by Hannah Rose
‘Can you define an audience the same way they define you?’ This was one of the questions asked by a young performer in Wild Life at the Norwich Playhouse, showcasing as part of the Norfolk and Norwich festival 2016. A question left hanging throughout the duration of the play, if that’s what it should be called. Wild Life is an extraordinary piece of metatheatre exploring the teenage psyche through a montage of music, performance, sound recordings, and monologues. Its cast is composed of ten 15-22 year olds from Norfolk, all with exceptional singing and songwriting skills.
Wild Life was commissioned by the Festival and developed in collaboration with Pol Heyvaert and Kim Noble from the CAMPO Belgian Arts Centre. By using the real-life experiences, thoughts, anxieties, wishes and dreams of the cast, along with scientific evidence of how the adolescent brain functions, Wild Life gives audiences an exclusive illustration of the experiences of young people today. As an audience member and twice the age of some of the performers, I really felt how different the world is now from my own experience as a young person. I grew up pre-Facebook, and I had my first mobile aged 18. Consequently, I did not grow up with the anxieties that social media creates—and I’m glad. But neither did I have access to the global conversation that the internet generates. My world was a lot smaller. I think this was partly Wild Life’s intention—to demonstrate the gulf between generations, and to highlight how alienated and estranged some young people feel thanks to the pitfalls and vices of modern life.
But Wild Life is not without humour – far from it, in fact. ‘It’s like they’re trying to understand us by shit sites on the internet,’ one performer says as she recalls an excruciating catalogue of the search terms found in her father’s Google history on his computer: ‘Who is Jay-Z?’ and, more pitifully, ‘what should I do if my son is gay?’
Music is the essence of Wild Life, and underpins the personal anecdotes and narratives peppered throughout. Some of the dialogue describes the relationship between music and emotion, exploring why music is so important for many teenagers. ‘Young listeners experience positive emotions,’ one of the young actors say and, ‘music allows young people to safely explore emotions.’ Has this not been true since music became more accessible to teenagers as the twentieth century unfolded? Each generation has had its own youth culture and, entwined with it, a scene, a sound, and a well of emotion—whether it’s heartbreak with Elvis or total abomination of the human race with the Sex Pistols. For me, it was the dystopian world-view that Californication by the Red Hot Chill Peppers promised me in 1999.
Who needs sequins when you’ve got your own harp?
Each performer had their turn showcasing an original song of their own. And each individual was entirely distinctive and accomplished. Samples from each musician can be heard on the Wild Life blog. In some cases, the performers’ influences are quite apparent—Folk, Motown and the New Romantics—but this does not take anything away from performances; their contribution is part of the creative conversation that is music’s natural evolution. And this is a testament to their directors, who helped facilitate each person’s unique sound and cultivate each personality into the show. Wild Life was neither overdone nor overproduced, and no one overdressed. In fact, their natural and understated appearances gives more weight to the music. It spoke—or sang—for itself entirely. One young person even played his harp on stage—who needs sequins when you’ve got your own harp?
Wild Life made me sit down and listen to what’s really happening for young people. I came away feeling extremely hopeful for the next generation, despite the challenges they face. If there are enough creative opportunities out there endorsed by organisations such as CAMPO and the Norfolk and Norwich festival, then young people can show the world what they have to offer and not be defined by the problems they seemingly pose to society. If we took this asset-based approach, perhaps the world might respond by being a more equal, fair and just place where everyone has a chance to succeed and lead happy, independent lives.
I guess this takes us back to the question posed at the beginning, the question of definitions. Society—the eternal audience—often defines us before we get to define ourselves. If we are told we are a problem, then we are likely to be one; what we see reflected back can easily be something we don’t like, or didn’t choose. How can young people survive in a world that inscribes identity without choice or agency? Wild Life’s message is that the world will hurt you—that’s life—but find solace and strength in music, which can take the pain away.