The script for Smells Like Teen Spirit was developed by high school drama teacher Tess Snape in the 1990s. It has been adapted for the 2018 Fringe production by director Laura Franklin and is supported by Headspace youth mental service.
For the 21st-century production Franklin has kept many of the 90s elements. As well as the title, Smells Like Teen Spirit works with themes that would be familiar to anyone who grew up watching youth dramas like Degrassi Junior High and Beverly Hills, 90210, or who were subject to compulsory high school seminars on subjects like drug use, sex, pregnancy and family breakdown.
The strongest aspect of the production is the relationships between the 19 young people who play high school students being compelled to attend a program for ‘at risk’ teenagers. Sitting or standing, their bodies together often make shapes that imply a kind of defensive nurturing. We see young people being communicative and kind, in spaces they’ve defined for themselves, and we see them working together to find justice, perspective and an autonomous path in life.
“I’m tired of being grateful,” says one young woman, and this feels like a pivotal point in the play. Despite several decades of youth policy, youth services and youth workers in Australia, people of adolescent age are still talked at, talked about and compelled to participate in circumstances over which they have little control, including programs that ostensibly exist to ‘help’ them. This performance could have fallen into that category too — the audience was composed of high school class groups on a week day, and afterwards they were required to listen to information about the mental health service that was a sponsor of the play.
The script of Smells Like Teen Spirit requires each of the ‘troubled teens’ to make some peace with the systems (schooling, foster care, health) that govern their lives and this is acted out by each performer in the final scenes of the play. This is not as affecting as the earlier shows of solidarity and mutual care. This makes one think that maybe if young people’s lives were not so subject to the compulsion of older people and social systems, we would be able to see the natural assets that young people are already using to relate and connect with each other in a complex world.
Smells Like Teen Spirit played Queen’s Theatre at the Lab on March 9.