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"Who feels more acutely than a pubescent teen?"

Shakespeare had huge faith in the young actors who gave us the original Juliet, Lady Macbeth, or Rosalind and Viola. So why don't we, asks George Kemp.

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Shakespeare for Teenagers: Blessings in Disguise

Date: 26 Nov 2019
Forget witches, ghosts, or even love. There is nothing teenagers fear more than the sound of their own voices.

This may sound surprising. If you’ve ever been in a room with a bunch of teens, you’ll know the sound can be jumbo jet-adjacent. But I’m talking about something different. I’m talking about when you say, “stand there and say this thing out loud to me.” Panic stations. It’s a fascinating paradox.

We live in a world where teens strive to put themselves out there (who has the most Instagram followers; who can post the most Tik-Toks; who has the craziest piercing or the most asymmetrical haircut) but it’s always tacit imagery and very rarely vocal. In an acting workshop, if you ask a teen to yell, you’ll be met with a silent blush and a terrified shaking head.

But there is something that helps to unlock teen voice like nothing else: Shakespeare.

I teach and direct Shakespeare with teens all over, and before a workshop or a rehearsal, I ask students what their initial reactions are to that moment when a teacher throws a copy of Romeo and Juliet on their desks.

My question is met with the usual chorus of “bo-ooring… the language doesn’t make sense… it’s not relevant,” and there is a perfectly logical reason for this. I’m sure we all have memories of teachers making us go around the classroom and read Romeo and Juliet line by monotone line. Often, even the teacher doesn’t understand it. This is precisely what suffocates Shakespeare for so many young people before it’s even had the chance to breathe.

These plays are for doing and hearing. Academic analysis is just a bonus level if you want to unlock it. It’s like having a PE class where all you do is sit in a circle and read out, line-by-line, the rules of netball. Or a science class where the teacher says:

“Exploding volcanos are cool!”

“Great, can we make one?”

No, no. I’ll just tell you about it.”

Of course it’s boring.

Next, the relevancy question. My answer to this is twofold.

Firstly, relevance is irrelevant. Why is that question always asked of Shakespeare? What’s the relevance of Game of Thrones? Or of a bunch of predominantly white male superheroes punching each other in The Avengers? Humans have craved good stories since the dawn of time and will forevermore. If it’s about human relationships, power, religion, love, sex or death, then it’s relevant.

Secondly, if that question must be answered, I would argue that these plays are more relevant right now than at any other point in my lifetime. How can an entire canon of plays exploring racism, power, misogyny, the natural world and conspiracy be any more relevant to our times?

I can’t look at a picture of the Trump family and not see a slightly nauseating Whitehouse Players cast pic of King Lear starring Don Jnr (Goneril), Eric (Regan) and golden-girl Ivanka (Cordelia) all smiling next to their raving lunatic of a father.

Closer to home, how can a play about racism and domestic violence like Othello not be relevant in a world where one woman a week in Australia is killed by her current or former partner? There is nothing ‘dated’ about these plays. It’s happening right in front of us, right now.

Age Appropriate

I am currently directing Sport for Jove’s Second Age Project and we are rehearsing an adaptation of As You Like It with teenagers, as part of SFJ’s Summer Season.

The other day, they were particularly taken with one of Rosalind’s lines:

“ … make the doors upon a woman’s wit, and it will out at the casement.

Shut that, and ’twill out at the key-hole.

Stop that, ’twill fly with the smoke out at the chimney.”

What a beautiful encapsulation of the incredible, driving force of the #MeToo era, to be spoken by young female actors who refuse to be silenced anymore.

Damien Ryan, artistic director of Sport for Jove, has made the decision to cast the teenage roles in this year’s summer season performance of Romeo and Juliet with – wait for it – actual teenagers.

The fact that this could even be seen as a bold move shows how little faith we have put in young people’s acting ability on stage. We don’t flinch when a TV smash like Stranger Things bases its entire premise around children, but somehow when it comes to Shakespeare, it makes us pause.

Ryan says, “The average age of RSC and National Theatre Juliets in the 20th Century was 35. And there is a reason for that, the old saying, ‘if only youth knew, If only age could’, the theory that young actors aren’t ‘good’ enough to play incredible roles and therefore experienced pros are encouraged to play young and wear pigtails.”

