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Introducing: Isla Cowan

Apr 21, 2022

Written by Isla Cowan, Jack and the Beanstalk celebrates the return of live pantomime touring, women in STEM.

Hopscotch Theatre Company are delighted to announce ‘Jack and the Beanstalk’ as our newly commissioned pantomime for 2022. In addition, we are thrilled to announce the wonderful Isla Cowan as the playwright who will be leading the process.

In this, the first of a series of blogs to come throughout the year, Isla will begin charting her progress throughout the writing process.

Introducing, Isla Cowan:

“My name is Isla Cowan and I’m a playwright and theatre-maker from Edinburgh, and, this year, I’m writing the Jack and the Beanstalk panto for Hopscotch!

“I’m really excited to be working on Jack and the Beanstalk. Not only do I love the form of Pantomime and its theatrical magic but I’m passionate about the importance of theatre for children and how panto engages young people year on year. It’s such an honour to be a part of this tradition with Hopscotch for 2022 and to reach so many young audiences in schools. I’m also excited because it’s my first opportunity to work with Hopscotch.

The team have been incredibly supportive so far and I’m really enjoying how collaborative the process has been in getting the Jack and the Beanstalk journey off the ground. I think we’re making a really spectacular show!

This year’s show:

“Jack and the Beanstalk provides an exciting premise for this year’s show.

I’m a sucker for myth and fairytale. I often use them as the starting point for plays as I find there’s something really powerful about these stock stories that have been passed down through history. Jack and the Beanstalk is a story that’s had a lot of ‘refashioning’ and ‘repurposing’ over the centuries. I’m currently in my early stages of writing where I’m doing a lot of research so I’ve been looking into all the different versions of Jack and the Beanstalk and how it’s changed and developed as it’s been retold across different times and places.

The story first appeared in 1734 as ‘The Story of Jack Spriggins and the Enchanted Bean’ in a collection of tales called Round about our Coal Fire or Christmas Entertainments. This version is far from what we’ve come to know as the fairytale of Jack and the Beanstalk, featuring a magical woman who used to be a cat, a ring that grants wishes, a giant, and, finally, a beanstalk (which almost doesn’t feature at all!).

Since then, the story has evolved and most subsequent versions feature a cow and some magic beans, and a giant who lives in a castle in the clouds. Some versions feature a harp, some a golden goose. Some present Jack as a thief and others present the Giant as a thief. Sometimes the giant has a servant and other times a wife, and sometimes neither!  

“Yet, in all these versions, Jack always climbs up the beanstalk. Sometimes he knows that riches lie at the top – having been warned by the old man who gave him the beans – and other times he doesn’t. Particularly in cases where the beanstalk is a surprise, the question of why Jack climbs up it is really intriguing. If a giant beanstalk suddenly grew in your back garden, would you climb it? This tells us something about Jack’s character and provides an interesting prompt for me as I begin writing and thinking about what motivates Jack in this tale. 

“And, of course, the Hopscotch Jack and the Beanstalk will be a whole new version in itself.

To start with, it’s a Panto (something I’ll talk a bit more about in my next blog!) and, additionally, this Jack and the Beanstalk is inspired by a particular theme: ‘Women in STEM’, which stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths – areas where women are still underrepresented in education and the workforce.

So, here, I find myself down another research rabbit hole, searching for women who have made significant contributions to areas of STEM. There are some amazing women I’ve come across who I had never heard of before, like Mary Anning who discovered the first complete fossil of a dinosaur in the 19th Century. Or, Alice Augusta Ball, a chemist who developed a cure for leprosy in 1915. Or Lise Meitner, who contributed to the discovery of nuclear fission in the 1930s, before fleeing Nazi Germany. Or Tiera Guinn, a contemporary MIT student in her early twenties who is already a rocket scientist!

You can also read about other amazing women in STEM here:

https://scientificwomen.net/mainpage

https://www.sciencefocus.com/science/10-amazing-women-in-science-history-you-really-should-know-about/

https://www.globalcitizen.org/en/content/17-top-female-scientists-who-have-changed-the-worl/

https://www.esilv.fr/en/5-female-engineers-that-shaped-the-world/

Talking about the early stages of research:

So, at this stage, I’m gathering all my research and ideas and starting to shape them into a synopsis. While I have the blueprints of a story from the traditional Jack and the Beanstalk fairytale, I’m trying to see where I can take the story, using some fresh ideas and inspiration from my research. At this point, I almost have too many ideas(!) and I have a few different versions of the show written out in synopsis or summary form.

There are so many possibilities in front of me and – being an indecisive person – it can be difficult to choose which path to go down. For me, this beginning stage is a bit ‘trial and error’, giving a few different ideas a go and seeing what sticks. Often, this will be by writing out a synopsis or flow chart for each idea and seeing where it succeeds and where it falls short. When I have a few rough ‘versions’ of the show, I’ll then compare and contrast them – Which feels most exciting? Which is the most surprising or unexpected? Which seems most effective in achieving what we want it to achieve? And that’s where questions of structure, form and theme start to come in.

As I settle on our Jack and the Beanstalk story and set about a first draft, I’m excited by the prospect of combining the magical worlds of science and Panto, in a new, energetic version of the much loved fairytale. I think audiences will be entertained and enthralled by the STEM twist on this classic tale. 

Jack and the Beanstalk is a new production touring from November-December 2022.

Produced by Hopscotch Theatre Company.

This blog was written by Isla Cowan and edited by Hopscotch Theatre Company in April, 2022.

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