Ask Me Anything: two plays in one

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The Paper Birds pull off a huge challenge with a play that says two different things to two different audiences. But as a vehicle for change, there’s one more thing they could do.

If there’s one thing you cannot fault The Paper Birds for, it’s ambition. Anyone who saw Mobile can vouch for this. I gone on long enough about how brilliantly this was staged – a small site-specific piece in a caravan, with talking clock radios and microwaves, moving views out the windows, astral projections as so on – but I’ve not really talked about how difficult it is to pull something like this off. There’s a lot more to this than technical know-how: you need a vision, the ability to guess if an audience will buy into this vision, and – the hardest one seeing as there’s no knowing what an audience will make of it – the audacity to attempt this in the first place. But, that achievement under their belt, where do you from there? In terms of technical ambition, I don’t see how you could top Mobile. And when you’re scaling up to a bigger audience in a co-production with Live Theatre, an intimate performance in something caravan-sized isn’t an option either. And yet their follow-up, Ask Me Anything, is just as ambitious as Mobile, but in a different way.

Apart from their innovative staging, the other thing that The Paper Birds are noted for is their verbatim theatre. This time round, they did something similar, and based the entire show around asking teenagers to write in and ask them anything. Some of them asked for factual information (answered in a song at the beginning going into the joy of tax returns), some asked for some more personal questions, and some questions were tough to answer. Whether The Paper Birds realised it or not, they set themselves a real challenge, because this is, in effect, two different plays being told at the same time. To a regular theatre audience, this is an interesting measure of how teenage life has – or hasn’t – change since we were that age. But to teenagers themselves, it’s going to be a guide as to what to expect in the years ahead – a kind of theatrical version of the personal pages of Mizz or Just Seventeen.

That’s not just my analysis, by the way – The Paper Birds themselves were keen to go beyond the usual Live Theatre audience and ran a “ticket for a teen” campaign. Not sure how many tickets came from the campaign itself, but judging from the age of the audience, it seems they did well appealing to this target audience. As a result, it’s next to impossible for one person to review everything this play is supposed to achieve. As usual, I can say what I think from my perspective, but the verdict of teenagers is just as important here.

However, if you read here you’re going to have to put up with someone whose teenage years were about as far removed from life in Skins as can be and gives a middle-aged “harrumph”. As far as a comparison between teenage life then and now goes, it’s very relatable. When you think about it, there are some things that have changed a lot in a short amount of time. Calls to prospective boyfriends/girlfriends once involved the awkward ritual of phoning their house and asking their mum/dad for them, whilst everyone listened in. Magazines like Mizz used to be the only places to read about what to expect from life prior to the internet. But whilst the internet, in theory, offers you information on anything you can imagine, a web page can’t understand you or relate to you. And that is where things haven’t changed much. The cast of three (officially cast of two plus one musician, but their roles are so interchangeable in practice it’s an ensemble of thee actor/musicians) answer many of the questions by relating to their own experiences, a lot of the audience relating to this as well. Where it’s not something they relate to, they – quite sensibly – sometimes use a video from someone else, such as what to expect if you’re mixed race, or both gay and black and worried you might not fit in anywhere. Relating to something isn’t the same as looking up factual information online, but relating to this provides something a web page doesn’t.

But how do you follow up the technical innovation of Mobile? An easy mistake would have been to show off, trying to do the last play with even flashier effects – that would only have distracted from what the play’s supposed to do. It’s still a technical-heavy play, with screens all over the place, sometimes taking the form of a mobile phone screen, sometimes filming the episodes of teenage life as a garish 90s sitcom – but in the bulk of the play, the technical effects still play a nice decorative effect without being obtrusive. The play was billed as “immersive” and set in a teenager’s bedroom; this isn’t the same level of “immersive” as, say, The Great Gatsby, and it’s more an optional novelty of sitting on cushions instead of a theatre seat, but it’s a nice novelty. This might not top the effect created with Mobile – and it’s hard to see what could – but this still brings The Paper Birds’ distinctive style to a new piece.

There’s just one thing that felt missing. As I said, I can’t speak on behalf of teenagers here, but if it was me, I imagine one thing I’d like to see was answers to questions that people like me had asked. Having started off doing this so well, with this mixture of their own answers and videos of other people, so many pertinent questions went … unanswered. I realise the message at the end of the play they were meant to realise they should instead be asking questions the other way round, but even so, if I’d related to a question about whether it’s normal to have crippling periods of depression, I’d have liked an answer.

So here’s my suggestion for what to do next: finish the job you started. It is probably impractical to answer every question asked, even if the play was extended to two hours. Instead, I propose to have a companion web page with the answers. Some serious questions – such as some of the difficult questions at the end – might need an answer from a professional. But most of the time, I’d say carry on with the format that works so well: advice mixed with the personal where Kylie, Georgie or Rosie have something to say, answer from others – maybe done as online videos – where someone else is best placed to answer.

So much has been made of the idea of theatre for social change. Often this means politically-charged plays that sadly achieve little more than entrenching the views of people already won over. Ask Me Anything, on the other hand, is actually in an strong position to make a difference for the better. But it stands to achieve the most off the stage. This pulls off the tricky task of a play that forms two very experiences to two different audiences – now someone give The Paper Birds what they need to go the extra mile.

Ask Me Anything continues its run at the Vault Festival until the 16th February.