Dallas — When you ask teenagers to speak for themselves, you may be surprised by the response. For the rehearsal process of Cry Havoc Theater's Shut Up and Listen, which opened Friday at the Margo Jones Theatre, many of our days included a writing session in which our actors wrote about a broad topic (like feeling watched, the woes of my life, personal fears), and these essays transformed into the monologues used in the show. Instead of putting words in their mouth, I wanted to hear what they were experiencing in the present moment.
How does a 15/16/17/18-year-old see the world right now?
As they read their impromptu essays aloud, a common theme emerged: frustration. They ask for autonomy, the ability to stand on their own two feet. The feeling that you have a strong head on your shoulders but are trapped in the label of a “minor.” Much of it is directed outwards, to the people who hinder them from being their true selves. Primarily, adults. I have to admit, it was a bit disconcerting the more I listened, I wanted to remind them that I am an adult. (“Do you guys think we’re all that bad?”) It was a bit shocking to hear the aggression in their language, in particular when I reflect on my own teenage years.
Immediately, I remember the good things. I had a group of eight friends that I did everything with (we called ourselves the Crazy 8s). I found a group of fellow weirdoes in the theater. I even had church leaders who would take me and other teens around our neighborhood to toilet paper houses, plastic wrap cars, and fork yards (I didn’t think of it as vandalism since it appeared to be “Jesus-approved”).
If I peel back protective coating of nostalgia and glossed over memories, I’m sure I would find the darker frustrations I felt at the time. I get little flashes of impulsive emotions or rage at the world. I also get hints of loneliness, because I felt so different from my classmates. But it’s all hidden, very far from reach. With that, I realized how important it was to capture these teens’ present moment. This is the story we’re telling, and I’m not sure that can be written by adults.
From hearing their words, they are hypersensitive to the adults around them, even when they don’t show it. While they crave independence and freedom, the adults in their life are a monolithic ideological block—to the point where adults are no longer people but an idea. Flip the coin, and teens are a mass of unruly people in the eyes of adults. There’s such a divide between these two groups that it seems impossible at times to truly connect. So for this production, all our teens have to do is express who they are, in the hopes that some part of their honesty will translate to the adults watching them.
This experimental and experiential work reflects the concerns, emotional lives, contradictions, and frustrations of these teens right now. To give them a voice, you have to embrace the messy, incongruous, repetitive nature of their lives. The words you hear in this piece are all created by these teenagers, the choices you see them make were developed by them in rehearsal. No one told them beforehand what to do; Mara Richards Bim and I helped them shape and structure the work. But it’s all them.
What you see onstage demonstrates their ability to maintain control over chaos, to give into a world of excitement and anarchy, and love it. Teens take bold moves because they are in the process of learning what is too much for them, they have to go farther to find that boundary line. They love big, experiment big, and feel to the extreme. They make huge mistakes, speak out of line, and cling to each other intensely. They search for their identity and their place in the world constantly. For the adults looking at the outside, it may just seem hormonal and crazy. But what if it’s not that simple? We’re taught to demean teenagers, it’s ok to be impatient with them, it’s ok to chew them out, as long as you still think of them as a child. For this production, they ask you to hold judgment, just until they’ve said what they need to say.
It’s all such a mess being a teenager, but a glorious one.
» Read Part One of Shelby-Allison Hibbs' column about Shut Up and Listen here
» Shelby-Allison Hibbs is a Dallas-based teaching artist, playwright, director, performer and a Clinical Assistant Professor at the University of Texas at Dallas. Each month in TheaterJones, she writes about a North Texas organization that teaches some aspect of theater and the craft to students of all ages; or anything teaching-related that's on her mind. Below is a list of previous columns:
- February 2015 "Teacher/Artist" (Capers for Kids)
- March 2015 "Parental Guidance Suggested" (WaterTower Theatre)
- April 2015 "DaVersify Your Life" (DaVerse Lounge)
- May 2015 "The Work in Art" (Tax time for an independent artist)
- June 2015 "Learning to Say YES" (Cara Mía Theatre)
- July 2015 "Exploring Language" (Dallas Children's Theater and Junior Players)
- August 2015 "Transforming Through Dance" (Junior Players)
- September 2015 "Walking Tall" (Amphibian Stage Productions' Tad Poles)
- October 2015 "They Care a Lot" (Kids Who Care, Fort Worth)
- November 2015 "Who Tells Your Story" (male narratives and gender disparity)
- December 2015 "Shut Up and Listen Part One" (Cry Havoc Theater)