|by Liz Henry/CC BY-ND 2.0 (adapted)|
When my first child was just born and I had blistered nipples, regurgitated milk in my hair and sleep-deprivation so bad that I couldn’t sit upright without my head banging against the wall, older ladies liked to offer me these words of ‘comfort’:
"If you think this is bad, wait till he’s a teenager."
15 years later, he is a teenager, and I ask myself: Were they right? Is it worse?
Yes. Without a doubt. Because it isn’t just a difficult few months. It’s a difficult few years. Angst and aggro all the way. A shower, a good night’s sleep and a tube of camomile ointment isn’t going to fix this one.
So when I saw the poster for the play Brainstorm, my head snapped round. It suggested I shouldn’t be trying to fix it: The teenage brain isn't broken, it said. It's beautiful.
Really? I booked tickets immediately for me and The Teenager.
All I can say now is, if you have a teenager you’re despairing of – or one you’re not despairing of – and you’re in reach of London, shovel them and whatever gadgetry they’re connected to out of bed, and go. It was one of the – or possibly THE – most powerful, raw, honest, brave, engaging, intimate, clever, moving, funny and yes, perspective-shifting pieces of theatre I have ever seen.
It was created with a leading neuroscientist and explains the physiology and effects of the changes that happen inside the brain in the teenage years – as MRI scans have now shown us. But this play is no dry science lecture. Far from it.
The set is simple: A teenager’s bedroom. The cast is ordinary (yet extraordinary): 10 teenagers from the local community, age 13-17 – from the boy whose parents took the door off his bedroom so he couldn’t shut them out anymore to the one who is Head Girl of her school. The content is 100% autobiographical: utterly honest truths and snippets and stories and insights into their lives: messy bedrooms, annoying parents, swearing, shopflifting, puberty … Nothing is taboo. All delivered with energy, confidence and a very, very clever use of technology.
I was a wet, salty mess by the end of it. Watching them do impressions of their mum or dad had tears of laughter streaming down my face. Watching them holding up pieces of paper with sentences on that they’d like say to their parents – IF their parents didn’t interrupt, judge, criticize, advise – had me holding back sobs.
Those teenagers are great, I came away thinking. Teenagers are great. My teenager is great. I needed to stop treating him as an adult that didn’t ‘work’ properly. I understood now that the chaos, the caveman communication and the boundary breaking was all meant to be. Had a purpose even. And the best thing I could do was BACK OFF.
As we left the theatre, I turned to my son. “What did you think?” I asked. “Yeah, z’alright,” he mumbled, and put his headphones on.
So I backed off. And waited. Until he had a full belly and an agreement that he could stay out till 11.30 that night and I’d lend him a fiver. Then he was suddenly very chatty. This is what HE had to say about Brainstorm:
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I wasn’t looking forward to it that much. You don’t really expect it to be that good when it’s a production by kids. The scientific thing didn’t sound very appealing either – I didn’t know how they could make a good story out of that. And I don’t particularly like intimate theatres. I felt a bit exposed.
The set was pretty basic but you could instantly see it was meant to be a teenager’s room: bed, wardrobe, speakers. I thought it was well done the way it was set up with a little iPod speaker with music playing through it rather than using the theatre’s sound system. The mess in the bedroom was used as a symbol of the mess in our brains.
They were really good actors – and not all of them were kids you’d expect to be in a theatre group. I was surprised how honest they were. Like the bit where they were each connected to a bedside lamp and turned it on for ‘Yes’ and off for ‘No’ to respond to statements like, I lied to my parents today, I nick stuff from shops, I think I’m good-looking, I think I’m clever, I’m in love ...
If I was feeling exposed sat in the audience, being on the other side would be a hundred times worse. It took balls to do stand on the stage and do what they did, and on top of that engage with the audience.
Noah was my favourite. He was so enthusiastic. It felt as though what he was saying was spontaneous, not scripted. I really laughed at his impression of his mum: “I like cooking, and I ALWAYS know when Noah’s lying …”
The bits of paper thing was a very effective idea – there’s obviously stuff you don’t tell your parents. And the way they used technology – like when they were all on their phones, the group chat, and we could see what they were saying up on a big screen. (I was wondering what app they used to do that …) When they carried on texting after the play had finished, that was quite powerful, the things they were saying.
The science stuff was like a keynote. They wanted to educate people that teenagers can’t help being ‘bad’, that there’s science behind it. The prefrontal cortex is growing all these things and the limbic system is making you want to take risks and the bit that tells you to make sensible decisions has gone all quiet. I can relate to all of that. It’s like you get adrenaline out of taking risks. And it’s not like you WANT to be chaotic. You try and be organized, but it doesn’t really work.
I think the parents are the bigger problem. It’s fire with fire. They’re used to having a kid that does what they say. And then they get a kid that doesn’t do what they say any more – like a chicken that starts challenging the pecking order. They expect us to reach the same standards as them. You should only tell us to do the things that really matter. Like, I don’t care if my room’s tidy or not – I could probably sleep in a wet sandpit .
Parents SHOULD think of the biology. If we can’t help how we are, if it’s the same for every teenager in world, it should be general knowledge. I was thinking that teachers should see this play, but it wouldn’t make any difference. They’re not ready to engage emotionally with kids. They've just got a job to do.
People think you don’t need to be nice to teenagers. We can’t go into shops without getting followed around by security guards. Cars don’t stop to let us cross the road. It’s like you have to get through these years until you’re promoted to an adult and then people will be courteous to you again. [His phone buzzes.] Can I have that fiver? Jack’s waiting for me …
BRAINSTORM is showing again on 21st-25th July 2015 at the National Theatre. Tickets on sale here.