I follow 16 teenagers through the center of Brisbane, joining a caravan of gangly bodies, braces, and broken voices. I am tagging along on a practice run of Nightwalks with Teenagers, a production at this year’s Brisbane festival. In three days, they will open to a sold out season. I was warned before my arrival: you’re a participant, not a spectator. Expect to get awkward.
It’s an intentional contradiction: a show for adults, conceived and led by local teenagers. A journey on foot through a city at night. An exploratory social art experiment, in which the youth let us experience the streets through their eyes.
As they walk, the teens suck on juice boxes and record BeReals, most of them still strangers. They are a mix of class clowns, savants and outcasts, brought together briefly to make a piece of theater – except their rehearsal room and stage is Queen Street Mall in peak hour.
Born of acclaimed Canadian social art company Mammalian Diving Reflex, Nightwalks with Teenagers is a darling festival that has been touring internationally for over a decade, with Brisbane being the second Australian city to host it, after Hobart. Brisbane is not particularly known for being experimentally inclined, but that’s exactly why we need it.
A large portable speaker plays the Macarena as we walk. I hear shrieks of laughter from two 13-year-old girls, twins in pixie mischief; they have been secretly pressing dinosaur stickers on to everyone’s clothes. I fall into step with a trans boy walking alone. He’s hunched, eyes down. As we cross into Southbank, I ask if he’s spent much time there. “When you don’t have any friends, it feels a bit weird to go out on your own,” he says.
We stop in unassuming, shadowed places. The teens play games. They climb, run, laugh. Some adults may expect volatility and insolence from teenagers, perhaps based on our own memories of adolescence. These teens are hawk-eyed and opinionated, but ultimately they are kids. When given all the freedom and creative agency imaginable, all they want to do is play.
“Telling stories is how the world makes sense to me,” one drily comedic girl explains. “But I’m not allowed to go into the arts – classic Asian mum. I’m just trying to do heaps now, before I graduate and do forensics.”
We keep walking. The pixies fall headfirst into a bush and stumble out with some kind of poisonous cucumber they try to make everyone else eat.
The teens flock to the Rainbow Stairs – a favourite, as many of them identify as LGBTQ+. An Iranian girl, who only emigrated two years ago, listens with gaping admiration to celebratory conversations about marriage rights and marches. “In my country, being gay is still considered a mental illness,” she says. The others listen back, agog, as she explains the polygenic marital dynamics in her Islamic family: “Do you want me to draw you a family tree?”
The four in the group are essentially dramaturgical guidance officers, adults from their various homes around the world to facilitate Nightwalks on behalf of its creator, Darren O’Donn. They are gentle and passive: there is only to support the creativity of the teenagers, not direct it.
Two of them, Virginia Antonipillai and Fjoralba Qerimaj, began their careers with Mammalian after getting involved as teenagers themselves. Both came from low-income families and had never been exposed to anything like it. “It was my first chance to choose,” says Fjoralba. “It was a light in a dark life.” Virginia, now Mammalian’s creative producer, agrees: “It takes a village to raise a child. Performing arts organizations have a role in that.”
The other two, Jack Tully and Chiara Prodi, are university-trained theater-makers who were drawn to Mammalian’s “social acupuncture”, but the familial impact is similar, says Jack. “I found it easier to speak to adults as a child. Now as an adult, I have permission to play.”
On opening night, 40 people gather in King George Square. The teenagers acknowledge Country, then usher us into the cityscape nervously. They try out games, jokes, provocations. The pixies are now shy and withdrawn. One boy is wearing a suit and tie, and holding a megaphone. “Guys,” he whispers to the others. “Where are we going?”
I watch the young trans boy, arm in arm with another teen, dancing. He pulls out several large pride flags, and adorns people with them, including the excited Iranian girl. Later, standing on the Rainbow Stairs, he takes the microphone: “Welcome to Pride Trivia, hosted by experienced gays.” As we walk on, he and another teen share their coming-out stories with me, eyes bright with connection and belonging.
The nightwalk is bright chaos. We embrace bruised knees, sticky hands and awkward silences. Forty adults play Floor is Lava on the giant Brisbane sign, slow dance under fairy lights, play 40 40 Home in the bushes. It’s exuberant, but I don’t think the success of Nightwalks is dependent on whether the experience is theatrically poetic for its audience. This work is about process, not product. “What happens when you put teens in charge?” asks mammalian. Above all, they can finally find one another in the darkness.