Shocked and horrified. That was my reaction to Susan Elkin’s recent article on The Stage, advocating strict etiquette that children should “sit quietly and listen/watch”. Whilst this call for etiquette lessons bothers me in the extreme I first feel obliged to respond to such sweeping and patronising generalisations about said “older students”. Why do we feel the need to criminalise all young people? More and more I hear the‘t-word’ being tossed about as some grave insult or even disease as our society pulls stereotypes from the air and superimposes them on a whole generation. And no, I’m not talking about some emerging curse-word, I’m talking about ‘teenagers’. Normal people who deserve to be treated as such. If it is so necessary to be giving theatre etiquette lessons to children/teenagers then surely we should be doing the same for adults.
In fact, I’ve found children are often more receptive, engaged, and responsive to productions which ‘adults’ might sneer and laugh at. There’s no need for this silly criminalisation, there’s diversity in teenagers as in any demographic. Of course you’ll find raucous, rowdy trouble makers but you’ll also find bright, innovative and fascinating people. You’ll find mischievous, Machiavellian toddlers, and kind generous toddlers just as you’ll find lovely and unpleasant 60 year olds. My fellow 16 year olds are launching theatre companies, directing short films and being generally decent folk. Rather than spending our time bemoaning the perceived lack of cultural etiquette within young people, I advocate that instead we try to bring more young people to the theatre which is far more constructive, culturally enriching and will secure the future of theatre for the next generation. The looks of irritation, disgust and disdain I’ve received when attending performances with friends or when reviewing for The Public Reviews is sickening.
Right, that part of the rant over. You’ll notice I get a bit heated when defending my generation but back to theatre! As I seem to be disagreeing with everything Elkin has to say, it seems only natural that I would disagree with her assertion that etiquette of sitting still and quietly needs to be taught. For me the beauty of theatre is that it’s live performances and most, especially Shakespeare, are interactive at some level – we should not try to quash that with false pretensions of social superiority by acting ‘sophisticated’ and adhering to outdated conventions. An actor friend of mine said to me that it’s pretty hard to interact with an audience member if they’ve been threatened with being hung drawn and quartered if they react. In fact many of the actors I’ve spoken to place great weight on an audience’s response to assess the success of their performances – how can they continue to progress without being judged and always met by a stony silence? I believe much can be learnt as a performer trying to engage a younger audience. Not too long ago at thirteen years old I remember being utterly spellbound by the magic of the RSC’s production of King Lear and only a few weeks ago myself and several friends were entranced by the kids production of The Pardoner’s Tale at The Unicorn Theatre. This article only reinforces the need for more projects like the RSC First Encounters to give people access to theatre who will have never seen a performance before. I can testify that Shakespeare is often killed in schools (by no fault of my teachers) and we should trying to be giving these young people an experience that will get them engaged not making them run a mile away. I believe that the worst way to develop theatre and increase its access (something we all want surely?) is to seal it off with fancy conventions, archaic etiquette and a snobbishness that will drive people away in the masses.
Let’s not shroud theatre in unnecessary, rigid structure. Let’s bring theatre back to its heart. Let’s remember what we came for. The performance.
Over and out,