Writing in the dark

8 Sep 2014

Angela Betzien on making theatre for young people in the Age of Anxiety


 

An AustralianPlays.org series of guest essays
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Thirteen years ago, when I was still a young person, I wrote my first play for young people. It was called The Suitcase. The play’s director, Leticia Caceres, and I had formed an independent company called RealTV and our objective was to make 'living newspaper theatre', theatre that told the real stories behind the six o’clock news. The Suitcase was inspired by the true story of a man who had been found in a Fortitude Valley boarding house with a suitcase of decomposing human remains. I was drawn to the story, not for its sensation but for its potential to reveal themes of loneliness, poverty and disenfranchisement. As a young woman, these were things that worried me and so naturally I was compelled to write about them. While the narrative involved one teenage character, there was little about the play that spoke 'theatre for young people'. It was not a play about Schoolies' Week or teenage drug taking or bullying; these were popular issues at the time in the Queensland youth arts scene.

When pitching the concept of The Suitcase to the thirty-something organisers of a Youth Arts Festival, we were told, “Just because you’re young doesn’t mean you’re an expert on young people.” We were left to assume that the organisers with their Masters degrees in Youth Arts Management were the experts who would tell us emerging artists what young people liked and disliked, what was good for them and what wasn’t. We swallowed all this in silence. Finally, and I suspect somewhat grudgingly, they accepted our pitch and programmed The Suitcase. This was my first encounter with 'gatekeepers', those 'experts' who so often regulate the arts experiences of young people.

As it happened, The Suitcase never saw the light of day. On September 11, 2001 an hour before we previewed, several lawyers arrived on set to inform our cast and crew that the show could not go on. The true crime that had inspired the play had not been resolved in a criminal court. The lawyers, hired by our 'expert' youth arts organisers, warned us that if an audience member was later called to the trial’s jury, they may be swayed by the content of the play. The Suitcase was in contempt of court. It was an absurdity of course. My play was fiction and this was independent theatre. Our seating capacity was fifty and most of these were papered with friends, family and industry. Still, we were forced to cancel the season.

Trembling with youthful indignation, we spent the night getting smashed in a dodgy bar in Fortitude Valley. As the Twin Towers burned we cried, we laughed, we fell in love, we galvanized our mission and we dreamed our next play. It felt like the beginning of the end of the world.

September 11 was a pivotal point in our global narrative, an unexpected event that flung us into an Age of Anxiety. The subsequent ideological and actual war on terror has, like a contagion, spread a culture of fear and anxiety, which, I believe, is felt most keenly by young people.

We know that the number of children diagnosed with mental health disorders has risen sharply in Australia over the last few years. A 2014 report released by Mission Australia in association with the Black Dog Institute revealed that one in five of the young Australians surveyed were dealing with a serious mental illness. Even more alarming is the way that mental health in children and young people is treated. Another report by the University of Sydney, which looked at the prescribing patterns for young people between 2009 and 2012, found that the prescription of anti-depressants for children aged between 10 and 14 jumped by more than a third. The prescription of anti-psychotic medications rose by almost 50 percent.

"So how do we respond to these threats to the social and emotional wellbeing of our children?"

Suicide is the leading cause of death in young people between the age of 15 and 24. The figures spike for young people living in regional areas and for Aboriginal and LGBTI kids. Different sources point to a range of factors that may be contributing to the decline in the mental health of young Australians, from individual factors like genetic vulnerability and stressful life events, to external factors such as prejudice, technology, violence and poverty.

So how do we respond to these threats to the social and emotional wellbeing of our children?

We ‘Helicopter’.

The metaphor of the Helicopter parent first appeared in Dr Haim Ginnot’s book Between Parent and Teenager in which a child interviewee whines, “Mother hovers over me like a Helicopter…”. A Helicopter parent pays excessive attention to their children, monitoring their every action for fear they may come to some physical or psychological harm. Of course obsessive parenting isn’t a new phenomena. In the past we called it ‘wrapping a child in cotton wool’ which actually sounds quite organic and comforting, like swaddling. The term ‘Helicoptering’, however, perfectly encapsulates our culture of mistrust and surveillance in a post September 11 world.

And while Helicoptering happens on a micro level in the domestic arena; by the poolside, in the kitchen, at a kids' soccer match, it is now pervasive in our politics, our media, our education system. It is a culture that infantilizes us all. What I find particularly disturbing about the way our politicians and the media Helicopter us, is their willingness to use images and threats of terror to justify policies that diminish our democracy and corrode our civil liberties.