This, adds Ryan, completely disregards the fact that many roles, “particularly Shakespeare’s women’s roles were written for teenagers to play and Shakespeare clearly had huge faith in whomever these extraordinary young men were who gave us the original Juliet, the original Lady M, or Rosalind or Viola, among others.”

So it’s no surprise that in a time when teens are literally yelling to be heard (think Emma Gonzales and her gun control marches, or world-wide climate change rallies led by Greta Thunberg) that art can be used to strike a chord with young people and serve as a vehicle for them to use their own voice, loud and clear.

But how does Shakespeare help free these teenage voices?

Blessings in disguise

For starters, Shakespeare’s plays are often about disguise, and disguise is the number one item in the adolescence survival kit. Be it a fringe, baggy clothes, a gaming avatar, or a rose-tinted Snapchat filter, disguise is the teen’s natural habitat and they know it better than anyone.

These plays allow them to hold the mirror up to second nature, so to speak. The embarrassment of using the voice seems to alleviate ever so slightly because they’re speaking in disguise, in a new ‘language’, in a new world.

Secondly, these plays aren’t precious gems to be handled with white gloves. You can do what you want with them. I once directed a teen to say the words “ugh, shut up Demetrius” during her scene from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. She gasped and said “but I can’t say that, it isn’t Shakespeare!”

Who cares? He’s dead. Once these students learn that they can do what they like with this language, it is freeing for them and for their voices.

Seeing young, very camp teen boys play the Scottish warrior-king Macbeth, in a rough school, with a completely free and matter of fact sassiness, lends the role its own kind of authority and made classmates sit up and pay attention. It’s arresting. Gender fluidity was Shakespeare’s wheelhouse and kids pick up on that. They get to exist in a heightened world of make-believe for a moment, and anything goes. It’s a world of magic and battles and witches and fairies and ghosts, so it gives these kids licence to be bold, creative, extra, funny, camp, other.

It has no boundaries, and dumbing down is not the key because these kids can meet the plays where they are. They are constantly told they can’t be rough with these plays, like Grandma’s dusty ornament collection, when all they need to do is blow the dust off and smash them around a little.

Never has this been more clear to me than a workshop I ran in Nyngan, rural NSW. I was teaching for Bell Shakespeare and students were auditioning for the John Bell Scholarship. The number of students in places like Nyngan, Dubbo and Moree to name a few, who were keen to audition was astounding to me.

It’s not a matter of us forcing Shakespeare on them. In fact, they are there waiting impatiently for an opportunity to do it. One such student was a 14-year-old girl who had moved from Indonesia to Nyngan. Quite the culture shock.

Despite limited spoken English, she elected to audition with a piece from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. She was shaky, unsure and, of course, was struggling with the language. The room felt awkward.

Then, after we worked through the meaning of the text, I asked her to take a minute to translate it and perform it for us in her mother tongue.

The class went berserk, cheering and clapping for her wonderful, free and hilarious performance. They didn’t understand a word, but it didn’t matter, this student had found a way to express her exasperation at the folly of love and the frustration of a teen love triangle in the most effective and full-voiced way. She was beaming.

Obviously there are a myriad of reasons why teens have a fear of their voices. After all, it’s breaking, duplicitous, awkward, and it requires you to breathe, which in turn, forces you to feel. What a terrifying prospect. Who feels more acutely than a pubescent teen?

I was working with a 13-year-old playing Titania. I asked her to stop, breathe in, and breathe out and she instantly burst into tears. Teenagers are on that knife-edge all of the time, and so are these characters. These characters are the disguise through which some kids are able to emote.

Anyone for tennis?

Of course, Shakespeare is not for everyone. The counterintuitive concept of physical and vocal commitment being less embarrassing than timid awkwardness, seems a gorge too wide to jump for some, and that’s absolutely fine.

This work isn’t always about making kids fall in love with Shakespeare, but giving a platform to the kids who might. In a workshop at a very difficult school, and after giving what I thought was a rather moving rendition of Romeo and Juliet, the kids were asked how it made them feel, surveying the bodies of the dead (all exactly their age), and one teen responded:

“Annoyed, ‘cos we’re missing sport for this.”

