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A machine for generating happiness

Some years ago I realised that the profile and personality of our youth theatre members had changed significantly over the past decade. Instead of attracting the eccentric young person, the one who was ‘born to perform’, or the generally extroverted boy or girl, we were now seeing greater numbers of shy people turning up who were quiet, withdrawn and hesitant about engaging with the work of a youth theatre. They were people who were dealing with stress and wanted to find an escape, an oasis, where they could ‘breathe a little’.

It has become clear to us in Kildare Youth Theatre that our members are dealing with a low-level stress that is fairly constant and debilitating. If anger was the energy of youth in the 1980s, today it is anxiety. And it is ever-present, from when they wake and drag themselves to school, to when they try to sleep.

“O, full of scorpions is my mind,” complained Macbeth to his wife. Today, with knowledge of neuroscience, he might say it was “full of cortisol”. This hormone is produced by the adrenal glands in response to stress. Yet continuous stress results in the release of more cortisol than the body can absorb, damaging neural receptors and stem cells to potentially increase the effect of depression.

Recent research suggests that chronic worrying, or Generalised Anxiety Disorder, now affects one-in-six young people and the numbers may be increasing. Our network of European collaborators say similar things. The Erasmus+ programme (the European Union programme for education, training, youth and sport administered by the Higher Education Authority) allows us to make collaborative theatre projects with other EU youth theatres on overtly political and justice-themed subjects. In doing so, we encounter the same generalised anxiety in many young Europeans.

In Kildare, we have begun to explore how this situation came about: what social and political forces encouraged young people to worry, to internalise fear and to feel powerless in the face of anxiety-driven depression. In this sense, our theatre is political. We focus on how social systems (such as education, justice and social welfare) impact on the individual. Our aim is to provoke change in those systems so that they begin to meet the needs of a community of individuals. By exploring the experience of our members’ interaction with these systems, we encourage them to see their actions in a social context rather than from a purely personal perspective. We encourage them, for example, not to internalise failure; to not necessarily blame themselves when outcomes with authority are negative; and to avoid self-destructive behaviour when things go bad for them.

This is part of building up resilience. It requires long-term work of an educational and creative kind, rather than short-term behaviour-fixing work accented on training. Theatre practice serves two purposes here: one is to engage the young person fully and aesthetically in the collaborative creation of a piece of art. Over time this process becomes less about providing an escape from distress, and more about developing key skills for living.

The other aim of our youth theatre work is to provoke awareness about the role of theatre in creating happiness. We need our decision makers, our educators, our politicians, and our communities, to understand that participating in the arts is a fundamental requirement for living well. In short, a room with a youth theatre in it is nearly always a machine for generating happiness.

Recently, we devised a piece called Well Govern’d Youth which explored the experience some of our young members have in education: spending years in a system that ‘schools’ them out of using their intelligence and trains them to suppress, or govern, most of what makes learning fruitful. It is political theatre, in that it contextualised young people’s experience in sociological terms while expressing it in aesthetic terms. In the broader scheme of things it encouraged them away from a process of internalising systemic failure (blaming themselves for ‘not fitting in’) and towards one of constructive problem-solving (working to change the system so that it becomes flexible enough to meet all needs).

Other devised pieces - Public Displays of Infection, The Scourge of Desire and Indigo - all looked at acceptable forms of love in a civilised society, the latter exploring multiple genders and sexual orientations in advance of Ireland’s Marriage Equality Referendum in 2015. Flawless, a piece staged in France and Ireland, listed cultural icons from the 2,000-year-old Western tradition that promoted a singular idea of female beauty. And Dropped Out or Kicked Out? is an evolving Theatre of the Oppressed-influenced piece with artist-researcher Sarah Meaney looking at the subtle use of neglect and labelling by schools in order to ‘ease’ young students out of the school system.

Our current project, Venetians, sets out to locate the source of the social anxiety manifesting itself in young people. It uses some of the young characters from Shakespeare’s Venetian plays – The Merchant of Venice and Othello – as metaphors to explore this anxiety, using the idealised setting of Venice to represent the Nirvana that is always just out of reach.

More subtly, we often create material based on experiences that our members had when they ‘gave away’ their power, or when they were ‘seduced’, or persuaded, or bullied or groomed into complying with a situation that they instinctively felt was unjust but about which they were unable to vocalise their feelings. Our ordinary lives are full of such moments. On stage they can act as metaphors for larger social issues where the individual represents a community, or even an entire nation. Much literary theatre employs such an approach, with the Theatre of the Absurd most obviously foregrounding it as a dramatic device (as in the work of playwrights such as Harold Pinter, Eugene Ionesco and Edward Albee). It appeals particularly to our young people in Kildare because their lives are usually scripted for them: they have little control over the social systems with which they engage (school, family, health) and they easily identify with the experience of being strictly ‘shepherded’ into a way of behaving. Making collaborative theatre can be one of the few activities where they have sufficient control to exercise autonomy and explore independent processes of making meaning.

In many ways, we can see the act of running a youth theatre as a political act. Driven as Ireland is by the needs of its economy, its education system falls slavishly into step, emphasising STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) and entrepreneurial skills. In such a political and socio-economic context, asking the public to invest in theatre can seem at best indulgent and at worst negligent.

We battle daily to find space in school timetables that allows young people the opportunity and freedom to be creative. We argue with parents, purple in the face with worry about their children’s futures, that time spent in a youth theatre is not time wasted when they could be studying curriculum subjects. We strive to find new ways to impress on teachers, politicians and businesses that youth theatre is not simply a self-indulgent hobby for the well-off extroverted, and that young theatre-makers are not ‘a bit full of themselves’. That is the least they are. They are in fact, full of everyone but themselves. Our work is an attempt to redress that balance in some significant way.

© Peter Hussey 2016

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