One recent example is the Abbott government’s proposal of a data retention regime which would legally require internet and phone providers to retain metadata for up to two years for access without a warrant by law enforcement agencies. I’m sure I’m not the only playwright who’s a little anxious about their browsing history. On a superficial analysis of my metadata, I might be mistaken for a cocaine dealing, organ trafficking, porn-crazed Neo Nazi terrorist. I’m none of these things. But is artistic research a defence?

More disturbing is the grotesque opportunism demonstrated by the government in response to the recent beheading of journalist James Foley in Iraq. Abbot was quick to warn Australia, “It just goes to show this is not just something that happens elsewhere. It could happen in countries like Australia if we relax our vigilance against terrorism and potential terrorism here on our shores”. We are lead to believe that a beheading could occur in our neighbour’s double lock up garage. A state of hyper alert sets the stage for increased spending on security (in spite of the Government’s constant haranguing about fiscal austerity) and an expansion of the rights to detain and jail suspected terrorists. We are told these new powers are for our own protection, that they will shield us from terror in our own backyard, but does this make us feel safer or does it simply feed our anxiety?

In 2011, I was commissioned by the Melbourne Theatre Company to write a play that could straddle the divide between theatre for young and adult audiences. I wrote Helicopter, a story of two families living side by side in an increasingly gentrified Australian suburb. The story juxtaposes the experience of a young black man from Uganda who, from a young age, has been exposed to war and violence in Africa, with that of a young white boy whose childhood has been heavily guarded by a pair of upwardly mobile Helicopter parents.

In writing the play I was interested in how Helicopter parenting, propelled by politics and the media and salved by consumerism, might create a Molotov cocktail of drama and expose our barely disguised racial prejudices. The play explored the idea that, when we anxiously obsess over external threats to our ‘family’ and to our ‘way of life’, when we attempt to protect ourselves and our families from difficult, different or upsetting things, we risk raising a generation of young people lacking resilience and all the protective factors that will help them to endure pain and crisis in their lives.

A ‘protective factor’ is a term commonly used in mental health. It includes the individual or environmental elements, conditions or behaviours that reduce the effects of stressful life events. These factors increase an individual’s ability to avoid risks or hazards and they promote social and emotional resilience. For Aboriginal young people, connection to culture and language is a vital protective factor against the risks of incarceration, self-harm and suicide. For LGBTI young people, connections with the LGBTI community are also a vital protective factor against risk

I believe theatre also has the capacity to act as a protective factor for young people, not by shielding them from difficult ideas and images, as an anxious Helicopter parent might, but by exposing them to these ideas, by contextualising them and by shattering notions of what is normal or natural or obvious. British playwright, Sarah Kane once said, “If we can experience something through art, then we might be able to change our future, because experience engraves lessons on our heart through suffering, whereas speculation leaves us untouched." Kane died in 1999 and I often wonder how she might have responded, through her writing to the war on terror. I know that despite her own inner terror she would have faced the monsters in her work because she was a fearless writer and she believed in the power of theatre.

"...I believe theatre also has the capacity to act as a protective factor for young people..."

While it is highly unlikely that a beheading by a terrorist group will happen in the double lock up garage next door, it’s not at all unlikely that a woman and her children will be exposed to domestic or family violence on any given night. With one woman killed by a male known to her every week, why, as a nation, are we not on red alert?

Because it’s difficult to admit that a culture of misogyny exists and that we are failing to protect our children from physical, psychological and emotional violence. Because there’s no political advantage from exposing the terror of domestic violence and because it’s easier to believe that violence is perpetrated by terrorists rather than the men in our own homes.

In 2005, I wrote a play called Hoods that told the story of a woman who abandons her three children in a car in a shopping centre car park. It’s a story about a mother who, worn down by violence and poverty, has exhausted all avenues of support. One afternoon she makes a terrible decision. The play was a response to the way the media was reporting stories of addiction — attacking and blaming individuals and not the system.

It’s not easy slipping a story about addiction, violence, self-harm and poverty past the 'gatekeepers' who claim their interests lie in the social and emotional wellbeing of young people. I had to use stealth in the storytelling, cloaking the narrative as a contemporary Hansel and Gretel tale, that darkest of stories we still tell our children before they go to bed. The de-familiarisation of difficult images using fairytale motifs served the production well and the play toured for several years into independent and state schools across Australia with few complaints.

