It’s embarrassing recalling your teenager years, isn’t it? Awkward crushes, cringe-worthy fashion choices and dramatic mood swings; most of us are very happy to leave those years long in the past. The Paper Birds on the other hand have decided to not only create a show for teenagers but one also devised with the help of the thoughts, feelings and questions of teenagers. Feeling that Google lacked the human touch necessary to deal with tricky questions, they reached out to three schools and three youth theatres with the invitation to ask them anything. Ask Me Anything is their answer.
A mishmash of ideas that never fully gels.
With a smart ‘Ticket for a Teen’ fundraising scheme and careful recognition of the need for helplines and support for the young people both involved with and watching the show, it is clear that The Paper Birds have their heart in the right place. Unfortunately, the end result is a mishmash of ideas that never fully gels. The freshness and earnestness of the verbatim text they started with became lost along the way. Instead dialogue that was meant to feel improvised and off-the-cuff between the three leads felt laboured and over-rehearsed. Many of the jokes were laugh out loud funny, but perhaps only for the older audience members who readily shared in the nostalgia fest before them.
It’s certainly a challenge to appeal to a generation often more accustomed to TikTok and YouTube than a night at the theatre. However, framing modern teenage problems through the lens of their own teenage experiences seemed to be a distancing decision, as they spent more time having to explain what life was like in the 90s and 00s than actually addressing the issues the teenagers longed to have answered.
Stand out star is Rosie Doonan, whose incredible and heartfelt original compositions contributed to a gig-style atmosphere and added a real wow factor. She confessed that she wasn’t a trained actor, but this only added to her on-stage appeal, allowing her contribution to feel more natural and less forced.
Including video recordings of friends and family added some much welcomed diversity. Maureen’s reflections on motherhood and Sangeeta’s memories of her son in particular became the emotional heart of the show, confirming how important performances like Ask Me Anything can be if it in any way helps young people to learn how to express themselves or give them the confidence to talk about their feelings. As the teen seated behind me muttered upon leaving: “Wow, that got deep quick.”
However, despite reinforcing the fact that the show “is a conversation”, there was little to no opportunity to allow the mostly teenage audience to have the spotlight on them. Apart from throwing a packet of Space Raiders on stage, there was little audience interaction and teens eager to get picked for the one short on stage experience were mostly overlooked in favour of a proper grown up. Most frustrating was the finale, which sadly missed the ideal opportunity to finally bring some teenagers on stage to have their say in the conversation and create the ‘mayhem’ promised on the poster. Interaction certainly isn’t any kind of silver bullet when it comes to creating an atmosphere of inclusivity, but when attempted it should be done whole heartedly rather than sporadically.
An honourable attempt at a noble cause, Ask Me Anything proudly doesn’t have all the answers, but it also doesn’t have enough of them.