Once we reach adulthood our concept of teen culture tends to oscillate between “High School Musical” and “Rebel Without a Cause.” In most cases, our idea of youth theater is similarly narrow. That allows our preconceptions to be delightfully challenged by 13 teenagers presenting a complex vision of adolescence while demonstrating the thrilling creative possibilities of theater by young performers. An overnight sensation on the Edinburgh Fringe, “Once and for All We’re Gonna Tell You Who We Are So Shut Up and Listen” heads to London in October and is being courted by producers from Los Angeles to Dublin. Anyone who sees it will never look at street-corner gangs the same way again.
Created by helmer Alexander Devriendt of Belgium’s Ontroerend Goed, working in collaboration with Ghent youth theater Kopergietery, the show is the product of a lengthy program of workshops involving the performers, whose ages range from 14 to 18.
Devriendt aimed to capture the wild energy of adolescence, to present it not as a threat or problem but as a life force to be relished and enjoyed. This he achieves with contagious force in a brilliantly structured hour of theater that plays to the young cast’s capabilities, allowing them to meet an adult aud on their own terms.
It starts in apparent chaos. Even before the house lights have dimmed, a chorus of offstage jeering and chanting suggests we are in the company of a lawless mob. The impression is reinforced as the 13 performers take to the stage, crowding onto a row of hard-worn school chairs at the back of an empty space before fidgeting, fighting and fooling around in ways only teenagers can.
Two girls fall off their chairs and explode in a fit of giggles. Two boys flick each other with deflated balloons. Gaining confidence, they move into the space, variously playing, wrestling, kissing, chalking, skating, applying makeup to someone in the front row and generally enjoying themselves with a boisterous lack of restraint.
It’s worth detailing this opening salvo because it precedes something remarkable. An alarm bell sounds, and the youngsters clear up after themselves and leave the stage. When they return, it is to repeat their actions in precise detail. What appeared to be a scene of random playfulness — anarchic and spontaneous — proves to be nothing of the kind. Suddenly we must view the teenagers not as loutish miscreants but as highly disciplined performers entirely in control of their actions.
Thus the pattern is set for the rest of the extraordinary performance. Each successive scene is a reinterpretation of the first, throwing new light on the same basic idea in the way an artist might reproduce a single image in pencil, paint, print and photography.
They perform it as a classical ballet, as an actorless piece of object theater and as a drug-induced fantasia. They show themselves as sweet and loving, wild and violent, passionate and sexual. They are variously childish, mature, chilled out and ebullient.
In short, they are rich and complex human beings — exactly as we were ourselves at that age — and their abundance of energy, their need to take risks and their wild physicality are not things to be feared but celebrated. It’s a radical idea expressed in the simplest terms, making for not just an infectiously enjoyable show but one that affects our view of every teenager we meet from now on.