If a grown-up would have asked a twelve-year-old-me what I thought the future might look like, my predictions, I have no doubt, would have been largely utopian. Everything would be cleaner, faster and safer. A hospital fifty years from then, for instance, would in my mind have had robots to take over all tasks hard and dull on the human body and mind, and one pill would have been available to cure all diseases. This kind of optimism was distinctly absent in the minds of the eleven young people I posed this question to on the first day of the Future Voices workshop at Theatre Peckham.
We gave eleven students, aged 10-14, the task of writing and performing their own plays in either a dystopian or utopian framework. Shortages of water, clean air and food, a well-predicted pandemic and a war with evil robots from Mars were the first thoughts that surfaced amongst the students. After I asked them what this war with evil robots from Mars would be fought over, a little voice in the back suggested “The Shard”. Seeing the twinkle in the eye of the student making this suggestion assured me I was dealing with a group of kids who could shift between earnestness and ridicule with time bending speed.
As the plays took shape, I saw within this pessimism a great diversity of interests and styles. From the previously mentioned spectacular war with evil robots from Mars (though they ended on the more conventional issue of resources as its cause), to a play that takes place in a world where capitalism (now really finding its groove) starts overcharging people for the only remaining clean air. The sobering conclusion to this dystopian tale was a hero standing up and selling the air at a ‘more affordable rate’.
It is of course interesting to think about why these young people had (besides the occasional hoverboard and Playstation-17) such an overwhelmingly gloomy outlook on what the future might look like. Even more striking perhaps, is when you find yourself in disagreement with a different generation about what a utopia or dystopia might entail. As an old millennial I am quite fond of being mistrustful of the ability of mobile devices to hijack our attention, invade our privacy and colonise our social lives. That some of my students felt differently became clear as the one and only utopian play introduced the existence of the telepathic phone. “So handy” I was enthusiastically assured, “because that way you’ll never get lonely again!” The mysterious “Void” in which the characters in the same play later got stuck, wasn’t as I suggested, a great metaphor for the constraints of virtual space, but more “that feeling you get when your internet is down”, or so I was told.
Now that one of the dystopian predictions has come true, and the contact with my students has solely been taking place online, the idea of virtual space as a prison seems increasingly absurd. It is at least the kind of void where you occasionally stumble upon a twinkle in someone's eye.
Mathijs Swarte is an actor, workshop leader, and teaching assistant in special educational needs, originally from Amsterdam, now living and working in South London. Currently he’s working with KCL on the Future Voices public engagement project and with Theatre Peckham producing online content with its Young & Talented students. Besides this, he’s busy with other creative projects including a short film and web series.