The use of fairytale-like imagery in my previous play, Children of the Black Skirt had also been an effective guise. The story is set in a mythical timeless Australian orphanage. The play consists of a series of narratives about the institutionalised psychological, sexual and physical abuse of children since the colonisation of this country. The final narrative in the play depicts the rape by a priest of the Governess of the orphanage, when she was a child.  This story reveals the cyclical nature of abuse and violence exposing a culture in which the oppressed can become the oppressor, the victim, the perpetrator. I still marvel that in five years of touring, there was not a single complaint from teachers, parents or students regarding the content of the work despite the fact that the play points the finger at religious institutions.

Of course fairytale and myth are primal protective factors within all cultures. Jack Zipes, legendary writer and professor, who has lectured and written widely on the subject of fairytales believes these tales reflect the conditions, ideas, tastes and values of the society in which they are created and “they provide us metaphorically with the distance we need to contemplate our situation and then act”.

In 2007, I wrote War Crimes. It was a response to Australia’s military engagement in Iraq and to the rise of xenophobia and 'Aussie Pride' but it was inspired primarily by an incident in Bathurst where a group of five teenage girls vandalised a war memorial with anti war slogans on the eve of Anzac Day. This act stirred a hornet’s nest of hatred in the media and prompted the NSW premier at the time, Morris Iemma, to comment on radio that the girls needed “a history lesson and a good kick up the back side”. This was how our nation reacted when young people expressed their political views. The play, set in a regional town, was written in rough verse and, like the five young women who fight each other to narrate the story, the play was raw and angry. Based on an early draft, the play was accepted onto the VCE drama and theatre studies playlist in Victoria. This early draft was significantly different from the original submission. It was significantly and deliberately less provocative. We were desperate to have War Crimes on the list as this would ensure a larger and more regional audience. We were lucky the play was accepted. The first day of our school’s tour did not go well with one teacher withdrawing her booking and making a complaint to VCE that the play was inappropriate for young people, describing it as “Romper Stomper for teenagers.” A comparison we were rather chuffed with. Of all my work for young people, War Crimes was the least disguised for the 'gatekeepers' and it was the most difficult to convince producers to present. Even the title frightened marketing departments. While few young people have seen the play, compared to Hoods, Children of the Black Skirt or Where in the World is Frank Sparrow? I am proud of this work for its portrayal of five culturally diverse young women and, in particular, for its representation of lesbian and trans identity. I’ve mentioned already the high rates of suicide among gay teens in regional areas, a situation exacerbated by homophobia and the absence of community and representation. I wanted War Crimes to represent all those young lesbian and trans kids in the country who are desperate for connection, for identity. In a strange way, I wanted the play to protect them, not by shielding them from the difficult reality of growing up gay in a country town, but by exposing the truth of their experience.

I don’t want to believe that the difficult content of War Crimes stymied its exposure to young audiences and made it difficult to sell and tour the work, but that’s what I think. I think the gatekeepers in this country are frightened of theatre that is dark and difficult and dangerous and different. I don’t believe that young people are frightened, far from it; in fact, I think they relish this kind of work.

"I think the gatekeepers in this country are frightened
of theatre that is dark and difficult and
dangerous and different."

A few months ago I received an email. It was in German but a scan through the body of the text revealed a list of plays and playwrights of which my play, The Dark Room was one. After I forwarded the email to a German friend for a quick translation, I discovered The Dark Room had been nominated for a German award. I was thrilled the play was nominated, especially among playwrights like David Grieg and Simon Stephens but I was even more surprised that it was nominated under the category of youth theatre. The Dark Room has been produced three times in Australia; in Perth, Sydney and Adelaide and reviewers for all three productions describe the play, in various ways, as a harrowing night in the theatre.

This play was never conceived for a young audience and I’ve had conversations with teachers who tell me that, while they appreciate The Dark Room, they wouldn’t dare study it in schools. But The Dark Room is a romantic comedy compared to Simon Stephen’s Morning, also nominated for the German award. Morning tells the story of two teenage girls who lure a young man to an isolated place and murder him. In Australia, plays like these are not considered appropriate for young people but in Germany there is far less Helicoptering. The children’s playgrounds in Berlin, especially in the East, are a key indicator of this. These random asymmetrical structures made of recycled materials would never be approved in Australia. One playground I visited in Kruezberg featured a massive mural of a cow happily smoking a pipe. Imagine the outcry in Newtown.

