“I’m going to tell you something important. Grown-ups don’t look like grown-ups on the inside either. Outside, they’re big and thoughtless and they always know what they’re doing. Inside, they look just like they always have. Like they did when they were your age. The truth is, there aren’t any grown-ups. Not one, in the whole world.” Neil Gaiman
“You are not my role model. You’re my warning.” Teenage Riot
It is that moment when you look around a theatre and see how white you and your fellow audience is as you settle in for some ‘Cultural Theatre’. At worst, it can feel patronising: like a tourist bus passing through the lives of real people. There is a similar sensation when I look at the audience of Ontroerend Goed’s Teenage Riot. The culture is Adolescence. We all feel affinity because we’ve been there. We backpacked the lush valleys of Adolescence. We camped out beneath the stars. We posed on hilltops. We took photographs. We treasure those prints. We befriended our guides, got ripped off in gift shops, had flings and smoked some weird tasting shit that made us vomit for two days straight but will we ever really Get It again? Are our prints too tinted with nostalgia to make out the faces and figures? Am I, at twenty-six, too much a foreigner to write about Teenage Riot?
I loved this show with all my heart because I love adolescence. If I had to assign a literary genre to this age, it would be magical realism: hyper-coloured in its vividness, evocative, sensual, terrifying, simultaneously impossible, miraculous and so, so every day.
It is Friday night. A night that screams for white wine. A night that smells of actors’ cigarettes. I have just seen Teenage Riot and I am outside the Malthouse with four inhabitance of Adolescence: Adrian (19), Joey (18), Lily (19) and Max (19). These four (three of whom I directed in their first year production) will soon have their visas revoked and will be banished from the land of the Teenager. I set my phone to record and, using Teenage Riot as a jumping off point, we talked about the show and the beautiful mystery that is ‘youth’.
Joey: It wasn’t made for us. It was made for (or at) an adult audience. We weren’t the target audience.
Max: Its not shocking – like brutally shocking. Its like ‘can you handle this?’ ‘I guess so. Yeah. I can.’
School For Birds: I wonder what the age cut off is. Because there’s only seven years between you and I and I’ve clearly tipped over some line and I’m deeply moved by – nostalgic for those years and you lot are all going ‘yeeeeah, well…’ I wonder what the cut off is. A 23-year-old suddenly goes ‘fuck yes!’
Adrian: There were some things – like when she was lifting up her shirt or when the guy was talking about fingering – that weren’t really shocking to our age group. There were things that hit home for us – like when they were pointing out all their flaws… (the others agree) I thought that hit home for us a lot more than the fifty-year-old woman in the front row – although she can relate – because we are the same age, we probably think about that stuff a lot more than she does
Max: I feel like the taboo surrounding teenage sexuality just isn’t as powerful to me as it would be to a lot of the audience… I don’t know if I would ever be scared of that. Obviously I can’t speak for future-myself, but why would I possibly think that was a bad thing?
SFB: I think that’s the challenge of the piece. That’s why she ended with ‘come back to me when I’m eighty and I’ll still have this seventeen-year-old’s rage.’ It is a challenge to adults to not differentiate between ‘that was teenage me and this is grown-up me and therefore everything that teenage me did were the actions of a shattered, chaotic being.’
Max: I did a lot of really stupid things but I would never be like ‘oh it was a different person’. I did those things so I’d learn from those things. Growing up doesn’t mean being more correct. It’s not really like that. Everyone does really silly things. Like there is a picture of me on facebook wearing a fairy costume when I was a kid. Really, really weird. I got super pressured into it when I was in Year Seven because all my friends were girls. So that happens but that’s – like – a part of me. I’m not going to be like ‘that’s a separate bit. That’s a bit that I’ve transcended. I’m now not there.’
Joey: It is a continuum, not a break.
Adrain: You don’t turn one age and you’re a different person.
Max: That’s why this age is – like – my favourite. Because people forget it.
Lily: In a way you could say that it’s the worst age. It’s scary. You’re in-between two worlds.
Max: It’s fun.
Lily: It’s fun but it’s terrifying.
SFB: I love teenagers and I love writing about teenagers. I think it is this beautiful, magical thing because it is this simultaneous – it is so –
Max: Everything is going on at once –
SFB: Yes! Everything is happening! It is this simultaneous ‘look at me!’ and ‘don’t look at me! Please God, don’t look at me!’ You’ll never feel that much about something again. That’s amazing.
Joey: People underestimate teenagers. They underestimate how interesting they are. Like I was – I am – so aware of being in this moment in my life and its confusing and terrifying.
There were bits in Teenage Riot where I wanted to say ‘yeah guys! Listen! Teenagers are awesome!’ Like when they said ‘oh she’s got a broken heart! That’s the end of the world at her age!’ Like, no! It’s allowed to be the end of the world! It is the end of the imagined world that she had in her mind. The way that adults can be so dismissive of teenagers, I really dislike.
Max: I fear that will eventually happen to me. That I’ll just be like ‘oh Boo-hoo’. My number one hope when I grow up is that I’ll always remember what certain feelings are. So it doesn’t entitle me to be patronising or be fully ‘I understand’ but… I get it. I get where you’re coming from. You’re not like an alien being. I didn’t start my life at X age. (Well, I did: at zero.) I never want to forget what those feelings were. Not necessarily that I want to deeply, deeply remember them all but I never want to forget that they existed.
Lily: When you are a teenager, there are so many things that you haven’t done before and I think you kind of forget that because the more times you do stuff the more monotonous it becomes but the first time you do anything it is bizarre. Like you cook a certain meal – its, like, weird.
Joey: Yes, the first time you do something by yourself –
Lily: Yes, being allowed to do something by yourself!
Joey: I think you have to go through that. The teenagers in the show – because they’re a couple of years younger (than us) – they’re at this point where they really want to be free and they’re pulling away but they still want to run home. To be honest, I think that never goes away. My sister is twenty-six and she still calls my mum in tears. (SFB makes a gesture of admission.) But it’s more so (when you are a teenager). You have to go through that to realise that you have this independence. It is scary but its cool. It is a tug of war. I guess. I don’t know what I’m saying right now.
Lily: You’ve left childhood but you’re not an adult. People are like ‘you need to be responsible now but you’re not allowed to be free.’ You just have to be responsible.
Joey: I don’t know how to be responsible.
Lily: It is weird because people expect things from you – you’re not necessarily allowed to be independent – but you’re still expected to act like you are. It’s weird.
Max: Glorification is such a big thing for most young men. I don’t know how it was for you… ?
Max: Like before you’ve experienced something it is like ‘this is The Thing’ – like ‘The Goal’.
Joey: It is all very unreal.
Max: It’s like stories. It is the stories that people concoct of the dream of what it is.
Adrain: Because they don’t know what it actually is. Or they haven’t experienced what it actually is yet.
Max: Or, even if they have, there are all these extra layers of dream. Or fantasy. And for a long time they will be having this fantasy and it isn’t like they’re progressing through the fantasy with someone. They just sort of build it up until there has to be some kind of release. I think that’s where this sexual energy comes from. There is this release of what they’ve been building up to for ages. Years.
My deepest thanks to Adrian, Joey, Lily and Max for sharing these thoughts with me and for letting me record. I think you are all amazing and the world is a better place for having people like you. The conversation has been edited down significantly. The actual recording is more than 45 minutes long. Thanks also to Joey for supplying the Neil Gaiman quote.