What promises to be Malthouse Theatre’s most talked about show in 2016, Gonzo,  is about teenagers and porn. A coupling, that on the surface might be easily misinterpreted, but sits, in fact, on a far more vital arena of social and personal journeys shared by anonymous young men about their experiences with and their relationship to internet porn.

This fascinating, potent and relevant premise is a co-production with St Martins Youth Arts Centre. Director Clare Watson discusses her involvement with the project, its genesis and its importance:

I have worked with teenagers as a teacher and theatre director for 20 years and I’ve always been interested in what interests them: culturally, politically and aesthetically. In my first two years at St Martins the voices and ideas of young women were featured in two major works. I saw the second one hit looked at the world since September 11 through the eyes of female identical twins, born the day the towers fell, it considered the culture of fear that they had been brought up in, catalyzed by the catastrophic event of that day. We also worked with Fraught Outfit to bring Melbourne Festival audiences, The Bacchae, a reframing of Euripides’ text through the lens of teenage girls growing up in a pornified world. After these two works, it was clearly time to hear from the boys. The confluence of contemporary fear tropes and a highly sexualized media of our previous works made the path of investigation clear. The moral panic about our boys being ruined by porn seemed like an important idea to mine. At St Martins we believe that adults have a lot to answer for and children ask the best questions. Boys and porn is a topic that has a lot of people talking – teachers, parents, psychologists – but we haven’t yet heard from the boys. This project began with no thesis, no judgement, simply an eagerness to listen.

 Gonzo was first conceived a bit over a year ago after a conversation about generational fear. I was talking to some friends about what the kids of the 70s/80s had been brought up to fear and thought about the impact of those grim reaper AIDS commercials and the ubiquitous orange Safety House signs that adorned every suburb. As children we had learned that strangers definitely wanted to abduct us and if we had sex we’d certainly die. As our generation becomes parents of teenagers ourselves, we wondered, what will manifest in our parenting from those early fears? These cultural fears shift form generation to generation, once it was rock and roll and now the monster lurking to destroy our children seems to be pornography.

 I knew that I wanted to talk to young men about their thoughts, which proved fascinatingly and frustratingly difficult. No longer working in a school myself, I couldn’t talk to boys without written parental permission… but the forms would go home and never return. The boys didn’t want to acknowledge to their parents and guardians that they were consuming pornography, even though statistically they’d most likely seen it by the age of 11. Schools were cautious and teachers weren’t even able to share the link to an online survey with their students. The stigma and taboo driving this silence has made this one of the most challenging shows to research and create that I’ve, personally, encountered, but that certainly made me more determined. It made it clear to the team making Gonzo that this conversation was long overdue.

 There hasn’t been too much shock and surprise as a result of the interview content, which in itself is perhaps surprising. Having said that, I’m pretty unshockable. Our teenage interviewees have been open, eloquent and witty… so there has been plenty of amusement along the way. The ideas that have kept emerging from our research are that boys are highly media literate and absolutely understand that porn is fiction. It is a form of entertainment for them that is consumed regularly (1-4 times per week) and isn’t given much thought beyond those moments. They recognize that much of what porn is criticized for is true of more mainstream media, music videos and Game of Thrones have come up repeatedly. They seek out content that is ‘in their zone’ which they describe as being ‘relatable’. All interviewees first encountered online pornography when they were in primary school and usually at school on a device with peers.

 In verbatim work there are considerations about how the actors are perceived, reputationally, particularly with such sensitive material. We’ve made it very clear that the teenage boys on stage are actors and the script content about pornography has been sourced from outside the rehearsal room from a number of anonymous interviewees.

 In terms of ‘getting it right’, the main concern was to make sure the opinions of these young men are fairly and clearly represented. There is obviously the potential for a show about porn and teenagers to be highly provocative but the form and tone of the work is quite deliberately calm, even low key, because this is precisely what we encountered in our research.

  I’d say there’s not a lot of theatre experiences which make you think about your sexuality being as idiosyncratic as a snowflake and gently ask you to consider your agency, rites and responsibilities as sexual citizens. I think that’s pretty enticing.

 Gonzo

September 21 – October 1

www.malthousetheatre.com.au

 

 

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