I follow 16 teenagers through central Brisbane, joining a caravan of lanky bodies, braces and broken voices. I’m attending a rehearsal 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 are a participant, not a spectator. Expect to get clumsy.
This is an intentional contradiction: a show for adults, designed and animated by neighborhood teenagers. A journey on foot through a city at night. An exploratory experience of social art, in which young people make us experience the street through their eyes.
As they walk, the teenagers suck on juice boxes and record BeReals, most of them still unknown. They’re a mix of class clowns, savants and outcasts, brought together briefly to do a play – except their rehearsal room and stage is the Queen Street Mall at peak times.
Born out of acclaimed Canadian social art company Mammalian Diving Reflex, Nightwalks with Teenagers is a cherished festival that has been touring internationally for over a decade, with Brisbane being the second Australian city to host it, after Hobart. Brisbane isn’t particularly known for being prone to experimentation, but that’s exactly why we need it.
A large portable speaker plays the Macarena as we walk. I hear cries of laughter from two 13-year-old girls, twins looking for pixies; they secretly put dinosaur stickers on everyone’s clothes. I walk in step with a trans boy who walks alone. He is hunched over, his eyes downcast. As we cross Southbank, I ask him if he’s spent a lot of time there. “When you don’t have any friends, it’s kind of weird going out alone,” he says.
We stop in discreet and shady places. Teenagers play games. They climb, run, laugh. Some adults may expect volatility and sassiness from teenagers, perhaps based on our own memories of adolescence. These teens have hawk eyes and opinions, but ultimately they’re 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,” says a dryly comical girl. “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 continue to walk. The pixies fall headfirst into a bush and trip over some sort of poisonous cucumber that they try to get everyone to eat.
Teenagers flock to Rainbow Stairs – a favorite as many identify as LGBTQ+. An Iranian girl, who emigrated only 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, moved, as she explains the polygenic marital dynamics in her Islamic family: “Do you want me to draw you a family tree?”
The four adults in the group are essentially drama guidance agents, deployed from their various homes around the world to host Nightwalks on behalf of its creator, Darren O’Donnell. They are soft and passive: there only to support the creativity of adolescents, not to direct it.
Two of them, Virginia Antonipillai and Fjoralba Qerimaj, started their careers at Mammalian after getting involved themselves as teenagers. Both came from low income families and had never been exposed to anything like this. “It was my first chance to choose,” says Fjoralba. “It was a light in a dark life.” Virginia, now creative producer of Mammalian, agrees: “It takes a whole village to raise a child. Performing arts organizations have a role to play in this regard.
The other two, Jack Tully and Chiara Prodi, are college-educated theater makers who were drawn to Mammalian’s “social acupuncture,” but the family impact is similar, Jack says. “I found it easier to talk to adults when I was a kid. Now, as an adult, I have permission to play.
On opening night, 40 people gather in King George Square. The teenagers recognize Country, then nervously usher us into the cityscape. They try games, jokes, provocations. The elves are now shy and withdrawn. A boy wears a suit and tie and holds a megaphone. “Guys,” he whispers to the others. “Where are we going?”
I watch the young trans boy, arm in arm with another teenager, dance. 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 gay men. As we move on, he and another teenager share their coming-out stories with me, eyes shining with connection and belonging.
The nocturnal promenade is a luminous chaos. We embrace bruised knees, sticky hands and awkward silences. Forty adults play Floor is Lava on the giant billboard in Brisbane, dance slowly under fairy lights, play 40 40 Home in the bushes. It’s exuberant, but I don’t think the success of Nightwalks hinges on the experience being theatrically poetic for its audience. This work is about the process, not the product. “What happens when you give the responsibility to teenagers? Mammal asks. Above all, they can finally find themselves in the dark.