‘In my day there was no apples, no fire, no marshmallows even. We slept on dinosaurs and dipped our toes in volcanoes to keep warm, and we felt lucky!’
Anna Clover talks about how total acceptance of young people's expansive and surreal imaginations freed her up to make her show Going Deutsch. A silly comedy exploring intergenerational trauma, genocide and how the past shapes the future. Coming to CPT 14-15 Oct at 9pm.
A couple of times a year I sit in front of 60ish sheets of A4 and take a deep breath to clear my mind of all preconceptions of what should or shouldn’t go into a story, what kind of characters might exist in the same world and prepare myself to say a great big yes.
Each of these sheets contains an individual young person’s ideas about a play we have been devising with the inclusive theatre company Hackney Shed. Each child, aged from 7-16, has the chance to tell me what they think is key to the story and what they want their character to be like. My job is to pull all of these ideas together into half an hour of joy where each individual can shine whatever their skills, passions or communication styles. And I’ve gotten pretty good at it. I have written an exhaust pipe who thinks its Spiderman, aliens who hate humans because of how they treat mackerel, a medieval weaver who aspires to become a mermaid and another who dreams of being a tree and so many others. The imaginative leaps are unrestrained and the worlds I get to help create are bonkers and silly. But also, so much more than that.
The young people I work with as a community arts facilitator have always included young people experiencing massive challenges. However, since covid came into our lives the impact on all young people’s mental health has been un-ignorable, with week after week children from our youngest to our oldest requiring specific emotional support for experiences that range from general anxiety to feeling suicidal and everything in between. And this is when I got really interested in the concept of metaphorical distance and how storytelling and play helps us explore the most complex aspects of our lives and the scariest emotions we experience. Metaphors help us all conceptualise the most difficult of situations and explore them in a safe way. And when we don’t feel safe on a societal as well as individual level this is more important than ever.
Take the group of 7 and 8 year olds I was working with on zoom in the height of Lockdown One. They had a task to create a story featuring at least two animals. The story they created was about a dog who suddenly became infested with fleas. The dog couldn’t see the fleas, but the fleas were everywhere and the fleas were evil. Other dogs wouldn’t go outside because they were scared of catching the fleas. Eventually the fleas took over the dog and they made him so itchy he scratched himself to death. Ultimately, the dog himself was reincarnated as, twist, a flea. This was a fun play where the children got to jump around their bedrooms, laugh maniacally and drop to the floor, all melodrama! But the parallels with covid were unescapable. The children were exploring the strange and scary new world we were all living in, that felt beyond understanding. The fear of something dangerous that you can’t see. Feeling trapped and isolated from everyone. And, the ultimate terror of death. Talking about all those feelings would be too much for most of us, even as adults, but the children were able to explore it all through dogs and fleas, and to even create a hopeful future through reincarnation. It’s not that I think the kids thought we were all going to become living versions of the giant graphic covid virus we saw on the news day after day, but that by creating that ending they were imagining a future which wouldn’t be the same as the present, a new normal perhaps.
Working with young people has taught me again and again that nothing is too dark or dangerous to explore with a bit of metaphorical distance. Comedy can help us engage, and the results, when it finally hits you what the play is really about, are often extremely moving. With teenagers I have created a show about the fear of deportation through the perspective of fairies living in a divided fairyland. With under 10s the impact of gentrification and rehousing through the lens of a village trying to defend itself from a medieval knight and their fearsome dragons. And with learning disabled young people ,how feeling different can make it hard to find friends, unless of course you can travel across space from planet to planet until you find your people, I mean your extra-terrestrials.
For me personally, finding the metaphor made my show Going Deutsch possible. I had spent years searching for a way to talk about the impact of intergenerational trauma on the descendants of holocaust survivors, but it felt too expansive. And frankly, too grim. Besides ‘it was ages ago’. But Brexit brought the holocaust back into the present day for me, because as I a grandchild of survivors I am entitled to reclaim the nationality stripped of my grandparents 80 plus years ago. This gateway to an EU passport felt like a no brainer, but other members of my family were horrified. ‘How can you even think about going back?’. This is a sentence I heard a lot in my 20s, but not about countries funnily enough. About boyfriends. The one who kept me a secret for a year. The one who bought themself a first-class train ticket but left me in standard. The one who dumped me at the Riga ghetto whilst I was looking for the names of murdered relatives. I could go on.
I realised that Germany had a role in this show I was trying to a make. They were the ex. Reformed, apologetic and seeking forgiveness. In Going Deutsch, you meet Germany, but maybe by another name. We date. Maybe it even goes a little further. They’re sexy. We consider if we could have a future. But I keep being reminded about how they treated me in the past. And through metaphorical distance I get to explore how I still feel the impact of the holocaust in my bones 80 years on. I get to sing and dance, eat sweets and tell genocide jokes. Because the metaphor helps me to comprehend the incomprehensible. I can play about in the world of the naughty highs and desperately disappointing lows of getting back with a charismatic, shitty ex who never really liked me. The metaphor makes it safe to go there, even when going there is considering how incredibly lucky you were to escape with your life first time round.