The Theatre Royal Haymarket’s Masterclass brings Cookies, a new work about cyber bullying, to the stage. Daniel Perks catches up with writer Emily Jenkins:

Over the last 20 years, the Masterclass charity, based at the Theatre Royal Haymarket, has been instrumental in inspiring and empowering the next generation of theatre makers. Not only that, it has given young people the opportunity to undertake creative opportunities that they may not otherwise have access to. Cookies, written by Emily Jenkins, is their latest adventure:

Emily: I think the topic is so contemporary, all about technology and the modern, changing world. Set against the Victorian proscenium, red velvet-clad space of the Theatre Royal Haymarket, it’s the old and the new theatrical traditions working together.

We’ve got a fantastic creative team – Anna Ledwich was nominated for an Olivier Award, so she’s pretty great. We’ve got Nina Dunn doing full scale projection on floor and ceiling. It’s gonna be pretty sexy.

Natasha Khamjani & Anna Ledwich (image courtesy of Pamela Raith)

Commissioned and developed by The Cyberscene Project, Cookies is an empowering new play that tackles issues felt all too regularly by young people today – a digital journey that questions the effects and consequences of cyber bullying. Jenkins has created a narrative from a wide variety of experiences, gleaned during an extensive development period working with young people in four London-based, further education colleges:

Emily: So often as a writer, you’re sat on your own coming up with ideas and characters. In this project, I was provided with 120 young people who had experiences and knowledge to share. I sat in on their workshops and got an idea of their voices; I did one on one interviews and a lot of them told their stories about sexting or online cyber bullying.

In many ways, the pressure was in doing them justice, making sure it came from their voice

What makes it even more special is the fact that 25 of the 150 people that we worked with are going to be in the show. It’s very much their show. We also have seven professional actors playing with three interweaving narratives.

Cookies Ensemble (image courtesy of Pamela Raith)

Jenkins clearly has the voices of the young people at the heart of this production, whether it be from their direct involvement in the show, or the trailer that puts their experiences at the heart of the concept

Emily: The younger generation know more about this subject than any other. The girls get requests every day from guys at school, or strangers on the internet, to supply naked photos.

We might think it’s terrible, but for them it’s part of everyday life

Jenkins is conscious not to preach or lecture about this topic – young people are fundamentally sick of being told what to do and how to feel, particularly when it comes to the digital world. This generation faces a torrent of social expectation from all angles; advertisements are even tailored to an individual that tells them how to dress, what to look like, or how to feel. Growing up in the midst of the digital revolutions, today’s youth don’t remember what life was like beforehand.

Emily: It’s a much scarier world to grow up in for young people, particularly with something like cyber bullying. Bullying used to end at the school gates and you’d go home. Now it’s 100% of the time, you’re being attacked on all fronts – in real life, in your cyber life, on apps and social media.

There is no escape

At the same time, you’ve got images pushed into your face 24/7, showing the objectification of women while we’re trying to teach young men to respect them in real life. A lot of the younger people I spoke to wouldn’t tell a grown-up or a teacher because they wouldn’t understand. Hopefully this play can help the older generation understand – that’s more important.

Jessica Lima & Cookies Ensemble (image courtesy of Pamela Raith)

There is a strand of criticism that says such events as cyber bullying are a product of spending too much time being plugged in to a digital world, one which is damaging to your physical and mental health. Bullies simply want attention and if you ignore them, they go away.

Easier said than done, I imagine.

I personally have my phone constantly about my person – it’s never turned off just in case an emergency requires my attention. For a group of people that have grown up around this technology, being unplugged must be like being ostracised:

When was the last time you went “off the grid”, unplugged from technology?

Emily: I cannot remember. I had a day where I had my phone off, but I had my computer on and the TV in the background. The only time is when you’re forced to because you have no signal. But then you keep checking your phone to see if you have signal again. I’m in a generation where that wasn’t the case growing up.

Photo: Lily Allen, Maddy Hill (Emma Miranda), Ted Reilly and Lady Viola Grosvenor

It’s vital that the conversation around Cookies doesn’t end after the performances, which take place on 29 October 2017. Hopefully, ambassadors like Lily Allen and Ted Reilly can help to continue the discussion past the lifetime of this project. So might the use of Emily Jenkins’ text in secondary schools, as a further educational tool in both Drama and PHSE:

Emily: Cookies doesn’t lecture – you have characters that young people can hopefully identify with, going through things that young people already go through. It can be a place where people feel safe enough to discuss these things – that’s really important. It’s as much using this to educate the adults too in what the world is really like. Young people spend too much of their time being talked at. 

I asked one of the young girls whom I interviewed for this production what she wanted this play to be about. She looked at me and said,

“I don’t mind. We just want to be listened to.”

That has really stayed with me.

Creating an educational resource, which shows that young people aren’t currently being listened to, is part of the value of Cookies

This particular area is moving so fast, it’s understandable why we have such a difficult time catching up – particularly with regards to the law or legislation, which have never traditionally been the fastest moving of sectors.

Emily: The internet, as well as the young people growing up with it, are on a completely different timeline to the adults who are having to deal with the legal ramifications. Even in the time I’ve been writing Cookies, the legislation around sexting has changed. A lot of young people were shocked to know that if you’re sending nudes at 16 or 17, legally that’s classed as child pornography. 

That’s without even touching on the emotional, psychological impact of this for the young people.

Emily: Young people’s self-image is so related to the person they present online. That’s the person that they’re trying to be all the time, the one they have control over. If someone else takes control of what image is presented online, what is available to people you haven’t chosen to make yourself available to, your entire identity has been taken over.

Cristal Cole, Leaphia Darko, Bradley Cumberbatch, Anna Ledwich & Rujenne Green (image courtesy of Pamela Raith)

Cookies is a work that brings the next generation of theatre makers directly in contact with current issues that we should all be learning more about, addressing and combating through our work. Blame can easily be placed on the internet itself for fostering this kind of space:

Emily: The internet has got teeth & claws, it bites. It’s terrifying and can be extremely dangerous. But as much as it has the power to isolate and disconnect, it also is the main vehicle for young people now to connect, to find others who understand them, to talk to people in different cultures and to find out about things happening all around the world.

The benefits of the internet in many ways outweigh the negatives, which is why we’re all addicted to it

So, if it’s such an addiction, we need to develop ways of battling it. We need to listen to those affected by this vicious world of cyber bullying and devise ways of stopping it from happening, so that the internet can once again be a place of support, connectivity and enlightenment. Emily Jenkins and Cookies is a piece that contributes to this ongoing conversation.

 

To read more about Cookies, which plays at the Theatre Royal Haymarket on 29 October 2017, follow the company on Twitter (@Masterclasstrh) or visit the website – masterclass.org.uk

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