During four days of March 2010, young residents of Battersea and Wandsworth took over the Old Town Hall at BAC to tackle the looming parliamentary elections through performance, film, speeches and political hustings in If I Ruled The World. At Southbank Centre last year, Tim Etchells, in collaboration with Flemish company Victoria, worked with a group of young people to explore the relationship between adults and children in That Night Follows Day. Glasgow based theatre group Junction 25’s From Where I’m Standing saw parents alongside teenagers in a performance of relationships, tensions and love while Ghent based Ontroerend Goed challenged their audiences in Once And For All We’re Gonna Tell You Who We Are So Shut Up And Listen.
There has been an influx of youth performances that have been inspired, exciting, and just loud enough to cause a bang. They have challenged perceptions of what youth theatre is, what it is meant to do, and what position it occupies in contemporary performance culture.
Youth theatre has oddly contradictory associations; we tend to think of drama as an educational tool, and fear that artistic vision somewhat abuses or patronizes young people, dodging the realities of their social standing. What in fact some of the recent youth theatre performances have shown is just how different the situation is.
Once And For All … dared to portray teenage years for what they really are: sexually charged, extreme, contradictory. Director Alexander Devriendt directed a mosaic of scenes and situations devised by his young actors in a confrontational and highly physical piece. The performance reminded adults that they are not as removed from their teenage years as they would like to think. If film is more likely to get away with this direct and stylized of a portrayal, with shows such as Skins or even Glee, the performance caused a schism in Britain. On the one hand, Devriendt was accused of manipulating his actors and indulging in his inner teen. One the other, the performance empowered the young, abusing the most intimate of theatrical element, the confrontational, to tackle a taboo topic using its most important protagonists.
On a similar level, in That Night Followed Day, it was young people who took the language adults used to address them, and presented it back in a theatrical narrative of contradiction, misinformation and misguide, revealing the darkest and most irresolvable nature of parenthood. Although guarded by the safety of a fourth wall, the experience of listening to children coldly reiterating the absolute truths presented to them placed power in their hands. It underlined the crucial fact that adults often engage with youth on a one way level, ignoring a voice that has plenty to say. It was once again theatre that facilitated the emotionally charged power shift, and claimed back a voice for the young. Similar to Once And For All…, That Night Follows Day challenged hierarchies of thought, approaching youth not like an odd in-between category, but an important social process with plenty of reflection and courage.
BAC’s festival If I Ruled The World, YPT2’s piece Rule began with as a classroom session, where the youth almost abusively controlled the physical actions of the audience, telling us to take our coats off, sit in silence, or remove that silly hat, take off the ridiculous smile and listen very carefully. Teenagers broke rules apart and recreated worlds that followed their lead. Behind these lay the shadows of various personalities, transformed into characters onstage. A dialogue emerged between the young people in their daily lives, and the narrative constructions they had devised onstage, where characters could become extreme versions of their personalities.
Junction 25’s From Where I’m Standing took a different approach, as teenagers decided to come onstage with their parents to explore the dynamics of an indefinable relationship. Layers of constructed and real characters interplayed onstage in seemingly real situations; not knowing what was real and what was theatrical became redundant. It was a very gentle piece, fencing and pillow fights included, dramatizing real life in a performative space that sheltered all its characters from judgment. The piece became a montage of moments, real and constructed, where the audience could freely impose their private feelings and thoughts in a safe space of exploration.
What these pieces have in common is collaboration between adults and youths with a common aim: to openly explore both private and public issues most fervent to them whilst also pushing theatrical convention and spaces of engagement. If Tim Etchells or Alexander Devriendt had an important position in the construction of the pieces, it is because of their interest to look beyond their collaborators, stimulate their voices and use performance to shape a theatrical discourse. Likewise, BAC’s programme where young people collaborate with practitioners to explore theatre that culminates in a performance maintains an open dialogue between both parties. These pieces are a manifesto of theatrical process, convincing in the belief that performance can bridge generational gaps, exploring and addressing issues that society does not always have the eyes to pick out.
Young people have the courage but require the support. In their eyes hierarchies of thought fall and assumptions are deconstructed; it is the role of adults to aid and facilitate that process, and that of culture to openly receive and support this kind of work. And in the current political and economic climate, with the youths inheritance at stake, we should listen carefully to what they have to say.
This article was written by Diana Damian for A Younger Theatre, you can view more of her writing on her blog, on the London Theatre Blog, or through the BAC Writers-In-Action. Images used are from the BAC website.