Company Three's about the end of the world
On March 15, more than 1 million students in over 25 countries skipped school to protest government inaction on climate change. Their actions were inspired by Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old Swedish climate activist who told the UN: “Since our leaders are behaving like children, we will have to take the responsibility they should have taken.”
On all fronts, this was a monumental moment: when a schoolgirl had told the world that the grown ups had failed - and they have failed absolutely, in the name of political and private gain. If anything was proof that we should listen to what our adolescents have to say, this was it. And, for the past ten years, one community theatre company in North London has been doing just that.
Company Three creates a space in which young people can talk to adults - and in which adults will really listen. Each of its 75 members, aged between 11 and 19, have been nominated or referred as those most likely to benefit and work is created through brainstorming and collaboration to create plays that speak from the heart about what it means to be a teenager. The productions have been seen at the National Theatre, the Royal Albert Hall, on Channel 4 and the BBC.
Now, Company Three presents the first draft of a play with a timely name: The Best Day Ever (A Play about the End of the World), in which Thunberg - or an actor playing her, makes an appearance. Founder and creative director Ned Glasier discusses the work that considers who we are, how we're connected and how to save ourselves for the future.
You work for the long term and you create collaboratively. Tell me more about these processes.
We have an eight or nine year commitment with [each actor] and part of that is about getting to know them trusting them as makers so that they can collaborate, rather than being told where to go and what to do. A lot of projects are made with young people where they are asked to spit their hearts out and then there’s no aftercare. I don’t think either of those things is OK. The process of making the art is therapeutic. Some of the [young people] are very vulnerable; others are not. A lot of things come up. So, while, we very much ask them to draw on themselves, their hopes and fears, we’re very careful to look after them.
A common perception of adolescents is that they are disconnected and self-absorbed.
I’ve run this company for over ten years and the shift in political consciousness in young people in that time [has been] extraordinary, particularly around [issues of] race and gender. Our young people are extraordinarily articulate about gender and gender fluidity and sexuality in a way a lot of adults aren’t. We have loads to learn from their openness and understanding around issues of identity and difference.
Young people are always considered pre-adult.
Yes, we work with 15-years-olds who sometimes say they don’t have any idea of what’s it like to be 15 because they’re constantly being told to be adults. But there’s something extraordinary about being an adolescent. In 2015, we made a play Brainstorm about the fundamental changes in a teenager’s brain. It was created with leading neuroscientists and staged at the National and what we learnt is that teenagers’ brains are structurally different, in ways that make them brilliant. The reason why they’re more open to new ideas is wired into their brains.
We’ve blueprinted that play so that any group of young people can make their own autobiographical version of it. So far, there have been 36 productions of it around the world in the last year and a half. And, for us, it reinforced the idea that we need to listen to teenagers because they’re the only people who know what’s going on for them.
It must be amazing for a teenager to have their thoughts recognised in this way.
It’s hugely validating. Brainstorm was written for adult audiences but we performed a couple of shows for school kids and it was magical watching those young people watching experiences they could relate to happening on stage. One of the best moments was a teenager and parent sitting together in the audience and the teenager going, “There, that’s it. That’s what I’ve been trying to say. Or what I haven’t been saying because I haven’t been able to talk to you.”
What inspiration does Greta Thunberg offer the young people?
Some of them have felt empowered by this quiet girl speaking to adults and calling them out on their bad behaviour. And, for some, she means loads in terms of what she’s saying. And for others, she doesn’t mean very much. but everyone knows who she is … We think about the literal space we make in the theatre - where the adults come and listen to the work - but we also think that, in a very small way, just by existing, we demonstrate that there are benefits to listening to young people. With far bigger impact, that’s what Greta Thunberg does. She’s a living embodiment that young people have something to say.
This is a time of remarkable change and potential. And the creative arts have a huge role to play.
Yes - but, like so many things, so much of the means of production is not in the right hands. It’s a big challenge to make sure the right voices are being resourced. All our kids are artists - and they’re rapping and doing things that aren’t funded which aren’t to the taste of the people in power. People are scared of young people’s creativity, which is why they don’t give them much space to be creative. Schools box them in and there are adults whose main priority is to silence young people and to push them through exams. That’s societal and we need to shift that.
How does climate change appear in the play?
There’s a scene where [the young people] imagine what the end of the world will look like - and it ’s an upbeat musical number, song and dance. The end of the world written as New Year’s Eve … Ultimately, the future journey of this play will be about this generation, frozen in time for a moment and asked to think about who they are and what we’re giving them for the future. These are people who are about to step into adulthood and this is the legacy we’ve left them.