How to give young people a voice
When Boy opened at the Almeida earlier this year, writer Leo Butler was widely praised for his faithful representation of often-marginalised young people in London. A master of observation, Butler mapped the journey of a teenage boy through a day in London, a boy who falls through the cracks of society. A few months after Boy opened, and Butler is exploring themes of youth again, this time with the Bridge Company – a company of young actors from the Brit School in-between school and higher education.
The Brit Company has spent almost a year with Butler developing a play, Decades, that explores the lives of teenagers through the decades – slamming together moments in history and clashes of culture. The plays are different in tone, but at the heart of both of them is an exploration of what it means to be young, and particularly of young people who are marginalised and fall through the cracks.
“I guess there’s a preoccupation there,” says Butler. “Kids – young people – are our most valuable asset as a society, so I do think it’s worthwhile to give them a voice or represent them truthfully on stage. It’s also worthwhile to reveal where and how kids are given a raw deal in life.”
Butler isn’t, of course, the only one writer who engages with what it means to stage the voices of young people.
It’s a question that numerous writers explore. You can see it in the work of Luke Barnes, whose play Weekend Rockstars took the form of a gig with a narrative. Barnes points out that in his early plays one of the reasons for his interest in young characters was: “I was much closer to the age, and my mindset and life experiences were echoing that of the characters I was writing”.
Barnes adds: “Perhaps more significantly, I believed that these characters offer an objective look at the world they find themselves in. For them, there is no talk of post-Thatcherite post-industrialisation and the effects of poverty on their community. They’re just poor, and it makes them feel rubbish, and their frustration manifests itself into how they feel and how they feel manifests into action. They offer a uniquely objective perspective of the world void of intellectual concept. The world, to young people, just is.”
Of course, so much of this is as much to do with class as it is to do with youth, and writing about youth on stage raises similar questions of representation. This is something Butler is acutely aware of.
“The whole debate is a thorny and difficult one,” he says. “As a playwright, there’s nothing more exciting than having your work staged at grand venues like the Royal Court and the Almeida, yet I can’t deny that you often wish that these theatres were accessible to everyone. Yes, I think we’re lucky to have any audience coming to the theatre when you can stream TV and movies in the palm of your hand.”
He adds: “It was wonderful to see the core audience of the Almeida walk away from Boy with their perceptions of young, working-class teenagers changed. At the same time, it was equally exciting to see working-class audiences coming to see the play (some coming to the theatre for the first time) and reacting positively to some of their own experiences being represented on stage. I want everyone to come to the theatre, the same way no one is excluded from watching Game of Thrones or Wolf Hall.”
Similarly, Barnes is clear on what this representation means. “It’s not about ‘freedom of speech’ or about ‘giving viewpoints to everyone’. It’s about acknowledging that these people are a part of the fabric of the truth of our society.”
He rejects any accusations of this kind of work being ‘poverty porn’. “I dismiss, fundamentally, the argument that people ‘get off on the poor’,” he says. “If it’s a true cultural examination of Britain’s poor, then it is of the upmost importance that we’re talking about it on stages. If we dismiss dialogues about the poor on stages, then we’re dismissing they exist.”
The National Youth Theatre has had 60 years to explore what it means to stage the voices of young people, and this year it is producing a West End run of Pigeon English, based on the novel by Stephen Kelman. Gbolahan Obisesan, who adapted the book for the stage, explains: “Pigeon English is about the immigrant voice trying to retain its cultural identity. It’s a book set in our capital city with a myriad of characterful voices vying for respect and recognition.”
And there is a personal connection for Obisesan with the central character. “It reminds me of my own experience as an inquisitive immigrant child fixated on the cultural differences of exploring his environment against previous, fixed ideas of how society functions,” he explains.
And when considering the representation of marginalised young characters, Obisesan suggests: “There is always the complexity of showing authentic characters against repulsive stereotypes that are presented in an environment of deprivation.”
He picks up on Butlers’ point and warns: “Theatre still remains the bastion of middle and upper-class social entertainment, hence occasionally the depiction of society’s social issues surrounding marginalised voices can often be pushed to extremes that can be perceive as exploitative, dishonest and offensive.”
With Boy playing at the Almeida, the company engaged with its neighbour, Arsenal in the Community, to bring young people’s stories to centre stage. Meanwhile, Decades is developed with a company of young people, as is Pigeon English.
Butler is clear that with Decades: “Everything in the play has come out of the first term’s workshops that we ran with the group.”
Obisesan points out that the NYT cast members “are very similar in age to their audiences, and that alone galvanises a collective responsibility as well as it being a powerful, evocative point of familiarity for those in the auditorium”.
The Royal Court has taken an engagement with young stories and young people a step further. Having run a young writers’ festival for many years, it has developed it into a season of work this summer where the keys to the theatre will be given to young people aged 15 to 24.
“We wanted to put young people at the forefront every step of the way,” explains head of Young Court Lynne Gagliano. “The main thing we have done is let the young people decide what’s important to them. At no point in the project have the adults said what should happen. We are only the facilitators, making their visions happen. This gives them agency and a voice, which is what young people crave when facing the challenges of contemporary society.”
When exploring questions of representation on stage, this seems to be one of the most exciting responses – to hand over the keys and see what happens. As Butler puts it: “For real diversity the whole idea of what it means to ‘go to the theatre’ needs to be challenged, along with shaking up perceptions of what a theatre space can be, and where a play can take place.”
Gagliano believes: “There’s a danger in creating theatre solely for young people. Open Court is events, installations and performances that excite them and that they wish to share. Open Court gives young people a voice. That’s the only way they can become less marginalised.”
Or as Luke Barnes puts is: “The key is truth. If we pursue truth, then we’re okay. If we just make it up, then, yes, maybe the artist can just fuck off.”