Handle With Care, the title of a new theatre festival in London about “generation snowflake”, is smartly ambiguous. Read as an instruction, it suggests fragility and echoes the accusations of hypersensitivity levelled against young people. But it also implies content that needs to be approached with rigour and treated seriously.
“If I tell you ‘handle with care’, that can be a warning, a threat, or a really deeply generous thing,” says Pablo Pakula, one of the artists featured in the festival at Camden People’s theatre. The three-week programme of performance and live art will take on contested ideas such as safe spaces, freedom of speech and identity politics, explore today’s polarised political landscape and unpick the millennial stereotype.
Among the many criticisms hurled at millennials such as myself, our apparent tendency to take offence is second only, it seems, to our expensive passion for avocado toast. Pakula’s show Yes No Black White uses a succession of projected images and texts to question what does and does not offend us – and what we then do about it. The performance, he explains, prods at “pressure points and sore spots”, challenging audiences to examine their own offence-taking mechanisms.
Australian theatre company TomYumSim are poking fun at another popular perception of millennials: our “uniqueness”. “We’ve spent a lifetime being told that we’re all special and we have something special to give,” says Tom Halls, one half of the company. “We totally buy into that, that’s why we’re artists!” laughs fellow company member Simone France. “But we’re taking the piss out of that idea of the specialness in us.” Their show, Nothing Special, is an interactive self-help seminar that satirises millennials’ desperate desire to stand out from the crowd.
The festival is headlined by Eurotrash’s show Trigger Warning. Styled as a budget airline safety briefing, the performance delves into the language and politics of content warnings and disclaimers, using a mixture of text, clowning and dance. It’s not a polemic, explains Marcelo Dos Santos, one of the creators of the show, which will be about “rolling around in the complexities of it, more than coming down one way or another on the issues”. Co-creator Natasha Nixon adds: “It’s clown: you watch people fail at trying to work out a problem.”
The shows in the festival explore the millennial mindset, while challenging the idea that they are generation snowflake. “I certainly think millennials get a hard time,” says Dos Santos. Halls suggests the “snowflake” label feels like “something that’s been imposed”, adding: “older generations blaming and poking at younger generations is not a new thing.” There’s also a sense of humour to how these artists deal with the snowflake accusation, not least in the tongue-in-cheek gesture of programming a festival about millennials for Camden People’s theatre’s 25th anniversary. “They’re 25, you know, they’re the peak millennials,” says France.
Despite what the festival title may suggest, these artists aren’t afraid of making provocative statements. Pakula, for instance, challenges some of the thinking around safe spaces and no-platforming. While insisting on the crucial distinction between free speech and hate speech, he also suggests that taking offence can sometimes be “a silencing gesture”, and he believes it is rash to dismiss all the opinions of those we disagree with politically. “I think it is very unproductive, uncreative and inhuman to disregard somebody’s positions completely just because I disagree with them fundamentally on this,” he says, giving the example of Brexit.
Nixon likens Trigger Warning to “a white-knuckle ride – thrilling, exciting, difficult”. The show aims to touch on uncomfortable topics and to keep knocking audiences off balance. “You might think in this piece that we’re going ‘Yeah, millennials are oversensitive’, and just at that point it flips back and we’re on the other side,” she says. Likewise, France from TomYumSim stresses: “we’re not shying away from the provocative in our work.”
These shows share an aim: to create dialogue. “I’m hoping people come out of it wanting to have a stiff drink and a really long chat with other people,” says Pakula of Yes No Black White, adding that he intends to “invite my so-called enemies to the party”. Similarly, Nixon says Trigger Warning is about starting conversations rather than proposing solutions.
“Theatre should not necessarily be an innately safe space,” says Halls. “It should be a space for dynamic conversation, for people to feel like their ideas are maybe being challenged or supported, and to open a dialogue about that.”
“Theatre and performance has to be a place where dangerous things can happen in a safe space,” insists Pakula. “Unless dangerous things can happen, what’s the point?”
• Handle With Care is at Camden People’s theatre, London, from 22 October to 9 November.