This is Our Island

“You won’t find the boys for that”.

This is the response I hear time and time again when I tell a friend or colleague about my latest theatrical venture.

Like all Drama teachers, I am a glutton for punishment and so I spend much of time outside of school as an actor or director for local theatres. I’ve been involved with theatres, both amateur and professional, for most of my adult life and although it is almost always a stressful undertaking, I doubt I’ll ever stop.

Ever the teacher, I often choose projects that involve teenagers to some extent. I enjoy working with young people in theatre because they have not yet developed the unfaltering egotism of the adults that dominate community theatre circles – you know the ones.

But whenever I explain my latest project to someone or even pitch it to a producer, I’m always met with this same consternation. You won’t find the boys for that.

We seem to be locked into the idea that boys don’t want to do theatre. The result of this idea is that theatre-makers, particularly those in semi-professional or amateur circles, avoid productions that rely on boys. This is, to dust off an old cliché, a vicious cycle. With limited opportunities to actually do theatre, of course, boys lose interest.
In late 2017, I was approached by the Artistic Director of the Beenleigh Theatre Group to direct a show to open the theatre’s 2018 season. She provided me with some of the options she was considering, all of which were fantastic stage adaptations of classic literary works – my self-proclaimed specialty.

“These are all great options,” I said, cautiously, “but there’s one particular show I’ve always wanted to do.”

“Name it,” she said with enthusiasm and just a spattering of trepidation.

“Lord of the Flies.”

She stared at me for a time, and I wondered if she would say those seven words, I have become so accustomed to hearing. She didn’t (though I’d go on to hear them many times from many others throughout the production process). Instead, she said, “let’s do it.”

The play, adapted by Nigel Williams from the seminal work by Nobel laureate Sir William Golding, requires a cast of twelve males, only one of whom is an adult. I set out to find my eleven young men immediately. I contacted every drama teacher I knew in the region to recruit my auditionees. While some of my interschool colleagues were delighted that their boys may have an opportunity to stretch their theatrical wings, there were many who provided that response I know so well: You won’t find the boys for that.

I wanted to succeed with this project because to me it meant creating a space where boys could explore their interest in performing without the stigma or labels that they so often encounter when they dare to step across that line that hegemonic masculinity has so firmly drawn. I wanted a place where boys felt free to break the rules of their social taxonomies. This is the problem with the boys don’t want to do theatre discourse. Young men hear it so often it becomes an unwavering part of who they are. Even some the keenest boys find themselves hesitating because of these ingrained social expectations. None of those teachers were doing their students any favors by giving me that response.

Audition day came and, lo and behold, I had auditionees. Far more than I required, in fact. To test my theory, I included a question on the audition form, under the common ‘name’, ‘age’, ‘height’, etc: Why are you interested in being a part of this project?

The responses were varied. Some said they loved the original book are were keen to be a part of its adaptation, others said they just wanted more theatre experience. But the one that spoke to me the most simply said ‘boys’ group’.

I asked this young man, who would go on to play the pivotal role of Simon with a sensitivity and maturity that far exceeded my expectations, exactly what he meant by that. “I’ve never acted with another boy before. Every other student in my drama class is a girl”.

Simon’s (not his real name) response reinforced to me why this project was worthwhile. He was, and remains, a strong-willed and determined young man, willing to embrace his own identity regardless of what others may think of him. But Simon is an exception, not the rule. Many, many teenage boys would prefer to give up what they enjoy than be the only boy actively enjoying it. There is a pack mentality that surrounds boys in schools across the country, and they are taught from an early age that sticking to this pack is paramount to their survival. Seeing one’s interest embraced by ten of his male peers may be the only rope that holds a teenager back from falling over that precipice of social normality.

Hegemonic masculinity is a term given to one particular way of ‘being a man’. It’s what some may describe as typical, or even toxic. It is that stoic, unfeeling, strong ideal that the concept of manhood traditionally connotes. It is the form of masculinity that deters boys from interests like theatre. Or dance. Or fashion. Or poetry. It works because society has allowed it to work. This type of masculinity is what we reinforce when we tell very young boys not to cry. When we tell very young boys that certain interests are off-limits. When we say, “you won’t find the boys for that”.

What saddens me, though, is that in reality only 5% of men naturally embody this form of masculinity, but 85% of men admit to changing this about themselves in order to appear to embody this form of masculinity. That’s 85% of the boys we teach, coach and parent. 85% of the men in our lives want to change who they are, abandon parts of their own identity, just to be like one-fortieth of the population.

Lord of the Flies examines this quandary too. Jack, the antagonist of the novel and play, holds rather traditional views. He believes he should be the leader because he is powerful, fearless and strong; in other words, a perfect embodiment of hegemonic masculinity. His rival, Ralph, is kinder, more sensitive, and values fairness and rationality far more than Jack does. But when pressed by Jack, he becomes less willing to adhere to these values because he is concerned with what Jack and the others may think of him. Unfortunately, Ralph is part of that 85%.

The young man who played Simon was not part of that 85%. He was the only boy in his drama class, and he stayed there. But how many more might have been a part of that class if they felt they could?

Our production of Lord of the Flies was very successful, monetarily. But far more rewarding for me was seeing a group of young men form a familial bond that looked to me like a weight had been lifted from the shoulders of so many of them. It is easy to forget how challenging it can be for young people to break from social norms and exploring their masculinity in a way that diverges from the hegemonic hierarchy will always be a challenge for teenage boys.

What I learned from this production is that though boys might like to give us the impression that they don’t want to do theatre, that they don’t want to play out their emotions, that they don’t want to explore their identity through drama, most really do… upwards of 85%, in fact.

So if I may deign to offer advice, it’s this: don’t shy away from projects and productions that hinge on boys. Too often these are dismissed by Drama departments, educators and practitioners as soon as they see read the dramatis personae. But the boys are out there.

They need this.

You will find the boys for that.

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This post previously published in Linkedin and is republished with the permission of the author.

Photo courtesy iStock Photo.

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