There’s a lot of talk about ‘potential’ when it comes to young people.
The first question they get asked is what they want to be when they grow up. What this misses is the contribution they can make now. What about the insights they have already, precisely because they haven’t had to grow up yet? These are people for whom ‘the way things are’ is still a fresh concept. What if that means their group decision-making is better than our own? What can they see that we can’t?
Eleven young people aged 7-14 are making a piece of theatre out in Carlton, South Sydney.
It’s called The Pecking Order and it’s about leadership, democracy and decision-making. The group is called Shopfront’s Junior Ensemble and the director Kevin Ng and I have been working with them every Saturday for three months. We play Bulrush and Mafia a lot. We write down as many sentences as we can that start with the words ‘Before I was born’, then ones that start with ‘In the future’ and also ones that start ‘Right now’.
The week of my first workshop with the group #libspill was trending heavily. Dutton didn’t have the numbers yet but it was clear Turnbull’s leadership was terminal. The youngest in the group has never had a Prime Minister that has served out a full term.
The following week, by which time the new guy was in office, we had a discussion about what it means to be a good leader. The thinking was that you had to try and do what was best for everyone, but maybe that we needed to use the Obliviate spell like Frank in JK Rowling’s Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them to make everyone forget that money exists in order to do that.
One Saturday, Kev brought in a box of Cadbury Favourites.
We asked the group to decide who among them was the best at different things; who was the funniest, the smartest, the coolest, the best dancer, the most mysterious or the hardest worker. We told them that every time they made a unanimous decision as a group, they’d get a Favourite put into their ‘bank’.
Once we’d run out of categories they had 22 choccies in the bank, Kev and I told them that before they got access to the chocolates they had to formally pitch a plan for their distribution among the group. There was lots of yelling – even some suggestion of a fight to the death– before Naomi (14) proposed that everyone could have two each with one each left over for Kev and I. There was some initial grumbling, Jayden (11) spat out “just because you’re older doesn’t mean you get to tell us what to do”, but that idea was generally accepted by the group and presented as the ‘plan’. Kev and I threw in one last provocation.
How will you make sure everyone gets the chocolate they want? Who gets stuck with the Turkish Delight?
The resulting argument was the starting point for our show.
I can’t tell you how extraordinary it was to watch. It felt like they were inventing democracy in front of us! Afterwards we chatted about fairness, about what it means to act for the benefit of others, about whether or not it was really possible and about what they wanted to change about the society we have and the country we live in.
Shopfront Arts Co-Op feels like the perfect place to be asking these questions.
The company itself is an experiment in democratic decision-making, with much of the programming decided by the young people who attend classes in the building. It’s taking on an increasingly central role not just in making work for young people in Sydney, but for supporting emerging artists as well. As a not-for-profit run by its members it’s punching well above its weight, producing some of the most exciting young artists working in the country. The future leaders of the arts in Australia are here, making weird zombie movies or telling people to line up behind the chocolate they want. Writing sentences like:
Before I was born it was the 80s.
Before I was born my siblings were born.
Before I was born I ate whatever my Mum ate.
Before I was born my Dad had hair.
In the future dogs will go extinct.
In the future YouTube will be called TubeYou.
In the future we will die.
In the future I will be a Doctor.
In the future I’ll be kind and compassionate and good.
Although, if we want to value young people for more than just their potential, maybe the even more important sentences are these:
Right now I’m hungry.
Right now I’m trying to sort out all the things in my head.
Right now this is boring.
Right now I’m touching my nose.
Right now I’m thinking of something to say.