I’m sure there’s a good reason why the Germans have not, like the Australians, followed the Americans’ lead in Helicopter parenting. Perhaps it’s something to do with their history and the fact that they have forced themselves to stare at the horror, to face the monsters. Perhaps they are not so easily frightened by storytelling. Perhaps they have used art and theatre as a means to reconcile the past and to protect the future.

I have little evidence beyond my own experience to corroborate this, and perhaps I have been swayed by recent stinging experience, but I believe it is becoming increasingly difficult to make challenging new work for children and young people in this country. The frenzy of adaptions of classics that we see endlessly paraded across our main stage is mirrored in the theatre for young people sector. In a Sydney Morning Herald article early this year, Elissa Blake reported the rise in children’s book adaptions for the stage, citing the Sydney Opera House’s presentation of 10 literary adaptions in its 2013 education season. In the same article, producer Bridgetta Van Leuvan acknowledged the shift in programming towards “more well-known works, particularly in the school holiday period”. I wonder, in this current climate, how my company, RealTV, would go pitching Children of the Black Skirt or Hoods? (Both had NSW premieres at the House.) I suspect not very well. How could we possibly compete with an adaption of the Thirteenth Story Treehouse ,which sold out its six week season? In another article in the Guardian, the renowned UK children’s playwright, David Wood laments, “There are too few producers who are as interested in what's on stage as they are in bums on seats and there is a problem when the artistic content is secondary to the title."

Many of these adaptions are brilliantly executed, beautiful pieces of theatre that have huge value for young audiences. But I suspect and dread that, in the interest of marketing and bums on seats, they are drowning support for the development of new original plays, which are much harder to sell and take longer to develop. Most of these adaptions are large-scale works made for theatres and so, despite the existence of philanthropic to subsidise tickets for disadvantaged students, there is still a major problem of access to the theatre. When the support is concentrated on this scale of work there is little left for high quality smaller works that might tour into school classrooms, gymnasiums and halls and play to an audience that, for economic, social and cultural reasons, might be excluded from venues like Sydney Opera House.

Earlier this year, Playwriting Australia hosted an Open Space forum for emerging and established playwrights to debate key issues and raise difficult questions. In one group, renowned playwright Hilary Bell quietly posed a potent question.

How do you make your plays count?

Within the group, there were many terrific responses to Hilary’s provocation. This was mine.

1. You write for young people.

Plays like Wolf Lullaby and Blackrock, Seven Stages of Grieving and Ruby Moon, Box the Pony and Away, The Stones and Stolen are classics of the school curriculum. While some of these plays weren’t written specifically for young audiences, they have all resonated strongly with the young and are studied and performed in classrooms across the country.

When you write for young people, the play is not only viewed by its audience, often it is performed by them as well. For years, young people have worn the skin of Meg in Away and Leah in Box the Pony, of Jared in Blackrock and Shy Boy in The Stones. And through playing these roles, they perform an identity akin to their own or perhaps, even more powerfully, they morph gender, age, race and sexuality. They experience emotionally and physically what it feels like to be ‘other’. I believe passionately that theatre, unlike any other medium, can teach us empathy. In an era in which our politicians and corporate figures seem to have undergone an empathy bypass, we need a new generation that lies awake at night worrying about children in detention. We need a generation who wakes in the morning with a plan to act on their anxiety and defy their government, just like the 50 Sydney schoolgirls who recently taped their mouths shut in a symbolic demonstration of solidarity with detained asylum seekers.

A few weeks ago, Robin Williams died. His passing reminded me of the profound influence that the film Dead Poets Society had on my own thinking about the power of art and education. I remember the scene in which English teacher John Keating tells his students to stand on their desks so they can see the world from a different angle. And I’ve never forgotten the power of the final moment in the film when Mr Keating enters the class to collect his belongings after being forced to resign. As he’s leaving the entire class stand on their desks in defiance of authority to salute, Oh Captain! My Captain!

In this our Age of Anxiety, we need a generation of young people who are courageous enough to feel and to act in defiance of the Helicopters that hover overhead.

 

Angela Betzien

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 Visit angelabetzien.com.au

Angela is a multi award-winning writer and co-director of independent theatre company, Real TV. Her work has toured widely across Australia and internationally. Angela’s recent writing credits include Tall Man (RealTV & Magictorch) Where in the World is Frank Sparrow? (Graffiti Theatre, Ireland) Helicopter, (Melbourne Theatre Company), The Dark Room (Belvoir) Girl Who Cried Wolf (Arena) War Crimes, Hoods and Children of the Black Skirt (RealTV). She received the 2011 Sydney Theatre Award for Best New Australian work, the 2012 Queensland Literary Award for Drama, the 2012 Kit Denton Disfellowship and the 2008 Richard Wherrett Award for Excellence in Playwriting. This year Angela received the Sydney Theatre Company Patrick White Fellowship. She is currently working on commissions with Belvoir/Playwriting Australia, Terrapin/Melbourne Theatre Company and the University of Wollongong.

