ONstage: Permission To Speak (Review)

Permission to Speak
– a new play at the Festival of Colour 2019

So much is said to and of our youngest generation, a.k.a the “digital natives”,  “snowflakes”, “me me me generation”, the “anxious and self-absorbed” cohort born after 1997. In column inches, classrooms, media and domestic conversations, “Gen Z” is so often scrutinised and scolded, scoffed at and stereotyped. The premise of “Permission to Speak” provides a refreshing and authentic response by ensuring young people’s voices are heard. These voices are brave and real – at times self-deprecating and ironic – always fierce. Directed by Fiona Helen Armstrong and Jonathan James,”Permission to Speak” is a new piece of theatre constructed around verbatim dialogues garnered from high school students from all over New Zealand who the directors interviewed about issues including body image, gender equality, the role of social media and what the role of feminism means to teenagers today. From these conversations, the ensemble cast of Mt Aspiring College senior drama students tackle the concerns of today’s youth through a series of fragmented moments unfolding at the local ‘Sports Ball After Party’.

This year’s Festival of Colour community theatre offering,”Permission to Speak” premiered at the Wanaka Yacht Club, with 12 mostly sold-out shows over 6 nights. At the water’s edge, the boatyard and dated clubrooms served as an eerie and symbollic setting. As dusk falls on a still, misty lake behind the audience at the 6.30pm show,  a sense of the liminal pervades. I’m reminded of how in many cultures, “coming of age” is a time both celebrated and feared, because teenagers are liminal people; in the blurred space between childhood and adulthood. They’re on the threshold, a place of flux, change and uncertainty. Indeed, as Reuven Kahane has explained “for young people, liminality of this kind has become a permanent phenomenon…Postmodern liminality”.

The immersive experience of the show is a bit like flicking between windows in your browser, or channels on TV. The exposition has the cast arriving at the party, as a dj welcomes the band and the revellers chant their intent for tonight “to do bad things”. We learn that Rachel is “out of it” and has gone missing. Carly’s a musician who wants to sing, but her father just wants her to play hockey. “The boys” are all bravado, banter and ‘friendly’ bullying. Everyone’s on edge, or amped for the night ahead. The audience is then split up according to the colour of the glow stick they were given upon entry.

In each vignette, physical theatre and choreographed snapshots unfold into more naturalistic dialogues and soliloquoy. In these direct addresses, the characters reveal their personal gripes, worries and secrets to the audience. At times confronting, these stories are raw and sadly all-too relatable. We hear from “snowflake” girls who want to re-define the label they’ve been given, causing a “snowflake avalanche” to crush the patriarchy. The insidiousness of social media is unravelled as the self-mocking snowflakes morph into glaring trolls with snarling comments: “woah you look anorexic, that’s awesome”. The trolling escalates until the speaker explains, “Instagram used to be an escape – but now it’s just a reminder of what society wants me to be like.” Then there’s the  story of a young female retail employee, being shamed in front of her male schoolmate when an angry dad demands to “speak to the manager”, not realising that she is the store’s manager. In this scene, a farther facet of the spectrum of perceived gender roles is examined when the son’s friend, ostensibly one of “the boys” struggles with where and when to ‘call out’ sexism: “I mean, what is the way forward? I don’t know what makes me a villian and what it takes to be a good man.”

The most challenging part of the show takes place indoors, in the yacht club’s bathroom and bar. Rachel’s been binge-drinking in preparation for losing her virginity,  now she’s hugging the toilet bowl. There’s a debate over who will take her home. She hurls insults at “frosty frigid snowflake” Olivia, who then tells her story under the chilling blue light of the dishevelled bar. From a bar stool, framed by a small counter strewn with upturned cups, glittering streamers and half-fallen-down bunting, Olivia confides the dark reality of how she lost her virginity to a friend: “I yelled at him to stop and finally… he did.” She reveals how she was too scared to talk to her mum about what happened, so had to turn to google to find the definition of statutory rape. She asks “why was no one talking about consent?”, a question which is one of the many this show urges its audience to address. “If we keep carrying around these dirty teenage secrets, how are we meant to know the difference between right and wrong?”

Pertinent use of space is exemplified in the basement scene, where a coven of young women gather to drink shots and play ‘Circle of Death’ until someone complains “I’m not playing this game. I’m not calling myself a whore. Who do you think came up with these rules?” Dismantling “the rules” is then the new agenda, as one by one the characters shine a torchlight on their own versions of feminism today: “If I can’t call out my own Dad, can I call myself a feminist?”, “I like girls but that doesn’t make me a feminist. For now I’m living my life in high school”, “I feel so frustrated when I’m spoken over”. The French exchange student character added a particularly insightful layer, linking current feminist issues to the origins of feminism in her inspired rant: “Why are we punished for showing our shoulders? … Le mot feminism n’existe pas!”

Sound is one of the driving elements of the piece, with loud, often sweary overlapping voices segueing into intimate and challenging conversations. When watching one of the moments in one area of the performance, echoes of the moments concurrently taking place drift into earshot. A particularly haunting echo occurred when listening to Olivia’s painful story in the bar, at the same time as “the boys”‘ rallying battle-cry “Come on you bitches, outside!” could be heard. The show’s transitions, which could be developed further, were stitched together through the chart music of today’s youth, and the resolution brings the party’s fragments together again for a final song from the talented after-party band.

Attendees of the 2017 Festival of Colour will recognise shades of  “Like There’s No Tomorrow” (which Armstrong co-directed in Wanaka that year) in this work. The after-party set up, the masks, the audience’s involvement in a moving journey, the series of interconnected moments contributing to a larger story, as well as the juxtapositions of aspiration and disappointment; of innocence and experience and adolescent identity tensions. But where the 2017 community show hinged around a fictional narrative of a group of young people coming to terms with their larger-than-life friend Joey’s death, this work is about young people coming to terms with what it means to be part of Gen Z, in general as told through the personal.

The strength in this show is found in its interplay between choreography and truth-telling, as the audience are prompted to navigate the ‘rites of passage’ and complex pathways of conflicting messages and perspectives that our young people grapple with on a daily basis. “Permission to Speak” takes the pulse of our nation’s rangatahi. And that pulse is urgent, and demands to be listened to, really listened to.


“Permission to Speak”

Wanaka Yacht Club

6.30 & 8.30pm

Tickets $25 Adults / $20 Students


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