If it wasn’t delivered with perfect deadpan comic timing, I might have been annoyed.

“What’s your favourite sport?” I asked.

Tennis was the reply.

In a last ditch effort, I offered her the idea that the structure of a tennis match and the structure of the play we just watched were the same: five sets (or acts) of two sides competing to get what they want for two-and-a-half hours, with Escalus as umpire and Friar Lawrence as Romeo’s ill-advising coach. The idea was met with the smallest of smiles (so her friends couldn’t see) that made me hope she might think of that again some day in the future.

In another school, in rural NSW, there was a rag-tag crew of students nicknamed by the teachers ‘The All Stars,’ for their record of poor attendance and disruptive, occasionally violent behaviour. Their wonderful drama teacher approached us after our workshop to say one of ‘The All Stars’ had approached her after the workshop and said:

“Oi Miss, those people in there? That was so boring…”

“Oh really? That’s a shame. How come?”

“Naaah, just kidding, that was the best fucken thing all year!”

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Teenagers think in poetry more than we give them credit for, whether it’s my nephews decoding their Dizzee Rascal albums, the Hamilton soundtrack they listen to at home, or their interest in beat poetry. When we think we can’t understand something, or we’re told we won’t understand something, our brains shut down (like me, with tax returns) but once students understand that they actually do understand 90 percent of the words in Macbeth or Othello, it’s just they’re sometimes in a different order, that barrier to expression is chipped away a little, and the puzzle solving begins. The satisfaction on their faces when a piece unexpectedly falls into place is thrilling.

Some of the best acting I’ve seen has been in teenage workshops. When their voice is given power, it is free, unguarded and incredibly powerful. These kids are the same age as Juliet, a gawky teenager as unsure and awkward about love as she is excited by it.

There is a type of golden age, around 13 or 14, when teens are old enough to understand the plays and young enough to not be self-conscious yet, and it can lead to the most exceptional acting, both comedic and dramatic.

Damien Ryan says of his teen actors, most of whom have experience with Shakespeare, that it is “thrilling to watch them engage with the extremes that these young characters endure in the play and to celebrate the unforced awkwardness of being young, of kissing, of fighting, of making dumb dirty jokes and thinking they are Pulitzer Prize-winning witticisms, but most importantly, capturing the ‘dreams’ of these characters.”

Romeo and Juliet, Ryan says, is about “a group of young people locked within a morally polluted and claustrophobic walled city called Verona where their only future lies, and these young people dream of ‘soaring above a common bound’, of being out of the ordinary, of living a life remarkable in a place that will never let them.

“The play speaks a lot of poison and indeed Romeo will die of it, but the real poisoner is the community whose traditions and behaviours never let these kids spread their leaves or “dedicate their beauty to the sun” as the play says.”

The matching of character and actor age in this play should not be controversial. It’s completely logical. Ryan pointed me to the work of psychoanalyst Anna Freud. She describes in psychological terms, “the atmosphere in which the troubled adolescent lives”:

“… anxieties; the heights of elation and depths of despair; quickly rising enthusiasms; utter hopelessness; burning, and at other times, sterile intellectual and philosophical preoccupations; a yearning for freedom; a sense of loneliness; a feeling of oppression by parents; the impotent rages and active hates directed against the adult world; the erotic crushes; the suicidal fantasies…”

If that doesn’t sound like a synopsis of Romeo and Juliet, then I don’t know what does.

In Hamlet, Laertes talks to his sister Ophelia of the momentary twin flashbulbs of youth and love.

A violet in the youth of primy nature, Forward, not permanent–sweet, not lasting; The perfume and suppliance of a minute; No more.” 

The brief coalescence of matching a teen in that brief minute of ‘primy nature’, with all that chaos and messy emotion, and these plays’ sense of heightened beauty and strength can be thrilling, both for performer and for audience.

In these times, we should be doing everything we can to help young people raise their voices, loud and strong.

Sport for Jove’s Romeo and Juliet plays Old Government House, Parramatta from February 6.

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