Suicide is the second biggest killer among young men aged 14 to 25. Pupils at a Liverpoolcomprehensive are using drama to explore their own fears, reports Reva Klein.
You could have heard a pin drop when they carried the body out. A young boy, his ego battered once too often, was lifted gently onto his schoolmates' shoulders. It could have been any one of the laddish pallbearers, but it was Jay who cracked under the strain of being young, male, confused and suicidal. It could, indeed, have been anyone in the theatre audience at West Derby Boys' Comprehensive in Liverpool.
It may only be a play, but Don't Die of Embarrassment packs a terrific punch, not least because these Year 11 drama students devised it themselves for GCSE coursework last year, drawing on their own experiences and feelings.
It's a poetic, sometimes funny, sometimes starkly poignant theatre piece about their own perceptions of depression and suicide. It is defiantly non-realistic, anti-soap-operatic. Instead, there are short vignettes depicting boys struggling with doubts and fears about their identity, and confrontations with teachers, peers and parents, interspersed with choral commentaries.
Because it comes from the experiences of the boys themselves, its truthfulness is disarming - and alarming. One by one, the performers voice their anxieties, from big issues to the very small, but all of them of major importance when you're 15 and feeling vulnerable. "I get on with my sister - is that normal?" "I don't want to drink bevvy - am I normal?" "I hate fightin' - is that normal?" "I don't have pubic hair yet - that can't be right?" Whether it's sensing there's something wrong with themselves because they like French lessons or because they cried at the end of Titanic, one after another these self-doubting boys reflect the reality of all boys at that age, no matter how confident or macho: they feel alone, unsure of themselves and sometimes very unhappy.
The group decided to tackle the subject after Liverpool education authority asked head of drama Julia Reid to present a GCSE theatre piece on men's health to the LEA's annual equal opportunities conference. She showed the students a video of a BBC Panorama documentary on young male suicide. Moved and shaken, the boys started talking about their own feelings of depression and insecurity arising from pressures from peers, parents and school. They talked about the expectations and images society had of young men, and how distant they were from their own feelings and experiences.
Once the group decided they wanted to focus on those sensitive themes, Julia worked with them to build trust within the group. David Maudesley, aged 15, says: "It seemed a bit scary to start with because it was such a big issue. In a lads' school, no one wants to show their feelings or talk about things like this. For us, it's opened up the floodgates." Fellow pupil John Roberts adds: "It's helped us understand that other people have problems too."
For teachers and other professionals who have seen the play, it raises awareness of how difficult it is to be a young man today, at the end of a century that has seen dramatic changes in gender roles. In the vignettes, boys voice their need to talk to someone, usually a girl, about their insecurities. They also show that with other males, whether their father, their cadet leader or their peers, they feel there's no room for expressing feelings, doubts, anxieties. The male message to young males is: be more aggressive, drink a lot, exploit girls for sex, and mess about at school because only "nancy boys" behave and get good grades.
For Jay, the last straw comes after being publicly humiliated by the cadet leader as he goes through an assault course, when one of his peers denounces him as "queer".
So powerful has the play been that since it was performed for the LEA conference, the drama class has been invited to perform to local primary and secondary schools. It's also been taken to a counselling service, Merseyside police monitoring group, and to newly qualified teachers' training days in neighbouring education authorities.
Not bad for a mixed-ability group of boys who had only been doing drama for four months when they devised the piece. Julia Reid is proud of their achievement. When, as the play points out, suicide is the second biggest killer among young men aged 14 to 25, projects like this not only help to develop boys' drama skills, but help them to become emotionally literate.
It does their public image no harm, either. "This gives teenage boys a good press," she says, "especially those coming from Liverpool. People are genuinely surprised that they are so creative and talented."
For their part, the boys are grateful for the liberating effect of working on a piece that is so close to the bone. During the devising stage, one boy in the group confessed to having had suicidal feelings. Others empathised and spoke of their difficulties.
As David Maudesley puts it: "It's harder for boys to ask for help than it is for girls. Girls talk to each other more. Because we talked so much about things in the group that we don't usually talk about, we've got more confidence about ourselves."