Let me catch you up. Two years ago I wrote a play called April’s Fool. It was about the real death of a Toowoomba teen. The play was presented in verbatim style, meaning that every single line of dialogue (literally) was sourced directly from interviews that I conducted with friends, family and community members. The play is intensely emotional, and deliberately confronting. After a successful season in 2010, the play has recently embarked on a national tour. And a short while ago, the play had its very first performance in Toowoomba, within shouting distance of the hospital where the young man died.
The theatre was packed. It would be the biggest performance the cast had ever done. Normally confined to smaller venues, the show would instead be presented to a thousand seat theatre. The audience was made up of family members (as in, people whose lives were represented on stage) and a lot of school kids. It’s fairly normal for a performance of April’s Fool to be performed in almost dead silence. Kids are often shocked, and there’s usually a few tears. Occasionally, there’s inappropriate laughter. This performance was different. There was a lot of laughter.
Directly behind myself and my partner was a row of thirteen year old girls. They whispered throughout the show, giggled at every swear word, and noisily ate a packet of chips in the moment of silence where the young man passes. Now I’m not one who usually shooshes at theatre. I don’t have the balls. I also make up some wanky excuse in my head that it’s the vitality of the medium. It’s a live event, so there’s going to be interesting audience reactions. I figure that’s part of why theatre is so great.
But not tonight. I sink low in my chair and weep quietly when the teenage crowd erupts into giggles as the mother character on stage lets out huge rasping sounds of grief. The real-life counterpart who had been brave enough to share her story with the theatre company was sitting only a few seats away from me.
At the conclusion of the performance, I composed myself and turned around. I wanted to be gentle. I also didn’t want to reveal who I was. I just wanted to let the girls know what they were doing. ‘Excuse me,’ I said. ‘I just wanted to let you know that I’m really really glad that I was sitting in front of you. There were family members from the actual incident here tonight, and if they had to listen to your reaction, it would’ve really ripped their hearts out. You might want to start thinking about other people a bit more.’
Their faces turned white and their eyes filled with tears. I had scared them. I moved on to hug the family. My partner stayed behind. ‘That was the playwright you just disrespected,’ she said sharply, even more furious than me. Apparently the girls nearly burst into tears. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t pleased. Does that make me awful?
I quietly raged that night as I planned what I should do. Write a letter to the local paper? Make an announcement at the after-show Q & A? To cover the emotional hurt, I’d become self-righteous. I felt ashamed to be part of the Toowoomba Youth Community. It seemed a vicious insult that the show should return home to such a giggly crowd. It seemed to me to point towards a greater issue that was touched on in the play itself; the emotional intelligence of our youth is frighteningly underdeveloped and needs urgent attention.
Instead of indulging in my tirade I hopped along to the bar. I found most of the cast there too. They were satisfied and exhausted. I went and congratulated one of the more experienced actors. They weren’t bothered by the laughing at all. For one, it means the audience is engaged. For another, it’s not laughter because the play is funny, it’s laughter because these kids don’t know what else to do. They’re embarrassed, so they giggle. And what is theatre if it doesn’t make audiences uncomfortable every once and a while?
A week later, I’m sent out to one of the most giggly schools from the night. In a room of 65 boarding school boys, my colleague and I try to facilitate a conversation about grief and drugs. It’s hard work, but in their own way, the students repeat what the actor had told me on the night. ‘It made me feel weird,’ kids said repeatedly, ‘so I laughed.’
I’ve done a lot of these workshops for April’s Fool now. As I said, laughter isn’t uncommon. The word ‘weird’ comes up a lot in conversation with teenagers about how they felt in response to the play. ‘Weird’ is the most articulate that most teenagers can get about their emotional landscape, and I find that concerning. For something as colorful and flexible as the English language to fall so short in articulating the inner-turmoil of an adolescent is a shame. There’s a dictionary to be written on the gamut of teenage emotion. Lust just doesn’t cut it when describing the surging primal mix of guilt, intense desire, and confusion that one so often feels at that age. Betrayed doesn’t match the red hot burn of a friend lost or trust broken. Ennui only scrapes the surface of the bottomless pit of teenage apathy and despair. Where are these new words? And is our best estimate the enduring torture that is emoticons?
It’s comforting to know that emotions don’t exist on a straight line. They’re circular. And laughter is right next door to grief. It’s not the kids fault that they don’t know what else to do. There was a whole other list of reasons why the audience was giggly that night: many had never been to theatre before and most had no idea what the show was about going into it. It’s no wonder they had a laugh. Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t trying to make them cry, but the human being continues to be a wondrous and bizarre creature. Perhaps my original ‘wanky’ excuse for the medium was closer to the truth than I realised. Theatre should be the home for these kind of emotional conversations. In place of words that don’t exist, we find silences, coughs, shuffled feet, repressed giggles. Theatre is where we uncover the emotional silences that remain an enduring mystery to us all.