In 2016, for the first time in American history, a boy won the coveted crown of Prom Queen at his high school in New York City. Now, Matthew Crisson, who identifies as “non-binary” (meaning neither male nor female), has become the subject of a new play written by musical comedy duo Rebecca Humphries and Joanna Cichonska. PAUL COUCH caught up with Rebecca ahead of the opening on 17 February at London’s Vault Festival.
So, Rebecca, tell us a little about Prom Kween
The show tells the story of Matthew – the first ever boy to be crowned Prom Queen. It’s inspired by true events. We’ve taken a little artistic license with content, added some drag queens, pop culture, a hefty dose of Americana and naturally some homages to the High School movie genre.
What prompted you to write a musical based on the story of the first ever boy to win the title of Prom Queen at a US high school?
We’ve been talking about writing a musical since we started working together 3 years ago, but our respective careers (as an actress and musical director) meant we had to put any writing projects on the back burner. However, last year I was scrolling through Facebook as you do and a sponsored article about asking boys to Prom came up…I think it was from Teen Vogue or something (I don’t know what gave them the impression that was something I would be interested in, but they were right). It made me think about that school hierarchy that we were all a part of at some point, and about actually how despite all the activism surrounding LGBT issues and female empowerment we see nowadays, kids still seem very segregated to me in the media; there are ‘girls’ things and ‘boys’ things. After a bit of research, I discovered Matthew’s story and found it instantly galvanising.
Jo and I were both working on different shows at this point. But we really wanted to find the time to write it as we knew it was the right project. So we did!
Matthew Crisson: a LGBTQ rights activist or high school anarchist?
Good question. It feels like he achieved anarchism via activism. And why not bring about anarchy in something like the high school pecking order? He told the world you don’t have to conform to be fabulous, and led by example. Whatever he is, he’s a babe for that.
How do you go about writing about an event that happened 3,500 miles away involving someone you don’t know?
Well the truth is you take inspiration from it and then set it free. Had we tried to be too specific we’d get caught up in the detail and the creativity would have to be compromised. This story isn’t so much about Matthew himself, but about all kids who feel invisible in school. I hope we’ve made it clear that actually the gay/straight/boy/girl thing isn’t actually what’s important in this show. It’s about loving and accepting yourself. It just took this one particular kid’s act of bravery to inspire me to write about that.
It’s about loving and accepting yourself.
So is Prom Kween anti-high school culture in that LaLa Land was intended to be anti-Hollywood culture?
I haven’t set about to do that, but it probably is! I had a hard time in high school. And I was a straight, outgoing kid from a nice family. If my time was rough, I can only imagine what it must have been like for young people like Matthew. It’s when you grow up and talk to kids from your school – ‘oh, you didn’t know yourself at that age either?’ ‘You mean under that make up you were as insecure as me?’ – you realise everyone has their demons in that environment. I suppose Prom Kween is a revenge fantasy of sorts – revenge on high school itself.
What do you hope your audiences will take away from the show?
I hope they will feel as though they don’t need anybody else to confirm how awesome they are.
It’s currently a work-in-progress. Will you take into account audience reaction and respond as necessary?
Absolutely! That’s what it’s for. It’s thrilling to gauge an audience reaction, to cut stuff, pad stuff out. It makes it ‘of the moment’. We’re taking the approach of a stand-up comedian – if a bit doesn’t work, chuck it out and do something better. Those guys aren’t precious about anything. More theatre could do with working this way, in my opinion. It’s scary but so much fun.
So after Prom Kween, what’s next for you?
I am going to go to meet and apologise to my friends and family whom I have neglected, then I am going to go to a spa and chill the hell out. Writing a musical straight after performing a Chekhov play for three months (I’ve just finished Wild Honey at Hampstead) has messed with my mind, and I need a break!
Prom Kween runs at the Vault Festival from 17 – 19 February 2017 at 9.30pm.