By BRUCE DENNILL
TechNO / Directed by Sharon Spiegel-Wagner / Crawford Sandton, Johannesburg
One of the most consistent arguments in favour of introducing young audiences to the arts is the educational value of everything from music and painting to dance and theatre. The school production, long a tradition for reasons other than artistic ones – they’re useful as fundraisers and in providing platforms to develop some sort of community among the learners and their families – is increasingly being used as a way to teach both those involved and their audiences.
Some of those lessons are practical: that a great deal of focus and disciplined is involved in completing a task to a high standard, for instance; or that there are a great many potential jobs involved in the putting together of a stage production, and youngsters who previously believed that they might have to apply for positions they felt little or no passion for are able to imagine careers in new industries.
Other lessons are conceptual. It’s possible, with an intelligent script, to use metaphor, allegory, or direct but imaginative storytelling to impart to both cast and crowd perspectives that might be presented (in less compelling ways) in class- or boardrooms but which are taken for granted at best and ignored at worst, simply because they’re messages or morals that have lost meaning through over-use.
An excellent way to get around the likelihood of more clichés being trotted out is to take a risk on new, original work, but such a script needs to be on point both in terms of significance and quality for that not to end in a well-meaning morass. And at school level, being able to source something like that is a huge bonus.
TechNO, the 2019 Crawford Sandton stage production, is an examination of the well-documented issue of screen time and its often negative effects on users of cellphones, tablets, laptops, TVs and other technology that has us interacting with machines rather than the people in our lives. Its not something that school-going kids necessarily want to hear about the dangers of – their phones and what they do on those phones (social media, in particular) often defines the way they are seen by their peers and as a result has a notable effect on their self-image. Take those tools away without easing the youngsters out of their habits, and temporary confusion is the best possible outcome. The worst result could be crippling insecurity or loneliness and anxiety brought on by the perceived disconnection from their entire community.
The plot develops this theme. A television producer and her team of eager (or deluded) sycophants realise they need something fresh to entice new viewers so they can achieve higher ratings. They settle on a reality show in which screen-addicted families will compete against each other, with the collective who manage the longest being declared the winners.
That’s simple enough, and would have in itself been a solid enough offering for a play in a school that does not specifically focus on drama. But playwright Sharon Spiegel-Wagner has added several layers to her script, and in doing so manages to tackle a host of other issues that, as every parent and teacher will know, regularly confront contemporary schoolchildren.
The families in the script are, with a single exception, not traditional nuclear families, as those – for better or worse – are few and far between nowadays. There is one family with two moms and a live-in nanny; two mixed-race families (with markedly different back-stories); and a single dad left to cope with his two kids after his wife chooses her career over her brood. All of these varied units have their own challenges – some more serious than others – in terms of being distracted by their phones or other screens, with the result that it’s unlikely that anyone in the sizable audience could not find a situation to directly relate to.
Cleverly, the host of the imagined reality show is YouTube star Suzelle DIY – an online success story, but someone you’d only be aware of if you spent considerable time watching YouTube videos.
As this main thread plays out, imaginative subplots add depth and colour, with a support group for stressed phone operating systems underlining the high intensity of a life lived digitally, in which both humans and machines are almost always switched on.
Throughout the piece, carefully chosen musical interludes – many of the songs are older classics, but the lyrics mirror what is going on in the situations the play explore – help deliver further insight into the theme while also giving all the members of the large cast a chance to shine as singers or dancers (a necessity in an industry in which not being a triple-threat will see you knocked down a casting agent’s list).
And there is still more complexity in the density, rhythm and pacing of Spiegel-Wagner’s dialogue, which initially feels as though it should be too multifaceted for amateurs, and potentially nervous teens at that. But if there are nerves onstage, they’re never obvious, and throughout a full-length – nearly an hour and a half – production, nobody misses a major mark, which confirms the quality of the direction (also by Spiegel-Wagner). These are well-drilled, meticulous young performers, and their confidence in and understanding of their material means that the story and its maxims come across clearly and effectively to the audience.
When buying a ticket for a professional production in a theatre, the expectation is of a level of intricacy and thoughtfulness (and perhaps humour or action, depending on the genre) that will challenge and entertain you as an audience member. In a school production, when rehearsals have had to be fitted in between homework and other extra-murals, it’s reasonable to assume that a solid, sincere effort is good enough for all concerned. Taking risks and asking inexperienced practitioners to invest in something far more substantial isn’t strictly necessary. But when it works – and TechNO does, superbly – everyone benefits. The cast and their backstage colleagues will have learned a lot, about life as much as theatre, and audiences cannot fail to be challenged by the obvious references to their own behaviours as reflected onstage.
A rich, celebratory way to learn.