A heady mix of teens, surging hormones and underage drinking explodes into a thorny navigation of consent. A girl’s nude photo gone viral unpacks into an examination of online bullying, internalized misogyny and bystander apathy.
The #MeToo movement has opened up difficult discussions about the prevalence of sexual harassment and assault, particularly in adult workplaces. But the issue can also be a daily reality for today’s teens — and two new Canadian theatre productions for young people are moving these tricky conversations to centre stage.
“Even if it’s awkward and painful and weird and uncomfortable, we still need to just share experiences and share our thoughts and feelings on it,” said Caroline Toal, one of the young actors appearing in a new play, Selfie, at Young People’s Theatre in Toronto.
Written by Christine Quintana, the production is set against an alcohol-fuelled party, where a complicated incident shatters the connection between three teenage friends.
“It’s been a real journey of creating something that has all the complexities of real life but is also undeniable,” Quintana told CBC News.
Some young audience members told her they had never learned about consent in situations “that entertained the idea that there isn’t necessarily violent intent right away” and forced them to consider how “a good person” could still hurt someone else.
The Vancouver playwright said she was struck by several high-profile cases of sexual assault involving teens, including that of Daisy Coleman, who, along with her best friend, said she was raped by older boys from their high school they had snuck out to meet.
People often say “that wouldn’t happen here,” said Quintana, but she wanted “to dive into that resistance.”
“We have to say, ‘No, that happens in our community, in our schools, in our close relationships.'”
I don’t want this play to villainize any teen behaviour…because that’s where the conversation ends.– Christine Quintana , playwright
There are no monsters in Selfie; Quintana said she was looking to create characters have layers of complexity and are relatable.
She also recognizes that the production will likely lead to difficult post-viewing conversations between audience members, as well as between students and their educators and parents.
“The play offers more questions than answers because that’s what we have right now,” she said. “I don’t want this play to villainize any teen behaviour in particular, because that’s where the conversation ends.”
‘It’s all of our problem’
Another real-life case — that of Canadian teen Amanda Todd, who died by suicide after being blackmailed by an online predator and facing incessant bullying by schoolmates — motivated Canadian-British playwright Evan Placey to create his play, Girls Like That.
“I was really interested in why were young women calling each other sluts,” said Placey, who noted there’s typically been much more examination into why men express misogynistic views.
After interviewing teen girls in the U.K. about issues they said were important to them, Placey was surprised at the number who were ignorant of or uninterested in feminism. Some also expressed misogynistic viewpoints they’d internalized, he said.
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Girls Like That — which debuted in the U.K. and is now playing at Toronto’s Tarragon Theatre — delves into that dynamic as it explores the interactions of a group of teen girls who have grown up together, after a naked photo of one of them goes viral.
Placey said he felt it was important to unpack why teens might mistreat each other and choose not help one another.
“We all do it. We all stay silent. We all sometimes make comments about other people,” he said.
“Whether it’s because we turn a blind eye, whether we talk about someone behind their back, whether we judge someone, whether we click on the photo. … It’s not just about ‘the baddie’ who forces someone to take a photo or puts it out there. Actually, it’s all of us — it’s all of our problem.”
Like Selfie, Girls Like Us doesn’t attempt to provide answers. What’s important is recognizing and acknowledging such problems and opening a dialogue to facilitate change, said Placey.
To encourage this, both productions have hosted talkback sessions, allowing their teen audiences an opportunity and the space to discuss the issues and topics raised — including responsibility and intervention.
“Some people go through these things, but they don’t like to speak up about it,” said Atiya Summers, a 13-year-old Toronto student who saw Selfie with her classmates.
“Watching this, maybe we can help people do it and speak up about it.”