregivers approach us after the show thanking us for some of the language modeled in our talkbacks, ways that we can be more inclusive. We’ve also had adults tell us that they didn’t realize they were being so gendered in their choice of play and that they were happy to be able to recognize that bias.
What’s been most surprising to you as you’ve performed this show?
We once had a group of 100 kindergartners begin to chant, “Believe in yourself! Believe in yourself!” midway through our show. It was beautiful.
Is there a child’s reaction or revelation that stands out to you?
We had a kid who crowned himself the Pineapple King at a show. We also had a kid see the show a couple years ago and then come back using different pronouns this past year. We have a family that comes to see the show every time we’re at their local library. They’ve seen it so many times, they could probably perform it better than us at this point!
What’s the future of the Pineapple Project? What’s your hope for where it will go?
We’d love to keep broadening our audience. A dream is to be able to figure out funding for a tour outside of the Greater Boston area. We’re very curious how audiences in different parts of the country would respond. And what we could learn from those conversations that would inspire us to not only keep it fresh but potentially develop new material down the road.