Director Paul Bosco McEneaney and choreographer Carlos Pons Guerra present this family show, based on the real-life story of a pair of male penguins at Central Park Zoo – Roy and Silo – who attempted to have a baby by hatching a stone. Later, they raised an adopted chick. Carlos tells us how the heart-warming tale inspired the show

This is your first time working on a children’s show, isn’t it?

It is. I normally make adult-targeted work about gender and sexuality, and this was my first time approaching those themes for a very different audience. It was an interesting challenge.

Why did you get involved with Penguins? Do you remember reading about the real story behind it in 2004?

Yes, and also the children’s picture book that came after which became one of the most banned books in America. I was approached about choreographing the show and the moment they asked me I was captivated by it. It’s a great story. Penguins are my favourite animals, too, which was a nice coincidence. For me, dance and theatre has a social responsibility to bring about change. When they approached me, I was so excited about being able to communicate these themes to children.

The message of being who you want to be – and loving who you want to love – is even more important for a young audience who weren’t around when the story was in the news.

Definitely. Even if I think about myself, I didn’t know I was gay from the age of four but I knew I had different interests to the other boys. I liked to dance and paint and cook. I was really bullied as a kid and I could tell from a young age I was different from the norm. None of the picture books I read spoke about a boy or girl being different. It’s important to have that, because I grew up thinking I was wrong and I had to hide who I was. I thought wanting to do something innocent like dance was wrong.

Were you surprised by how Roy and Silo captured the world’s imagination?

Yes. I was recently at an exhibition which spoke about homosexuality is natural in wildlife. Lions have homosexual activity and some species change gender during their lives. This research was available centuries ago but it was kept quiet because it would have changed the status quo of society. Reading all of that made me think this was a natural thing. I wasn’t surprised when I heard people were denying the origin of the story or wanted to ban the book.

Recently the BBC did a very short film about the process of making Penguins and there were some horrible tweets. Unfortunately, this doesn’t surprise me because we still live in a very homophobic world still, but it made me realise how important it is to have a show like Penguins. When you watch Penguins, what you get is that it’s just a story about two guys who complement each other well. What matters is that their baby is loved. Even if you don’t want to believe it’s a real story, it still works as a good allegory for true love.

You spent time with real penguins while researching this show. Did you try and live like a penguin?

I watched a lot of documentaries and read a lot about their rituals. I was lucky to be allowed into the Birmingham Sea Life Centre to feed and watch the penguins. I felt like I was penguin-ised for a few months.

Have you ever choreographed a piece featuring animals before?

Strangely, I have. I did a show with Northern Ballet which was inspired by the birds of Alfred Hitchcock’s film – very different birds to this show. That was a very different approach. I’ve always been interested in the animal world and being a choreographer gives you a lot of scope to try new things out. I did an adult work where a lot of the inspiration came from animal mating rituals, too. I couldn’t portray the more savage animal aspects which I usually like to explore in this show, of course. It was a new challenge.

How did you go about replicating the behaviour of penguins?

The director and I didn’t necessarily want it to look like there were lots of penguins on stage – Happy Feet is just one of the great shows to have pulled that off. We didn’t want flippers flopping around. We wanted a humanised penguin. It was important to us to let children know that even though we started this as a penguin story, it’s ultimately one about humans. It could be about any of us.

You came to Brighton to present another show a few years ago, didn’t you?

That was a really great commission we had. We were based at the Marlborough Theatre. That was a very different work about a drag queen in the Spanish civil war who murdered her husband. Brighton was such an inspiring city to be in to make that piece. Sometimes you feel creatively blocked, but Brighton was a great city to walk around in, clear the head and find the inspiration again. There were loads of queer artists making great work. I love Brighton and I love spending time there. It ignites my creative juices.


Sallis Benney Theatre, Saturday, May 12, 2pm and 4pm and Sunday 13, 11am, 2pm and 4.30pm