How To Start A Youthquake?

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How do we start a Youthquake? Good question.

It’s what we asked ourselves and each other last Monday morning. We had arrived at The Garage in Norwich, ready to start the first week of Research and Development (R&D) for Youthquake, Zest’s new show. A show about, inspired by, created for Generation Z – their take on the world, and the ways in which they’re changing everything.

We were excited. We were nervous. There’s nothing quite like starting to write a new show. The possibilities of what you could create are almost endless. At the end of R&D phase, the blank white page you started with is full of stories, all crafted together to make a proper script.

But where do we start?

The term ‘Youthquake’ itself isn’t anything new, the term was first created in 1965 but was Oxford Dictionary’s Word of the Year in 2017. It’s defined as “a significant cultural, political, or social change aspiring from the actions or influence of young people”. In some ways, it’s comforting to know that it’s not a new concept, that young people have a history of embracing the power of their voices and standing up for what they believe in.

It is, however, disheartening to know that Youthquakes continue to be a necessary part of changing society for the better. You would have thought by now, for example, that it wouldn’t be necessary for young people to strike from school, take to the streets and shout for the world to take climate change seriously. You would have thought those with the power to create systemic change would have listened decades ago, when young people first stood up and made their voices heard, their desire for change supported by scientists and experts worldwide.

Unfortunately, just as there is a history of young people standing up and saying enough is enough, there is also a terrible history “grown-ups” not listening. Or partially listening, and acting to appease the young people rather than committing to totally solving the problem. It’s a frustrating history that repeats itself on a regular basis.

It’s hard to start writing a show about the hopes, the fears and the happiness of young people as they embark on taking on the world when it seems like they’re just destined to become jaded adults along with the rest of us.

In the face of this, how did we solve the problem of a blank page? We took a step back from our own insecurities (and Millennial crises about the world) and stopped trying to think on behalf of young people.

We do what Zest always does and ignored the typical assumptions that people below a certain age couldn’t possibly have a proper grasp of what’s going on in the world, or the darkness and complexities of the world they’ll face once they leave school. You know the old saying about what happens when you assume things, after all.

Instead we took our endless supply of big questions and, in a series of workshops in Norwich and Lincoln Drill Hall, we asked the young people what they thought directly. Alongside their fears of robots and for some an intense hatred of sparkling water, they pretty much hit the nail on the head in terms of the show we are trying to create. They are hopeful and cynical and naïve and tuned in all at the same time. They have the unique habit of saying the most profound things while convincing themselves that they aren’t making sense, or realising all of a sudden that they have something very specific and bold to offer the world in terms of thought process.

If you genuinely want to know how a young person sees the world, ask them. Young people aren’t unfathomable, ineloquent phone addicts. Chances are, if you don’t already know what they’re thinking, it’s because they’re concerned about being misunderstood, judged, or hurting your feelings – not because they have nothing to say. They’re too used to being interrupted, talked over, ignored.

If they stumble when they tell you what they think, it’s because they haven’t had the opportunity to reason all their thoughts out loud and find the right words for them. Resist the ingrained urge to correct them if they mispronounce something, or if they’ve abandoned grammar in favour of getting to the point. Take a deep breath, throw your ego out the window, and get listening.

Don’t assume you know what they’re going to say, how they’re going to say it or their reasons why. Instead ask them to be themselves, to speak without worrying whether or not they’re right or wrong, or sound intelligent, or if what they’re saying will help them do better on their GCSEs.

Young people might not have all the answers, but let’s face it, neither do adults. What they do have is resilience, a dark sense of humour, and an open-minded attitude towards changing the world. And if we took a moment to get out of their way, and support them, they might just do it.

How do we start a Youthquake? It turns out we don’t. The Youthquake has already started.

Youthquake is a Zest Theatre production currently in the Research and Development stage. It will tour nationally from Autumn 2019.

Commissioned by Tees Valley Combined Authority, The Civic and Lincoln Drill Hall.

Supported through public money from the National Lottery through Arts Council England, together with Garfield Weston Foundation, Sylvia Waddilove Foundation and Lost Village Festival.

Developed with the support of ARC, Centre for Excellence in Creative Arts, Gulbenkian, The Egg, The Garage and Stratford Circus.


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Jenny Daniels is a Liverpool raised theatre maker and recent graduate of Mount Holyoke College, Massachusetts. Jenny’s previous work for Zest includes Assistant Directing What Once For Ours and Lost Village Festival. She is currently Assistant Director for the R&D of Zest Theatre's Youthquake.