 

 

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Angela
Comment
Re: Writing in the dark
Reply #2 on : Fri September 12, 2014, 15:13:10
Thanks Meg for your kind words. I know that you are at the coal face of theatre for young people. I'm sure you've seen and heard it all. I am however heartened by recent news that War Crimes has been selected for the 2015-2017 NSW Drama Syllabus. I'm absolutely thrilled and honoured that students will be studying this text in the future.
Meg Upton
Comment
Dangerous theatre and young people
Reply #1 on : Wed September 10, 2014, 18:09:27
Dear Angela, thrilled to read your State of Play essay. It is intelligent, insightful and timely. Your work is dangerous and dark and divine all in one and I too wish that the gatekeepers around young people's experiences and voices would just back off. Critical and creative thinking is a cornerstone of the Australian Curriculum. I despair when I observe the gatekeepers deciding what these mean for young people. Dangerous and challenging theatre is the best at offering opportunities think critically and for young people to care, to invest and to consider taking action. I know your work well Angela and it offers these opportunities. Thanks for writing this. Meg


 

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Summary of references


Australian Bureau of Statistics, 3309.0 - Suicides, Australia, 2010, Canberra, Australian Bureau of Statistics,  2012

Australian Bureau of Statistics, 3303.0 - Causes of Death, Australia, 2012, Canberra, Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2014.

Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, Young Australians: their health and wellbeing 2011, Cat. no. PHE 140, Canberra, AIHW, 2011.

Bannerman, K., A Short Interview With Jack Zipes, 2002.

Blake, E., 'Children's theatre companies play it by the book in bid to lure families', Sydney Morning Herald, 12 April 2014.

Chan, A., & Payne, J, Homicide in Australia: 2008–09 to 2009-10 National Homicide Monitoring Program annual reportAustralian Institute of Criminology, Canberra, 2013.

Chan, G., 'Tony Abbott says James Foley killing highlights world's vulnerability', The Guardian, 21 August 2014.

Dixon, J. & Welch, N. 'Researching the Rural–Metropolitan Health Differential Using the ‘Social Determinants of Health’Australian Journal of Rural Health, 8(5), 254-260, 2000.

Dyson, S., Smith, A., Mitchell, A., Dowsett, G., Pitts, M., & Hillier, L., Don't ask don't tell. Hidden in the Crowd: the need for documenting links between sexuality andsuicidal behaviours amoung young people, Latrobe University, Melbourne, 2003.

Gardner, L., 'David Wood: Children's theatre is the most important theatre', The Guardian, 23 July 2013.

Ginnot’s, H., Between Parent and Teenager, Three Rivers Press, New York, 2003.

Ivancic, L., Perrens, B., Fildes, J., Perry, Y. & Christensen, H., Youth Mental Health Report, June 2014, Mission Australia and Black Dog Institute, Sydney, 2014

Karanges, E. A., Stephenson, C. P. & McGregor, I. S., 'Longitudinal trends in the dispensing of psychotropic medications in Australia from 2009–2012: Focus on children, adolescents and prescriber specialty', 1-15. doi:10.1177/0004867414538675, Australian and New Zealand journal of psychology, 2014.

Kelly, K., Dudgeon, P., Gee, G. & Glaskin, B., Living on the edge: Social and emotional wellbeing and risk and protective factors for serious psychological distress among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peopleAustralian Indigenous Psychologists Association and Cooperative Research Centre for Aboriginal Health, Casuarina, NT, 2009. 

Massola, J., Government wants telcos to keep two years of metadataSydney Morning Herald, 6 August 2014.

McNeilage, A., Catholic school kids protest against asylum seeker policies. Sydney Morning Herald, 15 August 2014.

Rosenstreich, G., LGBTI People Mental Health and Suicide (2nd Ed.). Sydney: National LGBTI Health Alliance, Sydney, 2013.

World Health Organization; Dept. of Mental Health and Substance Abuse, Prevention of mental disorders: effective interventions and policy options : summary reportWorld Health Organization, Geneva, 2004.



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