'We've got braver': The Act, a show about love and sex created by teenagers

Company Three devised a play to examine intimacy, relationships and social pressure for young people, from their own point of view

Putting teenage life on stage can be tricky, particularly when it comes to love, relationships and – deep breath – sex. By and large, theatre about young people is written, directed and even performed by those whose teen years are long behind them. Not so with The Act. Created by the award-winning Company Three, formally known as Islington Community Theatre, the play is performed and was devised by a group of 17- to 19-year-olds, alongside director James Blakey.

Although it’s a play taglined “A show about teenage love”, 32-year-old Blakey uses the L-word (and the S-word) rarely. He says there was “an initial nervousness of talking about sex. That’s a journey that we’ve gone on. We’re much more explicit than we were in the first version, which was much milder by comparison. We’ve got braver.”

The “act” in question refers to three ideas: young people acting (and discussing acting) on stage, the pressure to “act out” intimacy rather than live it, and the act of sex itself. According to Blakey, the show makes you think “about the formative moments that you weren’t really aware were formative at the time, and how that continues to inform how you think about love and intimacy now”.

KJ Gomez-Danso, Kiki Bowen and Yaamin Chowdhury in The Act.
KJ Gomez-Danso, Kiki Bowen and Yaamin Chowdhury in The Act. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

The company’s mission, he says, is to create a space for young people to speak to adults. “A big hope of the show is that the adults who see it think they could have a conversation with the young people in their lives that feels awkward – and be OK with that.” The 10 young cast members have got used to feeling awkward. “I remember hearing about the topic, and I was like ‘how are we gonna do that?’” says Kiki Bowen, a 19-year-old who has been part of Company Three since she was in primary school. “But everyone has opened themselves up now. Before, even just to spread my arms open, I felt so vulnerable. But now, going on stage? I enjoy feeling vulnerable.”

When I ask Kiki about whether there were any embarrassing moments making the show, her mother Sonia, sitting next to her, jumps in. “Telling me! Saying you’re doing a … sex play!” They laugh. Despite always loving drama and giving her kids ‘the talk’ about sex and relationships (“I’ve always wanted them to be prepared”), Sonia admits the play’s sensitive subject matter took some getting used to. “I was shocked. I was! Then I thought to myself, why am I shocked? She’s growing up. She’s age appropriate. I thought, I really shouldn’t feel embarrassed and I shouldn’t make her feel embarrassed.”

Admitting she only told her mum about the play a few weeks before its initial scratch performance last summer, it’s clear for Kiki the piece has sparked the inter-generational conversations about sex and relationships it hoped for, but much closer to home. Sonia says it made her see her daughter in a new, grown-up light. As for Kiki: “I’m understanding a lot more about being a woman from being in The Act … We’re allowed to be vocal, we’re allowed to be like, ‘this is what I think’.”

Kiki Bowen and Tyrel Phan in The Act.
‘Now I enjoy feeling vulnerable’ … Kiki Bowen, right, with Tyrel Phan in The Act. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

Together, the cast members are playful, energetic, and clearly get along well. In the future, they mostly want to be professional actors, and they are well on their way; some have already performed at the National theatre as part of Company Three’s 2016 play Brainstorm. Others are applying for drama school (or already have places).

Creating a show that discusses sex with a teen cast has required some imaginative direction. “At first we explicitly looked at symbol and metaphor, and how we could use that to keep us safe,” Blakey says. However as time has gone on, there has been one major pressure: time. “They have college, exams … it’s difficult. [But] there are also real benefits in that, because you get to go and come back. It feels right that it’s taken us a couple of years to get to this point. They’ve built a level of trust and bravery that means this is in some ways the riskiest, but also the safest [production], because they’ve built this relationship with each other.”

Contributor

Bridget Minamore

The GuardianTramp

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